Constantino Nivola left his hometown for good by the time he was twenty, but his mark there can still be seen today. Like in most Mediterranean villages, the streets of Orani have been altered - the buildings have sprouted new, often unfinished, floors and the historic center is surrounded by a ring of empty houses, balconies and staircases in alternating shades of chipped paint. The original mud-brick houses, with their undulating walls and smooth corners that belie the use of natural materials and manual labor, have been swallowed by layers of rigid cement and cars clog up the small roads built for carts and pedestrians just a half century ago.
But in the midst of the destructive construction of the last few decades, the native sculptor’s sprawling, bohemian spirit lives and breathes in the tranquil Museo Nivola. While Constantino left Sardinia young and ended up living most of his life in the United States, he returned often, inextricably involved with the people and the places of his childhood. He designed and executed the face of the graceful Nostra Signora d'Itria church, wore traditional Sardinian suits made by local artisans, and would take entire classes from the middle school out walking while lecturing about how to observe the world around them. Some of the most moving photographs of Nivola’s long life, in fact, were taken by Carlo Bavagnoli during the “open air exhibition” he held in the streets of Orani in 1958: in a place where many people did not have shoes or running water, he dedicated himself to bringing them the gift of modern art and the appreciation for beauty. Poverty was and had been a reality in Orani, even for Nivola himself, but evidently he did not believe this meant that art and beauty could be superfluous.
The museum, opened in 1995, is a continuation of his efforts - not to bring Orani to the world, but to bring the world to Orani. Expanded in 2012, with gorgeous attention to landscape and detail, the museum is a beautiful setting for Nivola’s varied works. There are the mystic marble sculptures of women, the large sand-casted panels with irregular shapes and angles, small and compact iron models dedicated to laborers and a series of terracotta plaques of intimate spaces seen from above.
Costantino Nivola's story is the perfect example of a fairy tale we love to tell: he grew up in a large, poor family; began to work at age eight as a manual laborer; began to study art and move in bohemian circles throughout Europe; escaped the Fascist race laws with his Jewish wife; lived in the Village in a different sort of poverty; hobnobbed with other on-the-verge-of-discovery unknowns, such as his neighbor, friend and contemporary, Jackson Pollock; and then made it big. He lived most of his life in a farmhouse on Long Island with his soulmate, Ruth, and their two adorable and most-often naked children. He built sculptures with sand and studied with Le Corbusier. He seems to have been able to balance success and fame and love and family and no one, it seems, has a bad word to say against him. Not anyone, anywhere.
Throughout his life - even as a naturalized American citizen, as a lauded sculptor, as the head of a family that had not only wealth and security, but also the priceless blessing of creativity living within their home - throughout his life and art is the constant, unsentimental memory of his upbringing in Sardinia. "Everything that has ever happened to me since, I invented then," he once said. In the slim but lyrical volume, Memories of Orani, he tells both wisely and cheekily the stories he remembers from that painful and magical time. And they resurface palpably in his works as well - the reverence towards the body of the mother and the widow, the honor bestowed upon the workers and the craftsmen, even the technique he invented using sand and cement nods its head at the work that he was subjected to at much too young an age.
The Fondazione Nivola has for years faithfully preserved his life’s work and secured a place of honor for him in the town of Orani, where it seems that every household has a treasured story about Tziu Titino. Recently, however, a new board led by Giuliana Altea has undertaken to do more. They have begun a residency for young, international artists and have filled the museum's calendar with events. At the inauguration for the first resident artist, Philip Topolovac, it was clear that the aim is truly to honor the memory of Nivola’s ceaseless creative intellect. He dedicated himself to something that was, at first, seen as wholly frivolous by those around him, and he insisted on bringing it back to those same people throughout his long life. The Museo Nivola is a quiet space for reflection in the midst of our awkwardly modern reality. It is a precious holding place for Nivola’s timeless sculptures, and a hopeful birthplace for new work. It is optimism in the face of an island-wide epidemic of unemployment, emigration and despair. It is a lesson that a stone can hold something as precious as life.