Modigliani the Prince by Angelo Longoni
‘There is disorder all around me. Disorder is not creative. That’s a falsity that had me for a long time, but now I know it’s not true. Order is what I need, but it’s too late now. I used to despise it, run away from it. Order is bourgeois, I used to say, for people with no imagination. Everyone thought that. But no, having order in your heart and mind can save your life, and that of the people around you. Order is the pleasure of reason, and it brings calm. Strong emotions - injustice, fear, anger and passion - are the children of chaos and they have never taken me to a good place.’
Tortured artist, alcohol-fuelled genius, lover of women. There is no lack of information out there about Amedeo Modigliani’s life, nor forms in which it is conveyed. There are the biographies of Secrest (2011) and Meyers (2006), countless volumes on his paintings, Gray’s epic poem (1993), Colic’s novel and radio play covering his final years (2012). And it isn’t difficult to find a plethora of spurious anecdotes and scandalous myths about the ‘chaotic’ and ‘drug-fuelled’ Modì (his nickname in France, homonym of maudit, meaning 'wretched'). What is lacking, though, is a novel that restores Modigliani with humanity and nuance. He may have been a chaotic alcoholic, especially nearing the end of his life, but he was also a sensitive child with typhus, a passionate and loving son, an eleven-year old diagnosed with a life-threatening disease, a naive and sincere young man in a terrifying new country, a vehemently determined sculptor, a heart-broken adult, a loving partner and father. Angelo Longoni’s new book introduces us to Modigliani in a more intimate, empathetic and three-dimensional way than we’ve ever known him before, and restores him with a sense of the human.
Longoni is a well-known Italian playwright, film director, screenwriter and author. His previous novels include Siamo solo noi (2006), Vita (2012) and L'amore migliora la vita (2018), but he has been fascinated by the life of Modigliani since he read about Bohemian Paris as a young boy, and over the last few years has had access to the Modigliani archive and written a screenplay as well as this beautiful book.
This is not another biography. Longoni calls Modigliani The Prince a ‘biographic novel’, and while he has played the role of biographer in his rigorous research, he has then taken the facts, the people, the true juicy anecdotes and the professional and personal successes and failures, added a sprinkling of imagination where necessary, and reconstructed Modigliani’s life, from birth to death, in all its depth and complexity. The narrative is a mosaic of first-person voices: we enter the minds of Modigliani himself and, among others, his intelligent and supportive mother Eugénie, his friend and lover Kiki de Montparnasse, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova who falls in love with him while on her honeymoon, his friend and first patron Paul Alexandre, and his final partner Jeanne Hébuterne, who has the story’s most tragic ending. The result of this structure is a comprehensive, entertaining and insightful exploration of the psychology of an exceptionally talented person who knew his life would be short since a time when he was still too young to understand.
Kiki de Montparnasse: ‘A warm bowl of soup, a glass of wine and a clean bed. That is beauty. If your art can give you those things, then live in your art. I prefer life.’
Amedeo: ‘Stupid girl. Art is so much more bearable than life.’
A frustrated child in Livorno, a determined artist in Paris, a depressed man in his twenties bottling up a secret that pushes him to drugs, sex and alcohol. This novel is a fresh and much-needed update on the existing Modigliani literature. Today's world requires writing about the men of the past that debunks myths and presents their whole story, from the bottom up. We need books that give us insight into their psychology, and that allow us to begin to understand the realities of figures whose messed-up-ness has, until now, been too glamorous to be relatable.
'Why are artists unable to be happy? It’s paradoxical but their pain is even more acute during successful periods. Of course it isn’t the case for all artists, there are exceptions, but I have seen that there is, in their soul, a knot they can’t untie. What it is, I don’t know. Dissatisfaction is a disease, a profound and dense sadness that envelops everything and prevents the production of positive thoughts. I am scared.’
Aside from Modigliani the Prince being an important and timely update to literature on the artist (it has been almost ten years now, after all), it was frankly a romp of a read. Longoni makes a previously dark and unrelatable world light, fascinating, funny, philosophical and eminently accessible all at once.
'The more I get to know him, the more I can appreciate him. He is the union of youth, beauty, vigour and sincerity. Mostly sincerity. Not that it is always good to be too sincere, because then you risk hurting people. But Amedeo, instead of lying, stays silent, says nothing. One day he confessed to me: “Kiki, I am easy to understand. When I don’t speak it’s because I don’t have an opinion, or because I'm still forming it. Otherwise, it’s to avoid lying."'
The book appears long (600 pages, 107 chapters) and, in Cecilia Mariani’s words, ‘one might be tempted to think that we don’t need another book on Modigliani. But they would be wrong, because Modigliani The Prince is not the virtuosity of a soloist looking for some easy glory, but an original attempt to restore in prose the polyphony of voices that accompanied the artist on his existential and artistic journey.’ The prose flows freely, the narrative never stagnates, and, like Modigliani's life (excuse the crass analogy), it draws to a close before we want it to.
Reviews from Italy
‘Longoni becomes Modigliani, he makes us feel his impulses and torments in all their intensity.’ Rai Cultura
‘A portrait as compelling as the most passionate of novels, but never straying from reliable documentation and rigorous fidelity to the historical truth.’ Elisabetta Favale, Linkiesta
English Rights Available
Rights queries: Giunti
Contact: LeeAnn Bortolussi, firstname.lastname@example.org
Sample translation available
[Translations in this review all my own]