Giovanni Testori: the Boxers cycle, the art of defeat and redemption
Some artists are gifted with an eclectic talent, capable of expressing itself in various creative outlets. This is certainly true of Giovanni Testori (1923-1993), novelist, poet, playwright, art critic and painter. He is one of the most important Italian cultural figures of the 20th century. The theme of Roserio’s God, his debut novel, concerns the amateurish cycling races in post-World War II Italy. His style of prose, expressionistic and agitated, makes the book pulsate with life, which many attribute to Testori’s original creative passion – painting.
Therefore, in this article we will discuss Testori the painter, starting with his cycle dedicated to boxers. These are rather large canvases, depicting boxers as they rest and in defensive stances, concentrating on the fight or grappling with defeat, which are striking for the material softness of the brush strokes. Even the bodies at rest seem to be alive, explosive, the muscles contracting; they seem almost to be painted sculptures that leap out of the two dimensions of the canvas.
In a certain sense, these paintings recall Duilio Morini, known as the Ras, and Cornelio Binda, his young student, characters in Ghisolfa Bridge, a series of short stories published in 1958, which inspired the film Rocco and His Brothers by Luchino Visconti. A fascination with boxing, a sense for the battle, sport as the hope for social redemption and the illusion of revenge, emanate from the paintings just as they do from the pages of his prose. The main character is the suburban area around Milan, before the economic boom, a world inhabited by blue-collar workers, common folk and prostitutes, who tell their stories of immigration, love, lofty aspirations, and searing disappointments.
Let’s examine one of the canvases in the cycle, entitled K.O. (III). It shows a boxer who has been defeated, on his knees, his head lowered and hanging to the right, with his face almost resting against his lowered glove, but the right arm is still held high, as if he were trying to land one last blow. There are only a few colors: black, red and a splotch of blue. The painting was inspired by a photo that immortalized Nino Benvenuti in exactly the same pose, after he was beaten by Carlos Monzòn on 20 November 1970.
Testori took that image and turned it into a work of art: it conveys all of the bitterness, but also the dignity of defeat, the heartbreak and the enormity of the end of a dream. What we see is the dismantling of a hero, dejected after a hard fight, but not a surrender.
It is curious that it was Luchino Visconti that purchased this painting, which was first exhibited in Turin in 1971. Having gone bankrupt from the payment, he was forced to return it in 1973, after an acrimonious quarrel with Testori that ended their collaboration.
In fact, they had previously worked together, as the artist from Milan was also active in the world of cinema, and was Visconti’s guide around the local gyms in search of the perfect ring in which Rocco and Simone Parondi would fight.
Stories of boxers have always captured the imaginations of writers and directors. Ernest Hemingway and Jack London created stories around boxing rings. Books such as The Quiet Man by Maurice Walsh, Cinderella Man by Jim Hague, and Mike Tyson by Joyce Carol Oates offer various takes on boxers. Antonio Franchini covered the topic in his work entitled Gladiators, in the form of literary reporting.
Cinema has given us films such as Rocky, Raging Bull, On the Waterfront, Ali, When We Were Kings, and Million Dollar Baby. All of these are worthy of consideration, as is the complex and profound artist, Testori.