Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli


     The experience of many early in life has included singling out, as the subject of highest admiration, one ideal figure of the distant or more recent past, deemed to stand head and shoulders above his contemporaries. It is less common that such heros of our youth belong to one's own immediate parentage. Few may breathe in the atmosphere of an aunt who was a famous ballerina or soprano, a grandfather senator or pioneering engineer, a cousin horse thief or bankrobber, distant ancestral smugglers and bucaneers, scientists and saints, bankers or poets.

     Sandro Zendralli on the other hand had the good fortune to have an examplary figure in his own family, an illustrious and indefatigable crusader for the cultural patrimony of the Italian-speaking Grigioni region of southern Switzerland, for its heart and soul, a patient and quietly charismatic promulgator of a highly specific local identity, but in particular a great promoter of all that fell into the category of the arts, all those traditions which had been stubbornly held onto across centuries. This singular lantern bearer was the future artist's paternal great-uncle, Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli.

     Sandro Zendralli: "The Italian language naturally unites the Canton Ticino and the Grigioni with Italy to the South, and even more so because we share the same way of life and thus this accounts for a greater comprehension between two essentially latin peoples. Geneva on the other hand is already an entity which is far more removed from my own identity. In fact I would go so far as to say that I feel myself linked emotionally more to Paris than to Geneva, because I feel a greater fascination for the culture of Paris, its elegance, its esteem for the arts, its living history.

     "The same can be said for Italy, where one can sense the very perfume of culture, and this fragrance is detected not only in the big cities but also in the many farflung ancient localities such as Volterra, Siena, municipalities which are a far cry from Paris or Rome, but which nonetheless possess their own fascination, given the spirit of generations by whom these towns were constructed over centuries.

     "This construction was not carried out in a haphazard manner, but rather there were commissions and experts to evaluate each project, for example at Siena where there existed precise regulations. There was a basic good sense regarding proportions not only in terms of volumetrics but also in the facades, and out of this came the elegance we see today.

     "Yet the differences are more noticeable when the Italians come to Switzerland than when the Swiss go to Italy. When we go to Italy we appreciate their cuisine, the way of being, that feeling of liberty of not feeling the necessity to respect punctuality when it comes to things like keeping appointments and so forth. There is a more carefree feeling than here. We notice it, because here in Switzerland we place a high value on respecting certain rules of which they seem to be not even aware.

     "Yet we have a great love for the Italians, and we accept even these small things, and I must say that they don't in the least bother me personally. Probably, they are more bothersome in general, but the Italians are very special. We must remind ourselves that they have contributed a great culture, and they have that great merit of having left exeptional things to history for future generations. Great care however must be taken in the conservation of these things. But this is not only the case of Italy but also of the entire world.

     "Modernism has advanced too quickly; there has not been adequate time to thoroughly evaluate this unstoppable evolution. It occurs as much in art as it does in industry, the all too rapid urgency that compells us toward ever more frenetic stylistic change.

     "The cult of velocity has been with us from the very beginning of Modernism, and today no one has time to stop to look, to appreciate, and to make an æsthetic evaluation of a given moment, in art or in society in general. But perhaps I am not the one to speak of these things, since I would not know how to turn on a computer even if I tried."

     Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli was born in 1887, at the town of Roveredo in Mesolcina. Teacher, scholar, and indefatigable promotor of a century's old patrimony, none more than he felt a stronger link to the "Four Valleys" of Grigioni, the region of his birth. And so it was that this selfless visionary applied all of his great diligence to the salvation of a specifically local culture which he considered subject to neglect and in peril of extinction.

     This sense of responsability, so deeply felt, was to lead Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli shortly after the conclusion of World War One to found the Pro Grigioni Italiano, an association that was as scholastical as it was altruistic, which this energetic young professor foresaw as one humble contribution to stem the erosion of a specifically local identity. The association had as its purpose the preservation, the promotion, and the duty self-assumed of bringing awareness to a historical ecosphere of European tradition: his labors were to "put on the map" an all but forgotten socio-geographical entity which was as fragile as it was unique.

     The Zendralli family tree had already flourished in centuries gone by. Four hundred years ago an industrious painter had served at the royal court of Bavaria. His name was Martinus Zendralli. Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli assembled in his own a collection of art works which also included a Madonna and Child painted by this eminent ancestor Martinus, a devotional work which shows a panoramic view of the city of Munich in the background and the inscription: Martinus zen Drall Pictor Monachii aetat suae 56. Meanwhile another illustrious forebarer was Enrico Zendralli, also of Roveredo who had already taken up the practice of the art of architecture.

     The mission of Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli was above all the urgently needed emergency operation of salvaging a heritage that risked oblivion and above all to invigorate it into a valid starting point, one close at hand, for new generations in the modern era. With exceptional intelligence and diligence he was able to analyze the situation in which he and his neighbors found themselves, and from it, single out one simple area which could serve as a constructive arena of endeavor: bringing back into a higher profile the linguistical, cultural, scholastic and civic Italian spirit in the four valleys of Grigioni.

