An incredible self-taught artist that revolutionized the landscape of his hometown: Guerino Galzerano, the Farmer Architect of Castelnuovo Cilento.
When I was eight years old, I went with my family on a day trip to a nearby town called Castelnuovo Cilento. There we met up with an old man – his name was Guerino – who seemed rather friendly and terrifying at the same time; I wasn’t quite sure what we were doing there, or why my dad in particular seemed so interested in talking to him. Although my memories are quite blurred, I recall him showing us around his unusual house, in which every wall was covered in pebbles. When we got to his bedroom, the strange man pulled something from under his bed: it was a coffin. He said “When I die, all they have to do is give me a little push, and that’s it. Easy peasy”. He then mentioned something about having murdered someone, which I thought was a joke; like most children, my sister and I had always been shielded from the concept of death, but Guerino didn’t seem at all bothered about censoring himself.
Afterwards he took us on a walk around his village and showed us a range of odd-looking sculptures scattered across a few different locations. We thanked him for his time and then went our separate ways.
At the time I was way too young to realize that I had met a rather notable (and quirky to say the least), Cilentan figure – and my dad was actually interviewing him for an article. The bizarre sculptures and decorations made from pebbles were his original and striking artworks (and no, the murder thing wasn’t a joke).
Two years ago – exactly twenty years after meeting Guerino for the first time – I returned to Castelnuovo to see his works once again, this time as a less impressionable adult with some knowledge of art. I wasn't disappointed. One of the things that struck me the most is how well his absolutely eccentric-looking house (seen only from the outside this time) and sculptures fit into the surroundings; they look almost like Gaudi-esque living things growing out of the ground. There is something surreal and almost romantic about these humpy and organic shapes, but they also gave me a slight sense of restlessness. Experiencing an artwork can give the viewer an insight into the artist's mind, and Guerino's mind was a rather troubled one.
Born from a modest family in Castelnuovo, a small town in the heart of the Cilento National Park, Guerino Galzerano received almost no education – let alone any artistic training – and worked as a farmer for most of his life. As a young man Galzerano joined the Italian army and witnessed the horrors of World War II. He got married in 1956, but soon left his hometown for Germany, where he worked as a gardener for a family of art lovers; this is where Guerino had his first – and probably only – contact with modern art, particularly sculpture. After hearing rumours about his wife having an affair, Guerino returned to Castelnuovo Cilento, where he murdered his wife's best friend, whom he deemed somehow responsible for the affair. As a result, he ended up in a criminal asylum near Naples (not his first time, either).
While imprisoned, Guerino felt the need to be creative, so he requested to decorate the prison’s garden with pebble mosaics, a technique he said he had learnt in Germany.
After his release in 1977, he returned to his home in Castelnuovo Cilento. His wife was gone; far from having overcome her betrayal, he locked the door of the kitchen – a room associated with the memory of his wife – which would never be opened again (looking through the glass door, one could see thick layers of cobwebs covering the furniture).
Guerino resumed his creative activity: he decorated his house using pebbles found on the beaches and riverbeds of Cilento, completely transforming both the exterior and the interior of the house. He then constructed a series of ‘towers’ in his garden, transforming the whole building into something out of a fairy tale.
Then, in 1982, Guerino prudently started building his own grave. The structure as a whole is incredible and dominates the landscape as one enters the local cemetery (it can actually be seen from several viewpoints across the town). Seen from up-close, the structure is imposing and dream-like.The artist expresses all its misanthropic nature, adding to the sculptures memento mori messages such as this: "Where you are now I used to be, where I am now you will be".
Later Guerino began his final project: a sort of oneiric castle-like structure, filled with towers, arches, walls and sculptures resembling gigantic chairs. There is something poignant about a humble farmer creating his very own castle. Guerino's castle in particular is both beautiful and distressing; he is claiming his own royal title and expressing his imagination and mental turmoil.
Galzerano died in 2002. His house is now a holiday home managed by his great-nephew, while the rest of his works has significantly deteriorated. The value of his sculptures has been recognized before: just last year, a very well known Italian art historian and TV personality, Vittorio Sgarbi, dedicated a whole lectio magistralis to the Cilentan artist; and yet his creations are still in danger of decay. Sadly, Italy isn't short of neglected landmarks, sites and artworks of cultural significance, which represents an incredible loss: if they were well-maintained and adequately promoted, Galzerano's works could even represent an opportunity for economic and social development in the region.
Guerino’s sculptures are not only unique works of art, they are also integral part of Castelnuovo’s history and landscape. One can only hope that his efforts and rare talent won't be forgotten.