Messenger of Saint Anthony

Cover Feature

Painter of Popes

In this exclusive interview, Ulisse Sartini, one of the finest portrait painters in the world, reveals the emotion of meeting and portraying two extraordinary individuals: John Paul II and Benedict XVI

Renzo Allegri
Painter of Popes Ulisse Sartini meeting Pope Benedict XVI during the presentation of the portrait at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls  Photo by Nicola Allegri  Editoriale Gli Olmi

'I NEVER THOUGHT that meeting Benedict XVI would have had such an emotional impact on me,' confesses Ulisse Sartini, one of greatest portrait painters alive today. 'In 1992 I met John Paul II during the presentation of his portrait painted by me. It was an unforgettable experience, and on that occasion I thought I would never again meet a more engaging, charismatic person. But I was wrong: Benedict XVI emanates incredible charm as well.
'He is very different from John Paul II, but just as imposing. Even though the encounter took place only a few months ago, it is still very much alive in my mind'.
With a self-conscious smile the painter continues, 'John Paul was excitable, just like us artists, whereas Benedict is mild-mannered, but warm - talking to him is like talking to an angel.'
Ulisse Sartini is a tall, slender and reserved 62-year-old man. Born in Ziano, near Piacenza in northern Italy, he moved to Milan during his boyhood to study painting with Luigi Comolli, a pupil of Giovanni Segantini, the great impressionist painter.
Sartini's works can be admired in the most prestigious art galleries in the world. He has mastered the most diverse techniques, but one of his most acclaimed inventions is the Embriocosmo - a dream-like pictorial expression which reflects an imaginary world of infinite spaces filled with fantastic ethereal forms.
However, Sartini's chief claim to fame comes from his portraits. Royals, heads of state, business tycoons, Hollywood celebrities, opera and theatre icons are on his waiting list. He has also made portraits of important Churchmen, like Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, a former Secretary of Sate of the Holy See, the American Cardinal William Henry Keeler and, finally, two popes, John Paul II in 1992, and Benedict XVI in 2005. It is these two last assignments that attracted the attention of the world's media on him, and he has now been labelled as The Painter of Popes.

Did you have any secret letter of recommendation from a Vatican personality that led Benedict XVI to choose you?
This is what some people are insinuating, but, quite frankly, I had none whatsoever. The whole thing came as a complete surprise. It was late July last year, and I was about to go on vacation to the Far East. I had just finished packing when I received a call from the Vatican asking me if I were willing to make a portrait of the newly installed pope, Benedict XVI.
I was really taken aback, and at first I didn't know what to say. But the person on the other end continued, 'The work must be finished by the end of September or the first days of October at the latest'. Now, I'm a very slow painter. I use a rather ancient technique that requires long periods, and I was almost about to say 'No' when I suddenly realized I'd never get another chance like that again, so in the end I found myself saying 'Yes'! My vacation was now all but forgotten, and I immediately left for Rome.
When I arrived at the Vatican I was received by a prelate, the same man I had spoken to on the phone in Milan. He now gave me more precise indications on what was required of me - a half-bust of Benedict set on a round 137cm-diameter canvas. He then told me that this portrait would be subsequently reproduced on mosaic, and that the mosaic would be included in the collection of the series of the succession of popes beginning from St. Peter. This collection can be admired in the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome.
While the prelate was talking I was becoming increasingly confused. Had I really made the right decision? Also, I didn't have a clue what that 'collection' was. So, after the conversation I immediately called a taxi and went to the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls. I walked into that magnificent temple, raised my eyes and, lo and behold, I saw, running along the whole architrave of the central nave, a magnificent series of profiles: the 264 Popes of the Roman Catholic Church, from Saint Peter right down to John Paul II. Only then did I realize that a reproduction of my work would soon be lying there for the whole world to see!
The Patriarchal Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls is the most important religious building in Rome after St. Peter's. It was erected on the place where Saint Paul, martyred under Nero in 67 AD, is said to be buried, and it is visited yearly by millions of people.

What happened next?
Realising the importance of the task allotted to me, I immediately returned to Milan and put my heart and soul to the project, working the whole Summer through. In the first days of October 2005, the work was finally completed. I then brought it to Rome, where a team of technicians reproduced it into a mosaic. This mosaic is now in its allotted place along the architrave of the Basilica, next to that of John Paul II.
After this I was again called to Rome, this time for a private audience with the Pope, which was held outside the Basilica of Saint Paul. To be there with the Holy Father, surrounded by a host of cardinals and prelates, was like a dream.

What impression did Benedict make on you?
Benedict has a radiant personality. He was always smiling. He looks at you with kind, but piercing eyes, almost like one who can read your soul. To stand in front of him is like standing before a pillar of light. Maybe that's because he is God's Vicar on earth. There is this irresistible charm about him. When I met him, I wanted to embrace him affectionately.

Did he like the portrait?
He went out of his way to explain to me how much he liked the portrait. He kept on thanking me, and shaking my hand. He seemed really satisfied.

Did you manage to find out what he liked most about it?
The gaze, I think. I concentrated particularly on the intensity of his gaze, and I believe I caught the essence of his facial expression. I think he noticed this.

