Todi’s Casa Dipinta: More Than Hidden Rainbows
Famed American sculptor of monumental works, Beverly Pepper is now a household word in Todi, especially since the inauguration of il Parco di Beverly Pepper in 2019.
Pepper and journalist husband Curtis Bill Pepper had settled in Todi in the 1970’s and soon drew other artist friends to Todi, among them acclaimed Irish artist Brian O’Doherty and his art history professor, critic and his wife, Barbara Novak who visited the Peppers in the early 1970’s – and were immediately inamored of “the world’s most livable city.”
O’Doherty adopted the pseudonym “Patrick Ireland” in 1972 after the Bloody Sunday in Derry – to denounce the British repressive norms and to protest British military presence in Northern Ireland. In 2008 as a gesture of reconciliation and to celebrate peace restoration in Norther Ireland, O’Doherty reclaimed his birth name during a burial ceremonial of his alter-ego on the grounds of the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
Patrick Ireland/Brian O’Doherty and Barbara Novak purchased their house in the Todi meandering backstreets in 1975 and the artist started to paint at request of his wife, Barbara with the house remaining a “work in progress” (as O’Doherty termed the constant work) for years. The couple has not returned recently from their New York home. O’Doherty is now 94.
After spending some time in Todi’s Duomo taking in the medieval and Renaissance art, I set out in search of contemporary art, following the painted signs directing me to the Casa Dipinta, the home of Brian O’Doherty and Barbara Novak:.
…through the stone-vaulted meandering backstreets of Todi…
…and then taking the Via delle Mura Antiche (“Road to the Ancient Walls” – those of the Etruscans):
At the end of a vaulted alleyway, stone steps led up through an open doorway to a brightly-colored painted room: I knew I had arrived at la Casa Dipinta.
I was to learn that O’Doherty named this painting at the top of the stairs, “Twenty-five Fives on a Blue Ground.”
The Irish artist is emulating the 7th-century A.D. ancient Celtic language, which translated the 20 letters of the Roman alphabet into lines
Near the entrance steps, a large kitchen opens up with brightly-colored old furniture and vintage appliances below geometric squares painted above them.
The theme of the house is painted in white letters on a blue band spreading out above the lintel connecting the kitchen to the dining area: “ONE HERE NOW.” For O’Doherty, as explained in a text on his work-of-art house, “Because we are a ONE who lives HERE (not everywhere) and NOW (in the present, not yesterday nor tomorrow”).
The paintings of the kitchen and dining room laud vowels for O’Doherty considers vowels the “music of language,” these first primitive sounds uttered by children in their linguistic development
On the dining room table in front of the fireplace, various periodicals on the house as well as on artist O’Doherty and art historian Barbara Novak surround a photo of the couple:
A brochure of information on this Casa Dipinta tells us: “The kitchen together with the dining room may be considered a temple of OGHAM (pronounced ‘Oh-hem’). This is the ancient Irish language which translates the 20 letters of the Roman alphabet into lines.”
And as Bendetta Tintillini has written: “Eveywhere vertical or oblique lines: simple decorations? Not at all. Here is an ancient Gaelic alphabet, the Ogham alphabet, consisting of just 20 lines to match our letters, blending with contemporary geometric style, and with the colors, sometimes soft and sometimes bright.”
To the left of the stairs leading to the next level, O’Doherty has painted “Dictionary of the “I’s” with each small square painted with five strokes but in different colors, a compilation of the use of the fives in his drawings and paintings. Each “I” may be interpreted as “self”:
All colors of the spectrum were used by O’Doherty on the painted steps leading up to the second floor sala (living room) where wooden beams spreading out over other O’Doherty artworks:
Arriving at the top of the stairs, O’Doherty’s painting “HERE” spreads out over the entrance to the sala, a ladder the artist used for painting leaning against the wall:
Over the sofa here in the sala, O’Doherty created an installation dedicated to Italy’s artistic tradition of the 14th-century tryptychs (tripartite altarpieces). The 14th-century is termed “il Trecento” (the 300’s) in Italian and the artist named this installation “300.”