     It is not the task of a writer, whose pilgrimage has meant traversing the Atlantic, to explicate at length the intricacies of the micro-zone of the four valleys of the Grigioni in which the Italian language remains the speech of every day life. In alphabetical order the names of these valleys are: Bregaglia, Calanca, Mesolcina and Poschiavo.

    This handkerchief-size area lies within the greater Italian speaking sector of Switzerland, rendering it a tiny minority within a minority within a minority. As the writer G. G. Tuor put it fifty years ago, if the local capital cities of Coira and Bellinzona neglected the Italianity of the four valleys, the capital of Switzerland, Bern, was not even aware of their existence. Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli decided to concentrate his efforts toward correcting this misunderstanding.

     On February 11, 1918, at a hotel at Coira, the Albergo Lucomagno, a group of "Grigioni Italians" all of whom were residents at Coira, which today remains the administrative capital of Canton Grigioni, gathered to lay the foundations of the Pro Grigioni association.

     Of its myriad future activities one of the most constructive and long standing took the form of meticulous scholarly magazine publishing. The first was the "Almanacco del Grigioni Italiano" and the second, "Quaderni Grigionitaliani," which Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli founded in 1931 and was to edit until 1958. The mission of these publications was to highlight culture and history of a local nature and to stimulate intellectual exchange and communication, above all within the Grigioni area itself, but at the same time heightening awareness beyond the alpine boundaries to Europe as a whole. One could imagine Joseph Beuys eagerly signing up.

     Central to Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli's vision were the fine arts. His book Costruttori e Stuccatori grigioni in terre tedesche nell'epoca del Barocco e del Roccocò appeared in 1930, establishing him as the major scholar with regard to the architectural history of the area, bringing back to the light of day the contribution which the Grigioni had made to the epoca of high Baroque in Bavaria. Yet the scope of his activity at the same time could include social reform and linguistical recognition along with agriculture and transportation, issues seemingly far from cultural and historical preoccupations and yet essential to them.

     Even at first acquaintance with the accomplishments of Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli, one immediately has the sensation that the heart of this tireless benefactor and promoter lay always with the fine arts, in particular those painters who depicted the land he loved so well. But at the same time his magazine could just as easily speak of the artist of "Der Blaue Reiter" from Franz Marc and Kandinsky to Oskar Kokoschka.

     Over his long career he was to lavish reservoirs of ink on the subject of artists whose names are forever associated with this enchanted zone: the three Giacometti, (Augusto, Giovanni and Alberto), Gottardo Segantini, Oscar Nussuo, Ponziano Togni, Fernando Lardelli, Giuseppe Scartazzini, Felice Menghini, Vitale Ganzoni, and from the past, Giuseppe Bonalini, Giovanni Segantini, Gustavo de Meng, Giacomo Zanolari, Rodolfo Olgiati, Gaspare Scalabrini.

    One derives the sensation that if Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli gained inspiration from these artists, he in turn also inspired them. Not only was he to write a monograph on the work of Ponziano Togni, but he was also to enjoy a deep lifelong friendship with Augusto Giacometti, on whose work he wrote at great length. Their names alone evoke not only the inspiration of a time gone by, but also the conviviality which that time embodied far more than our own.

      In 1961, the same year that the conversion to electrical power of the Swiss railway was completed, Romerio Zala recalled, in the pages of the Quaderni Grigionitaliani, the Professore leading troups of school children to visit exhibitions of local artists, most often exhibitions which Zendralli himself had organized in the first place. Zala especially took note of "the patience with which he taught us how to look at a painting, explaining, to cite only one incident among many, what he meant by the transposition of colors..."

     This particular lesson came as a response to the ingenuous observation of a farm boy who, after having examined closely a painting of a rural landscape, had challenged the Professor himself: "Green goats don't exist." One gains the feeling that Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli thrived on provocations such as these.

     The written work of Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli is far too vast to encompass here, without even beginning to mention his long and tireless magazine work which extends over more than forty years. Tutto è seme e tutto è frutto. A banner that was held high across more than half a century.

     It is fitting that his last public gesture was to see to it that a commemorative plaque be placed at the domicile of the great painter Giovanni Segantini: che inseguendo il suo sogno d'arte, inebriato dalla luminosa bellezza alpestre...
     But perhaps one particularly apt homage came at the Swiss capital, Bern, before a large public at the Kunsthalle on the occasion when the most prominent art critics of the day, Max Huggler, recalled his visit to the house of Arnoldo Marcelliano Zendralli:

     "Before, my memory held absolutely no recollection whatsoever, even of the mere names of the Italian valleys of the Grigioni, and even less was I aware of that minuscule group of artists who came from those, for us, far distant regions. It was only when I had seen their paintings, selected and ordered at their very best, that it came back to my mind, to paraphrase Conrad Ferdinand Meyer, that the painting of these alpine valleys gazes ever southward, and is, in the bouquet of flowers which constitutes the art of Switzerland, la rosa, sì, la rosa..."

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