Escher and the Amalfi Coast: a perpetual metamorphosis between reality and fantasy

by Gerardo Russo

Maurits Cornelis Escher, world-famous Dutch engraver and graphic artist, linked his life to Campania, finding in it the inspiration for some of the works that made him famous. In fact, he fell in love with the Amalfi Coast, in particular of the villages of Ravello e Atrani. These were the ideal places to devote himself to his great passion for walking. It was Atrani himself who inspired one of his best known works: Metamophores II.

Escher e la Costiera Amalfitana: una perpetua metamorfosi tra realtà e fantasia
Entrance to Escher exhibition in Barcelona, with Metamorphosis II reproduction.

The period in Italy

Italy was one of Escher's favorite destinations for his travels. In 1923 he met a Ravello Switzerland Jetta Umiker, with whom he was married in 1924 in Viareggio. The Dutch graphic designer had in fact moved to the Amalfi Coast in the spring of 1923, staying several times in Ravello, inspired by the stories of a Danish lady he had met in Tuscany.

Escher e la Costiera Amalfitana: una perpetua metamorfosi tra realtà e fantasia
The terraces of Ravello in a lithograph by Escher, 1932.

After the marriage, the couple settled in Rome, where their children George and Arthur would be born. From there, every spring, the Dutch genius left for a different Italian region and stayed particularly bewitched from those of the Center-South: Calabria, Sicily, Abruzzo and of course Campania.

The advent of fascism led him to move first to Switzerland in 1935 and then to Belgium in 1937, but the landscapes of these lands did not inspire him as much as the Mediterranean ones of Southern Italy. Thus it was that the artist began to detach himself from the representation of reality in his works, to move on to the fantastic landscapes that he could imagine. But Italy was there in his mind, that is, it was the perfect memory to start fantasizing and realizing impossible worlds protagonists of his works. The artist would later settle permanently in his homeland, the Netherlands, in 1941.

The works on the Amalfi Coast

The Amalfi Coast, between dense architectures of Roman, Greek and Saracen elements e majestic natural landscapes, was the protagonist of many of his works, both those in which Escher represented reality, and those in which the Dutch graphic designer built, starting from reality itself, “impossible” situations.

Escher e la Costiera Amalfitana: una perpetua metamorfosi tra realtà e fantasia
Atrani, lithograph by Escher from 1931.

In 1931 he portrayed, in three different works, the coastal profile of Atrani, the typical houses of the village and the alleys of the smallest town in Italy. There is no shortage of scenarios of Ravello, having as subject the sanctuary of Saints Cosma and Damiano, a typical farm house, the lion of Piazza Fontana Moresca and the village of Young bull.

Escher e la Costiera Amalfitana: una perpetua metamorfosi tra realtà e fantasia
Covered alley of Atrani, Escher woodcut from 1931.

Metamorphosis II

The residency in Italy contributed greatly to Escher's artistic development. His goal was to be inspired by nature and all the aspects normally overlooked by others. Starting from the eccentric Italian landscape, Escher sought the most particular underlying geometric shapes.

Escher e la Costiera Amalfitana: una perpetua metamorfosi tra realtà e fantasia
Partial view of Metamorphosis II.

This concept is present in Metamorphosis II, woodcut made between 1939 and 1940, in which the landscape of Atrani is part of a cyclical transformation process of natural and geometric elements. In the work, which is 4 meters long, the Amalfi village ends up evolving into a chessboard. The subjects of Metamorphosis II are images that slowly become other images, following one perpetual reproduction.

Escher e la Costiera Amalfitana: una perpetua metamorfosi tra realtà e fantasia
Metamorphosis II (ESCHER - LA MAYOR EXPOSICIÓN DEL GENIO HOLANDÉS; Drassanes de Barcelona, 2021)

Atrani is also present in the previous work Metamorphosis I (1937), proof of what the next work would be, as well as in Metamophosis III (1967-1968) represents a more “elongated” version of the second version. The realistic representation of Atrani is transformed, in the works, into a series of other images, through an infinite model of shapes and joints apparently random.

The infinite in the alleys of Atrani

"I want to seek happiness in tiny things, like a little two-centimeter moss plant growing on a rock, and I want to try to do what I have long wanted: to copy these infinitely small things as accurately as possible."

(Notes by Escher in Ravello)

The author of the Metamorphosis he was thus able to create parallel universes even in the narrow streets of Atrani. The typical stairs that connect the villages of the Lattari Mountains and the Amalfi Coast could in fact be at the basis of the recurring use of steps in his works, such as in the puzzle of Relativity.

Escher e la Costiera Amalfitana: una perpetua metamorfosi tra realtà e fantasia
Relativity; Escher lithograph from 1953.

Different roads imagined starting from a single point, horizontality and verticality that merge, rigid schemes that are destroyed and recomposed starting from nature, infinity that perhaps casually appears in an alley. All this was Escher and his love for the Amalfi Coast.

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