Introduction by Professor Umberto Eco
Once, as I was leafing through a book of portraits of authors, I found myself making some highly sceptical observations. This scepticism derives from a critical and theoretical position that I have advocated on many occasions; namely that in order to understand, appreciate and love a writer, you require no more than what he or she actually wrote: Proust's biography is irrelevant with respect to what the Recerche tells us, and the same holds for the portraits of Proust we know of. Would the appeal of his work be any different if he had looked like Verlaine?
The history of photography has bequeathed us some sublime portraits. But if the photographer had portrayed his next door neighbour with the same passion he reserved for Mr. X, whose very soul he seems to have captured, then the impression would be the same. Most of the time, photographers reveal the soul of someone we already know something about. All the portraits of Einstein, except the one in which he is poking out his tongue (but that's interesting for those who know who Einstein was, and if it were the village idiot sticking his tongue out then we would lose interest), are those of a provincial professor with hair too long for his age, and maybe with a fondness for drink. Take relativity away from Einstein and leave him his portraits: would you buy a used car from this man? Do the portraits of Caius Marl us from our old school books, with those quasi cancerous excrescences on his brow ridge, tell us why he was less great than the wishy-washy-looking Augustus?
"True" portraits do exist, but in order to understand just how superbly mendacious they are you need to have met the sitter in the flesh. As long as I knew Stravinsky only through Picasso's portrait of him I imagined him as a giant. Then, in a street in Venice, someone introduced me to him and I found myself face to face with this little man of modest stature. It was then that I - who certainly still consider Stravinsky a giant of contemporary music - realized just how great Picasso was. Because he hadn't painted the man, but his genius.
In some of his books, published by Einaudi, Gillo Dorfles appears in a marvellously fine portrait, half in shadow and half in light, with a sharp, aristocratic profile. Does this portrait add anything to his merits as a scholar? Not much. It could be the portrait of Aristotle meditating upon essences, of Fouquet plotting to have an iron mask fitted to Louis XIV's brother, or of one of Radetsky's colonels in a novel by Philip Roth.
Another time, when I was looking through an antiques catalogue that sold expensive photographic portraits of great personalities, except for a moment of emotion before the face of Sarah Bernhardt (a woman for whom I would certainly have done the maddest things), I realized that Pierre Loti, in uniform, could have been the manager of an army bakery, Thomas Mann the managing director of an import-export firm in Hamburg, Mucha, famed for his Art Nouveau statuettes, a professor of Greek, Pasteur a bank clerk, Trotsky the director general of the land office in St. Petersburg, Francis Jammes a Capuchin monk, and Debussy an insurance agent. The only "true" portrait was one of Shirley temple at seven years of age, which really did resemble portraits of Shirley Temple at seven years of age.
That said, I shouldn't be writing a preface to a collection of photographs like this one by Leonardo Cendamo, even though he was good enough to include me in his
Parnassus, and together with my dear friend Moravia. But I'm doing it with pleasure, for two reasons. The first is that these portraits are beautiful, and they would be just as fine even if we didn't know the authors and the things they wrote. We don't know who the Mona Lisa really was, but we have been entranced by her smile for centuries. And so one could consider this collection as a gallery of human types, invariably caught in a moment that allowed the photographer to reveal something. What? We could spend a lot of time over these faces in order to guess what they tell us, and it would be like reading a story -even though these are stories written by Cendamo and not by his subjects.
These portraits are beautiful because Cendamo is not a photographer who, when he isn't busy with other things, occasionally photographs writers too. By now he is a familiar figure to those who frequent conferences, exhibitions and book fairs, and literary debates. Cendamo loves the authors he sets his sights on and I'm prepared to bet that -after all the conferences he has taken part in, with the air of one who is carefully following events - he may well possess a greater competence and literary sensitivity than many critics and scholars. So this journey of his through these faces is also a journey through the pages that he was certainly thinking of, as, with the sensibilities of a good reader, he was trying to capture the face of an author.
But, apart from this, here's the second reason why I love these portraits. When writing a critical piece about a book you need to discover the author as revealed by the work, and not the one rediscovered or invented by biographers (and in saying this I keep faith with the theoretical positions I mentioned earlier). For when scholars and critics become readers they cannot avoid giving a face to the person they encounter in the form of words.
And this is why, on looking at Cendamo's portraits and finding famous people I have never met, or dear friends perhaps no longer alive, I often say "it's really him, or her, the one who wrote those books I loved (or maybe hated)". Naturally, someone who looks at these portraits without knowing the work would not be able to deduce the work from the portraits; but the opposite does occur: those who know the work discover that Cendamo has in some way captured some hidden streak, the obsessions, the happiness, the irony or the sufferings of his authors.
It's true that, to be honest, and taking almost at random the portrait of Ceronetti, someone who does not know his work might take him for, say, the author of Pinocchio -and maybe he wouldn't be so far off the mark, given that Ceronetti is an admirably skilled puppeteer. But those who do know his work will find an echo of it in his face. Certainly - one might say - this gentleman could have written Pinocchio but not Heart: A School-Boy's Journal. And it would be beside the point to object that perhaps De Amicis might have looked like Ceronetti (but that's not so): the thing is that we persuade ourselves that Ceronetti could have written only what Ceronetti wrote. Cendamo convinces us about this.
This is why, on finding myself faced with these photographs, my previous reservations melted away. Faithful to my principles, I stubbornly repeat that these photos are not a contribution to the study of literature; but I will admit, with some emotion, that they are a contribution to my fantasies as a reader and that in some mysterious way they enhance my relationship with so many pages that I have loved.