The Mysterious Baths of Giorgio de Chirico told through the archives

September 24 2021

The Mysterious Baths Fountain was created in 1973 on the occasion of the 15th Triennale di Milano (September 20 –November 20), for Contatto Arte/città, an event conceived and coordinated by Giulio Macchi, a director, author and television presenter, and a pioneer in scientific popularisation on Italian television with Orizzonti della scienza e della tecnica, a programme that was aired by RAI from 1966 to 1974.

On November 21, 1972, Macchi sent an initial proposal, entitled Strutture. Ambiente. Giardino, to the president of Triennale, the painter Remo Brindisi.In his handwritten letter, Giulio Macchi invited the president to work with him to find the most suitable and “adaptable” artists for an “extended event involving the entire park and all the people of Milan”.

“The city does away with nature or forces it into confined spaces. Parks, gardens, and courtyards are frozen by disrespectful or timid human interventions. The proposal is to call in the imaginative inventiveness of artists, and particularly sculptors, to help nature, which is sacrificed in the city.

A series of sculptors we have chosen will be invited to produce a set of objects that can be used (such as benches) and others that cannot (such as fountains). 

Each artist’s structure-environment-garden set is to occupy an isolated corner of the park. Each set must be at a distance from the others, so as to preserve its original presence.” 

The use of the term “set” most likely came from his experience as a television writer.

The project later became Contatto Arte/città, with twelve creations for public spaces in the Parco Sempione, including: Alberto Burri’s Teatro continuo, Giorgio Roccamonte’s Chiosco scultura, Alfredo Pizzo Greco’s Labirinto musicale, and Gino Marotta’s Eden artificiale. In the introduction to the official catalogue of the event,  Giulio Macchi expresses his desire to create a link between art and city, and between artists and citizens not “just for the duration of a temporary fair, but with lasting works that remain over time. So what happened? The works were withdrawn by the artists at the end of the event, but Burri’s Teatro continuo, Pierre Fernandez Arman’s Accumulazione musicale e seduta and the Mysterious Baths Fountain remained, and can still be seen in the Giancarlo De Carlo Garden at Triennale.

For the Mysterious Baths, Giulio Macchi had thought of “the painter who has done nothing but invent cities in his paintings, with the ‘architect’ de Chirico we would have liked to build cities, squares and neighbourhoods, but we are not yet a construction company so for the moment de Chirico has limited himself to a direct encounter: a mysterious bath”

De Chirico had already taken part in the Triennale di Milano. In 1933 Mario Sironi and Gio Ponti were members of the directorate of the 5th Triennale di Milano. As the “director”, Sironi called in artists with various stylistic approaches – Massimo Campigli, Giorgio de Chirico, and Achille Funi as well as Sironi himself and Gino Severini with the mosaic entitled Le arti

Giorgio de Chirico painted a mural called Cultura italiana: at the top, a white horse is seen towering over emblems of Italian culture: the Colosseum, the towers of Bologna and Brunelleschi’s dome of Santa Maria del Fiore.

In his autobiography, Memories of a Life, dated 1962 and reissued in 2002, the artist criticises the fact that he was not sufficiently appreciated on that occasion: “At the time, I painted a large mural at the Palazzo della Triennale in Milan, I did it in a very short time and also in difficult circumstances, using the egg tempera technique, and it cost me a hundred and fifty lire in eggs alone.” 

In 1934 de Chirico made ten lithographs on the theme of the Mysterious Baths for Jean Cocteau’s Mythologie, a prose poem on the Greek gods, in which the artist created a world of obscure inventions, elegantly dressed men and bathers, colourful cabins on stilts and swimming pools in which the motion of the water is given by a zigzag motif in which de Chirico himself finds the memory of a parquet floor in a house he had visited: “The idea of mysterious baths came to me one day when I was in a house where the floor had been heavily polished with wax. I watched a gentleman, whose legs were reflected in the floor, walking in front of me. I had the impression that he could sink into the floor, like in a swimming pool [...]”.

The cabin on stilts in a pencil sketch on paper, Visit to the Mysterious Baths of 1934-5, went on to appear in every version of the Mysterious Baths and also in the sculpture group of 1973.

It would appear that the idea for the Mysterious BathsFountain came about during a meeting between de Chirico and Giulio Macchi in Rome. Referring to an interview with Macchi, Antonella Crippa says that: “they met and sat down at a café in Piazza di Spagna. The Maestro drew the outline of the pool in pencil and blue pastel in a sketchbook and chose to add a cabin, a rotunda, a fish, a ball and a swan. Macchi obtained reproductions of Mythologie by the writer and playwright Jean Cocteau, which included some of de Chirico’s lithographs of the Mysterious Baths, and cut them out, placing them on the sheet to find the best position. To make it easier to evaluate the work as a whole, he also had a model of the group made. It is now in the Museo Remo Brindisi at the Lido di Spina (in the province of Ferrara)”. De Chirico used this model to decide on the final appearance of the work: a “fountain-pool” as it was referred to in the newspapers at the time, 24 m x 15 m, in Vicenza stone, with six sculptural elements placed on the bottom – a rotunda, a ball with coloured stripes, a Brown Bather and a swan, a Blond Bather and the tempietto cabin – and a fish outside of the pool. The sculptures were made by de Chirico at the Margraf company in Chiampo (Vicenza) owned by Count Paolo Marzotto. The structures of the cabin and the rotunda were made of reinforced concrete, partly because of their large size. In 2009-10, the bathers and the fish were moved to the Museo del Novecento to prevent damage caused by atmospheric agents, so the figures we see now are reproductions. The Fish, which was initially placed outside of the pool, had been lost but was recovered by the Giorgio and Isa de Chirico Foundation in 2004 from a Parisian auction house and granted on loan to the City of Milan to complete the original sculptural group.

