The end is where this story begins: my last epochal moment in the land of fairy tales, which took place where the spirit of the protagonist of this story resonates the most. An end point which opens the story, because I think that it’s important to visualise the scene, as in the movies: a small white toilet, surrounded by frescos, clean air, green nature, arches and stones, facing the soft hills of Sarmede. There are no windows, no doors. Just art and nature. Freedom. I pictured myself all alone, seated and admiring a new dawn, letting my mind run lose with no hurries, a soft breeze caressing my hair and my legs…
In 1959 Štěpán Zavřel (Prague, 26th of December 1932 – Sarmede, 25th of February 1999) was forced to leave Czechoslovakia for political reasons and, after wandering for years through Italy, Rome and everywhere in Europe, thanks to his connections he reached Rugolo di Sarmede in 1968. Here he fell in love with a little house once owned by the countryside farmers. At first, his foreigner and untidy appearance attracted the suspicious glares of the inhabitants. His sweaters were always coloured with paint and put one on top of the other to keep him warm, because in his old house the only form of heating was the traditional fogher (the fireplace). All the more, his car was still running by miracle and people started wondering who he was, maybe a refugee, maybe a spy… Back then, Sarmede had less inhabitants, many of them had left the native areas of Rugolo and Montaner to look for a job abroad and his presence in the little town was indeed quite unexpected. However, Zavřel was a peculiar artist and the small community of Rugolo, composed of simple and unpretentious people, welcomed him little by little. He was a believer and practiced religion, he attended the Mass every Sunday and loved the cultural traditions, especially those linked to the countryside, which he tried to preserve by showing and celebrating their importance to everyone. In those years the fogher was regarded as a symbol of poverty and replaced at the first occasion with a more modern kitchen. But around his fireplace, still existing today, gathered people from every social background: important people mixed with modest farmers and Štěpán made no distinctions. He was a man full of resources and could take on any work, even constructions, soon he expanded the house where he lived and built arches all around, because he loved the Byzantine architecture. With his friendly and cheerful approach, he inspired the young people. His doors were always open, therefore his house was highly frequented, people were magically attracted by it, however everyone had to contribute according to their skills: someone fixed the walls, someone painted, cooked, worked in the garden or entrained everyone with a song. Štěpán wasn’t an ordinary man, he was spontaneous. He initially proposed the idea to organise the Mostra Internazionale di Sarmede, which first took place in 1983 during the Assumption celebrations on the 15th of August, a tradition now extinguished. In that occasion, he displayed the works of his friends, illustrators and artists, the result was a beautiful exhibition. According to plans, it had to be a stand-alone event, but Leo Pizzol, Wanda Dal Cin, together with other friends, worked hard to stage it each year, in the autumn season. That’s how it became what is today: an exhibition dedicated to illustration, but also to the illustrated books, since Zavřel believed in the enormous importance of books. He believed that every child should stop watching the TV and finally live a special relationship with books, taking them in their hands, reading and retelling them. The artist was frequently hosted in schools, where he read aloud some passages or offered various artistic workshops; this experience gave life to his guided visits for children and school classes. The idea of the exhibition comes from the necessity to create an environment where children can interact with art, literature and pictures. This traveling exhibit is integrated by a bookshop where children can wander around and rediscover the pleasure of reading. Nowadays, the curators dedicate the exhibit to a different country each year, last year the guest country was Chile and this year it will be Japan. Through its constant innovation, it represents an unique opportunity for children, and not only in terms of visual art, but also with regards to the cultural enrichment given by the customs and tradition of different countries. The exhibition and the workshops currently take place in La Casa della Fantasia, offered by the city administration. Every year more than 10.000 children come to visit it or to participate in the workshops, travelling also from remote schools in the Veneto region. The bookshop has a great success.
Zavřel was the art curator of the exhibition. Every year he visited the Bologna Children Bookfair, along with Pizzol, Dal Cin and other friends. Back then they did not have a personal booth, like they have now, so the volunteers– yes, the success of this story is also due to the constant and disinterested work of Sarmede’s inhabitants who loved this crazy foreigner, his illustrations, his ideas - wandered among all those books, looking for the right ones, the ones that Zavřel then examined before picking the artists and the illustrations to include in the exhibit collection. He knew a vast number of illustrator from all around the world. Throughout the years, the exhibition reached Vienna, Madrid, Seville, France… In Italy it has been hosted in Siena and for the past 20 years it has featured in Monza. The Foundation, alongside the main exhibition, organises also minor displays in various small towns, such as the one dedicated to Pinocchio or a small compendium exhibition.
