Interview with artist Sandro Migliarini by Caroline Thomas

Q: Sandro Migliarini – you obviously have a great love for Genoa and the Italian Riviera. Were you born in Genoa?

Sandro:  No but I came to Genoa when I was very little and lived there for 20 years.  I grew up there.

Q: But your family did come from the city?

Sandro: My father was born in the centre of Genoa in a famous area which was destroyed in the thirties when they wanted to remodel that part of the city. They built a gallery, a tunnel, a big square and a skyscraper.

Q: You studied architecture and worked as an architect for many years, didn’t you? Those skills are very apparent in your drawings.

Sandro: yes, I worked for 30 years as a project architect, but then about four or five years ago I felt the need to paint. It wasn’t to make money, it was an interior need, a drive. So I mixed art and architecture.

This work about Genoa, it started from an interior necessity too. I felt compelled to discover what parts of Genoa that are now destroyed were like in the past and how they developed.

For instance, my father told me that he was born in Ponticello, but that part of the city had been destroyed so I couldn’t see it.  So I searched for all the images of the area and was able to represent them. lt is not easy to imagine a complex of houses just from looking at photos, so I discovered all the information I could about these old places. I checked it and tried to identify buildings that had been there and still were: they were like a hinge between past and present.

Q: So, your drawings are a mixture of history and memory?

Sandro: Yes, sometimes I remember areas that have since been destroyed. When I was a student in the Faculty of Architecture in Genoa, we had to go and do drawings of a lot of parts that were demolished later. For example, the Madre de Dio was spectacular. The house was high – seven storeys high – but the bridge was higher. I remember it very well, but it all disappeared in the seventies.

Q: You have said in the Introduction to the book that your imagination also played a part in recreating the Genoa of the past. Can you explain?

Sandro: Sometimes I had a photo of a building from one side, but I needed to visualise the other side. So I was obliged to intervene with fantasy!

Q: Can you sum up what your inspirations for the pictures and the book were? Where did the British travellers fit in?                                                 

Sandro: My inspirations were my own memory, my family and the British visitors.  Do you know, Genoa is still the most British town in Italy? The gentlemen still dress like the English of old. There is more English fashion in Genoa than in London!

There were a lot of Englishmen in Genoa in the 19th century. Dickens lived there. Genoa was first for industry too, businesses founded by Englishmen, and Genoa had the first football team, thanks to the English.

Q: What were relations like between the local people and the British travellers to Genoa and Liguria? From some of the extracts in the book, it sounds as though often the British were arrogant in their attitudes to the locals.

Sandro: A lot of the travellers were rich, noble, intellectual and their connection was to people of the same social class, with the big idea of liberty for all the people. Byron and Shelley had contact with the Carbonari – the secret society that wanted something different and that was persecuted by the King because they were republican. Sometimes the English were quite shy when they had contact with the nobles of Genoa, overwhelmed by their wealth and collections of pictures.

But the visitors hadn’t any respect for the poorer People. For instance, Leigh Hunt spoke about the poor people in the harbour who did humble work, as being ugly and like animals. The connection between the ordinary people and the poets was very feeble.  The people didn’t understand the poets. Shelley, for instance, used to go around naked. The Catholic Italians were scandalised. They were so different from one another.

Q: What was it that attracted the British to this part of northern Italy?

Sandro: Well, certainly the landscape, the colours, the light and the sea impressed them. But also, the climate. It was so beautiful that an English doctor recovered from T,B. there and wrote a book recommending the climate of Bordighera and Alassio for health.  So a lot of people came. They discovered that it was very much cheaper than the French Riviera, but also found that there were no facilities for them. So they started to build churches, libraries, banks, shops and concert halls.

Q: You also focus on gardening. Was that a particular interest of the British settlers?

Sandro: They were often very passionate about gardening. Thomas Hanbury was the very great, very rich man who made a lot of money in China. When he arrived in Bordighera he wanted to build this magnificent garden. He had a lot of gardeners working for him, but he didn’t know a word of ltalian! He opened hospitals, schools, a faculty of the university devoted to botany – all without speaking ltalian!

Q: Did the idea for the book come hand-in-hand with the idea for the exhibition?

Sandro: The book contains practically all the drawings. You could consider it like a sort of catalogue. But it is not.  At the same time, it is an anthology of all the words about Genoa and Liguria I extracted from the writing of the English travellers. The text is obviously compressed but if you are interested in a particular visitor, you can expand your knowledge by following the links I put in the bibliography and doing more research of your own.

The university of California has the book online and you can see the drawings because they have images of the real book.

You can see from reading the book that the connection between Genoa and the Italian Riviera and the English was a very strong one. There were also a lot of Scottish visitors to the area. It would have been very good to take the exhibition to Edinburgh. But once we have finished in Leyton we have to ship all the pictures back to Italy for the next leg of the travelling exhibition. This time it will be at the Museum of the Sea in Genoa itself, from November to February.