Frances Magnani: A Memory Artist

“Magnani's first painting of Pontito, made almost a decade after he left, was of his house. It is one of the more distorted and expressionistic of the painting and probably reflects some of the homesickness he was feeling at the time.”

“Magnani’s first painting of Pontito, made almost a decade after he left, was of his house. It is one of the more distorted and expressionistic of the painting and probably reflects some of the homesickness he was feeling at the time.”


Franco Magnani is a memory artist. He paints intricate canvases of his hometown. His paintings document his memories of his childhood and growing up in Tuscany. Bob Miller had seen Magnani’s work and “suggested that the paintings, coupled with photos of the same views, might reveal something about the accuracies, distortions, and inventions of the artist’s memory.”
In fact, in 1988 these works were displayed in San Francisco, California as part of an exhibit called “Memory.” This exhibit was divided into 8 parts: “The Senses, with an interactive exhibit about each of the five senses and its connection to memory; Remembering What’s Meaningful, showing the connection between personal meaning and memorability; Forgetting, which showed how the ways in which we forget and distort events can help us construct a kind of anatomy of how memory works; Faces (they’re important, and people like them); Remembering Without Thinking, about implicit or unconscious memory; The Brain; Personal Memory, focusing on autobiographical memory and its deep connection to a sense of self; and Shared Memories, about the relationship between memory and culture.”
After not seeing his hometown for nearly 30 years, Magnani created portraits “almost photographic precision” of Pontito, Tuscany. It has also been said that Magnani suffered a mysterious disease where he encountered wildly vivid dreams of Pontito. “No one … has felt the heat and pressure of a reality as indefatigable as that which day and night converged upon the hapless Ireneo,” Borges writes in a sketch entitled “Funes the Memorious.”

Susan Schwartzenberg traveled to Pontito to photograph village scenes from the exact angles Magnani painted them from. These photographs were then show side by side with the paintings so that people could compare and contrast and analyze the skills of memory.

Magnani grew up in a family of five children. In 1942, his father died while Italy was in a war and depression. His mother worked in the fields but his family was often hungry. He “remembers not so much the suffering of those years as the sense of purpose and intensity with which the family lived.”

Oliver Sacks, a neurologist described this sickness as including “high fever nightmares, maybe there were seizures” and he would see Pontitio as it had been before the Nazi’s came. He sometimes references these dreams as “visions.” Magnani would state that he could see a three-dimensional model of Pontitio rise up in front of him, which he could then paint accurately.

This drawing shows a view that Magnani  never could have seen.

This drawing shows a view that Magnani never could have seen.


Franco Magnani utilizes sensory memory, which encodes visual information, but sensory memories are usually short-term. Long-term memory tends to encode things semantically while short-term tends to encode information acoustically. “In 1974, Baddeley and Hitch proposed a model of the working memory, which consisted of three parts: the phonological loop, the visuo-spatial sketchpad, and the episodic buffer. “ The visuo-spatial sketchpad stores visual and spatial information and helps with imagining images.

Magnani also painted his church and in his perception, the church appears larger than in reality, perhaps because the church had been an important part of his life.

Magnani shows extraordinary talent when recalling these intricate images. This shows how memories can follow us throughout our lives and have serious impacts upon the rest of our lives. They can also be inspiring. Although there aren’t many people with talent like this, most people can relate to the feeling of nostalgia of their childhood home.
His works also show the imperfections of memory. Although his paintings are extremely accurate, there are still narrower streets, different textures, and slight alterations made to the scenes of Pontito. Sometimes added buildings and objects are even added to scenes. Magnani “uses not only his memory, but a kind of projective imagination, to move his mind’s eye through the town.”

Michaud, Jon. “Back Issues: Franco Magnani.” The New Yorker. 2010. 4 December, 2012.
Pearce, Michael. “Memory.” Exhibit Files. 2008. 4 December, 2012.
“What’s New in the World: A Memory Artist.” The Exploratorium. 1998. 4 December, 2012.
“Franco Magnani: The Memory Artist.” Web of Stories. Web of Stories. Web. 4 December, 2012.
McLeod, Saul. “Working Memory.” Simple Psychology. 2008. 4 December, 2012.

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