Zavřel widely experimented all artistic techniques, even animation, and of course the frescos. He started with the interiors, then painted the house exterior walls. Finally the Luoghi di Fiaba project, sponsored by the Economic European Community and the City administration of Sarmede, gave him the opportunity to bring to life a series of fresco, in collaboration with different artists, which can be found from Sarmede to Valdobbiadene, in the Pedemontana area, but also in private houses now marked with a special sign. Zavřel completed almost 40 works and some of them reached France, Padova and Southafrica.
In 1989 he founded the Scuola di Illustrazione, the Illustration School. He started by teaching in his own house, then he obtained a big room in Rugolo’s social centre. Nowadays the classes, among summer and autumn courses, are attended by almost 600 students each year.
“When he died on the 25th of February 1999” remembers Wanda, “panic struck us, we had lost our guide and didn’t know what to do. Then, little by little we continued to follow his footsteps: he had taught us many things and we decided to create the foundation in his honour. His heritage is of great value: the exhibition, the classes, the frescos. Thanks to him, Sarmede became The land of fairy tales, we experienced the flourishing of a small, but healthy economy, thanks to the opening of bed & breakfasts and restaurants for students. He arrived in this town and completely changed it! He loved our lands, our traditions and constantly encouraged us to preserve it. He was a conservative, he wanted to preserve things as they are and everyone loved him. He guided an entire generation, many illustrators whose works are published in books come from this town. He liked to sing Fin che la barca va… that was his motto, to keep going, to continue and never stop. He often sang that song and we believed in it.”
I have to thank Wanda Dal Cin for this story: I transcribed every single word and it led me to drive for 400 km to visit Zavřel’s house, which Leo Pizzol kindly showed me while recounting interesting anecdotes about our hero. The house is even better than how I imagined it: the arches are not simple architectural structures, they are open doors on imagination, such as the toilet with view described in my introduction. The fogher is the most beautiful and welcoming kitchen that I’ve ever seen. Perfectly preserved in its original state by the new owner from Sarmede, the fireplace is animated by spirits of the past, who happily eat and drink by the flickering flames, showing me how different their lives were. The wood beams are decorated with pots, pans, bottles and shoes. The walls are covered with frescos. Every corner reveals a small scene, which reaches out through the windows to the scenery outside, washed in the sunlight and undisturbed by the fog, which never shows up in this town. I enjoyed my walk in the garden, up and down the countless stone steps, passing through the enchanting arches and looking the world from another perspective. As it had happened in the open-air toilet a few moments before, I found inner myself in a tiny and hidden chapel, with its walls covered in frescos, its open threshold, a wide entrance which invites the faith in, a small artificial cave with a mystic and joyful atmosphere. Thinking that The land of fairy tales, its painted little houses on the streets, its city hall with frescos and decorations, deeply involved in the administration of the Casa delle Fiabe, which welcomes each year the illustrations from international artists, all of this was possible thanks to one single man. This foreigner did not conform to pre-set rules, quite the opposite: he motivated and captivated more than one generation of people from this town, so that they still gather together, celebrate and spontaneously remember him in his old house. This story fills my heart with joy and enthusiasm. Everything is possible in this world, when love is present, because it was the love of this foreigner for the arts, literature and this land that generated the story of this small town with less than 3.000 inhabitants. I asked Wanda and Leo if they could picture their life without Zavřel and his presence in Sarmede… they didn’t know what to answer, the only thing they know is that they want to keep on and do their best, even if the public funding are getting smaller and smaller due to the State cuts.
STEPHAN ZAVŘEL’S BIBLIOGRAPHY IN ENGLISH:
Salt is better than gold, Abelard-Schumann - The Magic Fish, G.B. Putnam’s Sons – They Followed the Star, TBS The Book Service Ltd. - The Bridge Across, Andersen Press Ltd - The Last Tree, Macdonald & J. - Grandfather Thomas, Orbis Publishing Limited - The Wuffler and the Querk, Abelard-Schuman.
One year ago Sarmede welcomed another foreigner, the artist Gabriel Pacheco from Mexico. “He’s a Capricorn, just like Zavřel” noted Wanda, “he was our guest during our 32th exhibition, during that time he was living in Buenos Aires, but Sarmede offered him what he was looking for”. The Foundation helped him throughout the official procedures and Gabriel has an active role in the meetings (he had the idea for the Il Simposio di Filosfia e Illustrazione which took place in the past December), all the more he is the director of the School and teaches several classes.
Gabriel invited me to the Simposio in December and convinced me to visit Sarmede. Without him I would never have found out Zavřel’s story and I would never have discovered the wonders of this place, like the open-air toilette, so I decided to call him and ask him how was it going, since a year had passed from his arrival.