In 1973 de Chirico turned 85. He was born in 1888 to Italian parents in Volos, Greece, and the fountain was one of his last works, for he died just five years later. Almost all writings on the fountain point out that the Mysterious Baths contain echoes of de Chirico’s birthplace. In an article entitled “Giorgio de Chirico e la Fontana dei Bagni misteriosi nel Parco Sempione a Milano” in issue 9/10, 2010, of the magazine Metafisica, published by the Giorgio and Isa de Chirico Foundation, Nikolaos Velissiotis, president of the Hellenic Culture Center in Milan, wrote: “While de Chirico is a builder of enigmas, and while in each work he conceals a maze of possibilities and secret path to be identified in order to discover its sublime message, the Mysterious Baths are the easiest and also the most playful enigma of all.”

In his 1920 essay on Klinger, de Chirico writes of how impressed he was with the Accordi etching from the Brahmsphantasie op. XII and, in particular, with the staircase that goes down into the sea, because “going back to the memories of my childhood, I remember that the steps of the bathing huts always disturbed me and gave me a great sense of dismay. Those few wooden steps covered in algae and mould and immersed less than a metre under the water seemed to me to go on down endlessly into the heart of the oceanic darkness.”

There were to be two suns, one bright, made of painted iron and the other black, made of plastic and connected by a wire, taken up in the Calligrammes painted by the maestro. These were taken from the lithographs published in 1930 for Apollinaire’s poems and taken up again in the 1970s in oil paintings such as the Piazza d’Italia with the Sun Extinguished of 1971.

They were made but never included in the sculptural ensemble. The iron sun is now in the garden of Count Paolo Marzotto’s house, while the plastic one was destroyed in a fire at the Margraf warehouses, where it had been kept.

The dark parquet-like patterns on the bottom of the pool and on the parapets were not completed, as de Chirico had planned in his original model, in time for the unveiling. He is said to have complained to Count Marzotto that the work was delivered incomplete. RAI has a documentary of the day of the unveiling, on September 19, 1973, filmed by Luciano Arancio.

There was a well in the pool for draining the rainwater but it was closed two days after the unveiling. According to Velissiotis, the maestro’s original idea was to fill the pool with no more than ten centimetres of water, because in an interview he had said that “the parquet on the bottom is sufficient to suggest the presence of water”. In actual fact, the water began to erode the sculptures, which had been made of porous material, and it affected their colours. It stayed that way until 1995 when the pool was emptied for its first restoration. It was decided to cover the floor with a layer of concrete to make it waterproof, though this concealed the colours.

In his essay “Bagni misteriosi” in De Chirico la Nuova metafisica, the catalogue of the San Marino exhibition in 1995, Mario Ursino quoted de Chirico’s memories of his childhood: “When he was a child, people didn’t go bathing on the beaches in swimsuits, but went to the sea fully dressed and would stroll along the piers and on the rotundas. On these piers, at the edges, there were sometimes closed cabins from which every now and then only men would go in, fully dressed: and they would come out exactly as they had gone in.”

In 1998, an exhibition entitled Giorgio de Chirico. I Bagni misteriosi was held at LAMEC in Vicenza, where the plans and drawings that accompanied the paintings of the series of works were shown.

In the same exhibition there were also some paintings from his mature period, which at the time of the “New Metaphysics”, starting from the 1960s, once again introduced the theme of the Baths

In the catalogue of the exhibition Il grande metafisico. Giorgio de Chirico scultore, which was held in Cremona in 2004, we read that “It is impossible to study de Chirico’s sculpture without knowing and following his journey in painting. The sculptural subjects are the same as the ones in the canvases, and they appear and reappear even years later, going through the ebbs and flows of his inexhaustible fantasy” in a conversation between two-dimensional and three-dimensional images.

Together with the other works, the fountain was unveiled on 19 September 1973 with a concert held on Arman’s podium with an interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s The Dying Swan, performed in Burri’s Teatro Continuo by Liliana Costi, the prima ballerina at La Scala at the time. 

As Velissiotis himself recounts, de Chirico had decided to give Milan a piece of his childhood memories, a glimpse of the sea and of the beach that he missed so much in Milan.


Triennale Milano – Archives

Bibliographical notes

Contatto arte/città: Milano 1973, La nuova foglio, Pollenza, 1973

V Triennale di Milano: official catalogue, Ceschina, Milan, 1933

Giorgio de Chirico, Mythologie: dix lithographies originales; text by Jean Cocteau, 4 chemins, Paris, 1934

De Chirico: la nuova metafisica, eds. Maurizio Calvesi, Mario Ursino; exhibition promoted by the Culture Department, De Luca, Rome, 1995

Giorgio de Chirico: metafisica dei Bagni misteriosi, [ed.] Maurizio Fagiolo dell’Arco, Skira, Milan, 1998, Catalogue of the exhibition in Vicenza, 6 June-13 September 1998.

Giorgio de Chirico, Memorie della mia vita, Tascabili Bompiani, Milan, 2002

Nikolaos Velissiotis, “Giorgio de Chirico e la fontana dei Bagni Misteriosi nel parco Sempione di Milano”, in Metafisica 2010, no. 9/10

Giorgio de Chirico, “Max Klinger”, Il Convegno, November 10, 1920. Now in Giorgio de Chirico, Scritti/1 (1911-1945). Romanzi e scritti critici e teorici, ed. A. Cortellessa, Bompiani, Milan, 2008, pp. 321-333.

Il grande metafisico: Giorgio De Chirico scultore, ed. Franco Ragazzi, Electa, Milan, 2004, Catalogue of the exhibition held in Cremona in 2004.

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