Did the work pose any particular problems?
I had a very tight deadline. It had been commissioned at the end of July, and I had to have it finished by early October, to give the craftsmen of Saint Peter's Workshop enough time to reproduce it into a mosaic. The difference with Pope John Paul II was that this time I didn't have the whole figure, nor any background. I had to concentrate only on the face. The mouth was very problematic. I had to portray him with a serious expression, but the problem was that in all the photos I had of him he was smiling. Moreover, I had to stick to certain guidelines - my artistic freedom was rather curtailed because he had to have the same mien as that of his predecessors in the mosaics in the Basilica of Saint Paul. That means that his gaze had to be turned toward the right, to the altar. Also, his dress had to be folded in a precise manner.

Where is the portrait now?
It belongs to the Holy See and is kept in the Vatican Museums.

I am sure many painters envy you. To make the portrait of a pope means that your work has an almost assured place in the most important museums in the world. Why do you think you were chosen?
I really don't know. Maybe because I had already made portraits of other important people in the Church. I was already known in the Vatican, so they called me. In 1990 I was chosen to make a portrait of Cardinal Agostino Casaroli. I think it was Casaroli who drew Pope John Paul's attention to my work. The official portrait of our late pontiff hangs in the Sala Delle Congregazioni at the Vatican. A few years later I made a portrait of the archbishop of Baltimore, William Keeler. I think these works impressed many people in the Vatican.

Did you sometimes feel awed by the importance of your subjects?
Whenever I am working on a task of this kind I am always deeply concentrated on the subject. In a sense I am totally uninfluenced by the importance of the person I am portraying. My only preoccupation is to highlight those aspects of the expression that reveal my subject's inner soul, his or her true personality and uniqueness. I am not in the least bit impressed by the person's importance.
It was the same while I was working on the portrait of Benedict XVI, but, when I actually found myself in the presence of Benedict XVI, my objectivity and detachment abandoned me completely. My hands started to shake and I felt unable even to think. This actually occurred even with the former pope, but this time it was even more intense.

I see from you resume that you have undertaken various assignments of a religious nature.
I'm a very religious man and feel proud of my faith. I feel happy when I know that my works will end up in churches or religious institutions. My paintings are hanging in 12 churches around Italy. Two altar-pieces I painted are in the only Christian church in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. I also made three portraits of Padre Pio: one is in the parish church of Pietrelcina, the saint's home town, the other two are in Rome, one in the church of Saint Pius X, and the other in the church of Santa Paola Romana.

Why three paintings of Padre Pio?
First of all because I have great devotion to him. He was a truly unique man, and it always makes me happy to use my artistic gifts to promote devotion to him.
However, there is a second reason: my father's devotion to the stigmatised friar. My father was a very discreet and reserved person, and never made any public show of his devotion. He spoke to me in the best way possible, through his example and inner devotion.
On my bedside table I have a photo of Padre Pio which dates from the 50s; it belonged to my father. It's folded in two because he used to keep it in his wallet. It has great sentimental value for me.
He had never been to San Giovanni Rotondo, but in the 50s my aunt had gone there, and, on returning, told us some extraordinary stories of her experiences there. I think she was the one who actually brought that photo. My mother also had great devotion for this humble Capuchin. Then, as an adult, I started reading about him, and I really began to understand his greatness. However, like my father, I prefer to keep this devotion very much to myself.
When I painted Padre Pio's portraits, I felt my father's presence besides me.

Why did you choose to specialise in portrait painting?
I fell in love with portrait painting when I saw the works of the 16th century masters. While studying under Luigi Comolli, I would spend hours and hours in the art galleries admiring Renaissance art, portrait painting in particular.
My first important paintings were, in fact, portraits. This was during the 60s, when abstract art was reigning supreme, and portrait painting was despised by art critics. 'There's nothing like the camera for portraits,' they used to say. But I always retorted, 'I don't take photographs with my paint brushes, in my portraits I highlight the secret recesses of the soul, which the camera is totally incapable of capturing'. But none of them took heed of me then. Despite this, people liked my portraits, and I continued undaunted along the path I had chosen. Today, those very same critics appreciate my work, and this gives me great satisfaction.
Whenever I take someone's portrait, my primary concern is not that of projecting on the canvas a faithful reproduction of the person, but that of uncovering what one could call the 'absolute identity' of the person, that is, that essential element, the 'quid' or immortal spirit that distinguishes that particular person from all other people, in other words, the uniqueness of the subject. This is surely a great and difficult enterprise, but I think this is the portrait painter's task: to paint the soul.

Ulisse Sartini was born in Piacenza in 1943. He studied under Luigi Comolli, a pupil of Segantini, but the greatest influence on his life were the great Renaissance painters. He defines himself a 'son of the culture of humanism'. His most significant works are the portraits of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the former British Prime Minister John Major, Mario del Monaco and Maria Callas. A portrait of the soprano Joan Sutherland can be admired in the National Portrait Gallery in London, and Luciano Pavarotti's portrait greets the viewer in the foyer of Covent Garden in London.

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