The painting over the armchair called “NOW” incorporates the oculus in gray pieta serena (literally, “serene stone”) opening to the stairs above:
Opposite the armchair painting (with oculus), “NOW,” O’Doherty painted “A Song to Vowels,” each vowel, indicated by one-to-five lines, set in a square of the five- by-five grid with no color or vowel repeated, vertically or horizontally:
As I climbed up those painted stairs to the bedroom on the third floor,……
……I was on the other side of that oculus, looking down now into the sala. It seemed to me that O’Doherty had opened that oval window – arched over by rainbow colors – wishing to create yet another work of art:
O’Doherty’s first painting in the house is at the top of the stairs as one enters the bedroom, a work of pointillism in small squares. The artist wished to cancel it though Barbara protested:
Standing at the top of the stairs with the pointillism painting at your back, you’ll note an open window bringing in light on your left and the artist’s three painted windows offering their own light: “Morning,” “Twilight,” and “Night.”(Thanks to George Tatge for the above photo and for so much assistance on interpreting the O’Doherty splendors).
Opening and closing doors are painted to the left of the entrance to the bathroom:
“Mid-Day” is painted above the bed: as the flat has no view of the splendid Umbrian landscape surrounding Todi, O’Doherty painted for his wife a view of blue sky and sea.
Profiles of himself and Barbara flank the open window.
In the bathroom off the bedroom, the soft beige color of the marble tub is enhanced by the vivid painted colors above.
Wilma, working for the CoopCulture (which now opens the house to the public), explained to me that O’Doherty once again extols vowels in this painting.
The artist’s acrylics are lined up on the marble sink….
…and a rainbow arches over the doorway leading to the bedroom:
I imagine O’Doherty and Novak knew well that a rainbow can symbolize hope, peace, promise, equality and new beginnings.
As Maria Vittoria Malatesta Pierleoni has written, “The Casa Dipinta is not just a ‘physical’ place but a spiritual one as well, housing the mutual love of the O’Doherty couple as well as their shared passion for Todi and for art which becomes the maximum expression 0f – and a reflection on – a sense of belonging and identity.
From his Celtic roots to our Latin roots, Brian/Patrick reminds us that we are all unique but united, heirs to history in continual change…”
And George Tatge, famous photographer, has generously shared with me his memories of Brian O’Doherty and Barbara Novak:
“Brian and Barbara O’Doherty are two of the most extraordinary and special people I’ve met in my relatively long life.
Brian, artist, art critic, film maker, novelist, but also a doctor. And though he never pursued a career in medicine after graduating in Dublin
– and we have asked him several times for advice and he’s always been spot on! And Barbara, the top expert in 19th century American painting,
a long career teaching at Barnard and also a delicate watercolorist. Not to mention all her wonderful books including several novels.
They are a handsome and beautiful couple, in many ways so different one from the other. Brian the sharp pragmatist with a wild sense of humor and Barbara the gentle
spiritualist. They are loved by the entire town of Todi, which appreciates their opening the Casa Dipinta to anyone interested in learning more about
George also shared with me his photos of the Casa Dipinta:
And I thank George for the information he sent to me on the Casa Dipinta. The last line sharing the artist’s aspirations struck me: “The artist and his wife hope that visitors to the Casa Dipinta will not only enjoy the house as a work of art but that the Casa Dipinta will be the only place on this planet whose inhabitants and visitors can read the ancient Irish language of Ogham.”
(Mille grazie, also, to Wilma at CoopCulture for her assistance.)
Read about Brian O’Doherty
Read more about O’Doherty – and Todi
Read about the Parco di Beverly Pepper
Read about Beverly Pepper’s works – in Todi and also in Assisi
Click here to read about Pepper’s “gentle force”
Read about Todi’s cathedral
Read about Todi’s celebration of patron saint, San Fortunato
Click here to read about Renaissance splendor in Todi
Read about a fascinating Todi medieval church