No. 31 Romolo Roberti
Just as the morbidly sensitive Dante scorched in the hell of his “divine Comedy,” the people who aroused his wrath and contempt in the Florence of the early Renaissance, so has his fellow countryman, Romolo Roberti in his adopted Chicago, incorporated in 36 painting illustrating the “Inferno,” his opinion of certain of the people of contemporary Chicago who have irritated him.
The series covers a period of six years, 1928 to 1934, during which Roberti came in close contact with modern “culture,” working as a decorator of homes of the rich and the new rich. What he saw and heard sometimes aroused his sense of humor — oftener, his indignation.
Being no writer like Dante, he found it impossible to put his feelings into satiric verse. So, sensing a parallel, he adopted the expedient of fitting his own sentiments into a visual adaptation of Dante. When he felt like telling some dub, fussy meddler to “go to hell,” he restrained his tongue but went home that night and fiercely consigned the culprit to the inferno of his own making. That’s exactly what Dante used to do.
When Roberti’s paintings were shown at the Allerton Club a couple of seasons back, their Chicago content was not suspected, but there were observers who detected an up-to-dateness that is not in Dore.
Roberti’s satire is not confined to the new rich. For a considerable period, he had his studio in one of Chicago’s exclusive buildings for artists. He is shortly to show, in the autumn exhibition of the Neoterics, what he discovered about some of his neighbors.
Despite the fact that all the artists have the unusual (to ordinary mortals) privilege of the nude model, Roberti found he was in a settlement of “Peeping Tom’s” and “Peeping Tessie’s,” given to climbing over roofs and peeing through skylights at the goings-on in neighboring studios. One “Peeping Tessie,” he alleges, had rigged up an ingenious periscope for use in looking over transoms.
In his painting, he exhibits female artists on the roof of the studio building, prying through the skylights into their neighbors’ secrets.
This sense of humor of his, sometimes finding expression through his tongue as well as his brush, has brought him into conflict more than once with his fellow artists.
Roberti, born an aristocrat in the little town of Montelanico, just outside Rome, has had more than one tough tussle with poverty since coming to America in 1911, at the age of 15.
He was destined for the priesthood by his father, a well-to-do lumberman, but when a business trip brought father and son to Pittsburgh for a period of six months, the son declared his intention of staying in America to make his own way as an artist.
He rejected his father’s pleas to go back to Italy, and set out instead for the Pennsylvania coal fields, where Italians were working. One of the miners, who knew the Roberti family back in Montelanico, received him with astonishment and got him a job in a mine.
The third day down the shaft, Roberti was injured by a falling stone. On recovering, he set out for Ithaca, N.Y., where he knew an influential businessman, a friend of his father.
Through this Italian, Roberti got a job at Cornell University as a house painter, and later as a mender of windows. It was a steady job, doing whatever was needed throughout the various buildings of the university, and his economic problem was solved for the time being.
But he wanted to study art. He had had some school instruction back home, but had been too young for the academy. At that time, there was no Art Department at Cornell, but there was a Department of Architecture. One day, Roberti, in pursuit of his duties, stumbled into a room where about a score of student were drawing from a model. He rushed off in excitement to a professor who had take a friendly interest in him and, with tears streaming down his face, told him of the “art class” he had discovered.
The friend, investigating, found the class an adjunct to Prof. Christian Midjo’s course in architecture. Prof. Midjo heard Roberti’s story but, since only duly qualified students in architecture with all prerequisite courses could enter, he fitted up for Roberti an easel in an inconspicuous corner and let him learn the best he could “by observation.” In reality, the kindly professor gave him individual instruction after hours.
During his four years at Cornell, Roberti thus got not only ample art instruction, but he also learned English and devoured books, both art and literature, in the university’s libraries. He didn’t “go to college” in the accepted sense, but he got out of his haphazard, informal course a lot more than many a student who went away from there with a diploma.
He saved, moreover, enough out of his weekly pay to keep him alive, as he figured, for another four years. He had learned the thrift of the penniless immigrant who often goes home rich after a few years, to the dismay of careless Americans around who have to borrow money to eat on the last day or two before each payday. He wouldn’t send home for a cent — he had told his father he could and would make good in America.
With his little hoard, Roberti came to Chicago in 1922. He spent his days painting and his evenings in the classes at the Art Institute. But he gradually developed “social ambitions.” The name Roberti is noble in the neighborhood of Rome — Romolo Roberti is akin to the clan. Moreover, there were Chicago Italians who knew of the wealth of Giuseppe Roberti, Romolo’s father.
So Romolo Roberti found himself something of a lion, particularly in musical and opera circles. He began moderately “blowing his money” and, within eight months, found his “fortune” from house painting at Cornell all gone.
Again, he went to work, this time as an “interior decorator,” and using the name “George.” Gradually, he noted a defection of his fair-weather opera and musical friends. The “George” who entered the back door with his workmen in overalls was somehow different from the Romolo of Rome.
It was under these circumstances that Roberti’s satirical sense began to take shape, and after five years of observation of the hollowness of the “culture” he was intimately contacting, he began his “Inferno.”
As a decorator, George, with the fierce energy of his nature, kept himself away from Romolo, the easel painter. He has not been an actual workman in the decorating of Chicago homes. He has drawn up the designs for a given room and overseen the work of applying them. It has all been mechanical designing, wholly at variance with “art,” though sometimes Roberti, unlike many of his fellow decorators, has advised the hanging of a painting in the completion of a design.
In thus separating “art” from decoration,” Roberti has proceeded to paint his pictures as he pleases, often to the distress and the dismay of “old hat” observers. He is a decided “modernist” but without the bizarre “isms” for their own sake. His drawing is bold and original and his color schemes often startle, but both his draftsmanship and his use of color are soundly and substantially grounded in the “traditions.”
Though an ardent student of his native Italians, he was cold to their “futurism,” believing it foreign to their genius. The Italian Renaissance was too powerful, he believes, for the Italians to throw off. He admires the French “moderns” above the Italian, but his own work partakes more of the genius of his own people, made alert by the inventiveness of the new age.
Though his experiences with musicians had much to do with the developing of his Dante “complex” and he withdrew from hollow friendships as he gradually awoke to the fact that those who throw gay parties are out of luck when the bankroll is exhausted, Roberti went into musical circles again in 1933 to find him a wife, Ruth Larson. She is Swedish — his Ithaca professor, Dr. Midjo, was also from the Scandinavian Peninsula, the rival realm of Norway. Mrs. Roberti is a professional pianist and a flutist in the Chicago Woman’s Symphony Orchestra.