Nuoro: “Athens of Sardinia”

Visualizza la sezione: Nuoro: “Athens of Sardinia”
Visualizza la sezione: Nuoro: “Athens of Sardinia”


When the young, aspiring writer Grazia Deledda - in her early twenties and unaware that she would have become a Nobel Prize winner - was asked to describe the customs and traditions of the main town of Barbagia, she unhesitatingly defined it as "the most characteristic city of Sardinia". Nuoro, which had always been recognized as a city, was established by statute in 1836. However, this girl who loved literature and the arts and lived in Nuoro in the late 1800s, considered her hometown a noteworthy city not only for its bureaucratic, economic and religious functions, but, above all, for its special cultural ferment. For this reason, she used the words: "The young Sardinian artists jokingly named Nuoro the Athens of Sardinia. Proportionally, it is actually the most cultured and combative town of the Island. We have artists and poets, writers and scholars, some strong and kind young men, who do honor to Sardinia and are also on their way to become famous" to describe Nuoro on the pages of the "Rivista delle Tradizioni Popolari Italiane" directed by Angelo de Gubernatis, who had commissioned the research to Deledda, who debuted with this definition of her hometown, which was destined to become a leitmotiv and a litany.

Who were the people mentioned by this ambitious young girl, who was a novice author at that time, destined to become the future "noble mother" of Nuoro? They weren’t, obviously, the lofty and unapproachable personalities, who had perhaps moved from the island where they were born, or those that had proven their hostility to the creative, political and cultural ideas developed all over Italy and Europe, or the “provincial-minded” people, who could not understand – due to a kind of inferiority complex and self-imposed censorship - a proud regional artistic commitment. When Grazia Deledda wrote about those intellectuals and artists, she knew more than their biographies and the titles of their works (paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs, stories, poetic verses or musical compositions). She already knew, or she was about to know, perfectly even their affectionate, and sometimes cruel, sobriquets, their facial expressions, their gestures, their intonation, their walking style, their physical and aesthetic gait. Those artists - those comrades, those friends - were personalities such as Francesco Ciusa, the first sculptor of the everyday feats of the pastoral life of Barbagia, or Sebastiano Satta and Pasquale Dessanay, poets with a sincere civil and social passion who used their verses to tell Sardinian life through familiar and proudly vernacular linguistic choices; they were eclectic and curious souls, such as Antonio Ballero and Giacinto Satta, who were writers, painters and travelers; they were brave exiles who moved to the African Continent, such as the scholar Francesco Cucca; they were talented and versatile musicians like Priamo Gallisay, who was so ambitious that he dedicated his first opera to Sardinia; they were pioneers of new technologies, such as the photographer Sebastiano Guiso, who became the master of ante litteram amateur reporters, including Priamo Gallisay or Raffaele Ciceri.

The young writer had a creative counterpart within her family: her younger sister, Nicolina, actually became an illustrator and a strong supporter of the so-called minor and applied arts that were gloriously acclaimed only in the mid-1920s thanks to the international Deco. Nicolina expressed her great aesthetic sensitivity within the walls of her home in the district of San Pietro (which became the Museo Deleddiano in 1983) and realized, unlike Sebastiano Satta and Antonio Ballero, the potential of the sculpture La madre dell’ucciso by Francesco Ciusa, who got the attention of international critics on Sardinia and its artists at the Venice Biennale in 1907.

This valuable work was the beginning of a long path that led to the process of recovery of the Sardinian identity, which, during the Belle Epoque, was developed daily in private houses, workshops and ordinary and mundane meeting places - such as the Caffè Tettamanzi, the headquarter of men’s "profane" and public conversations. Artists and leading intellectuals, who lived or worked nearby the ancient Via Majore (the present Corso Garibaldi) actually met there. The most and least important news were known not only through the vox populi (and sometimes gossips) of the city, which was situated at the foot of the mountain Ortobene, the Parnassus of Barbagia, given the many circulating Muses, but also through the newspapers and magazines that, throughout Sardinia and Italy, described what happened or what was about to happen in the field of art. Even the intellectual from Nuoro Attilio Deffenu, who died heroically, yet young, during the Great War, tried, from his house in Milan, to gather and disseminate the reflections and ideas of the intellectuals of the Island, by creating a publication, whose first issue in 1914 was proudly named "Sardinia!" – (even with a final exclamation mark).

Sardegna, Mario Delitala


The important historical and cultural legacy of this unique period of turmoil in a city (and a region) that was still economically disadvantaged, characterized by a rigid class stratification, marked by the socialist political ideas, which gradually turned into revolutionary and autonomist ideologies, was carried out during the twentieth century by many other personalities, born in Nuoro or in nearby villages, who were educated in the island or in the "Continent" (the Italian Peninsula). Although they had moved from the island, sometimes to very distant countries, they personally re-elaborated the inner repertoire of Sardinian rituals and myths of identity that had always been a source of meditation. Some of them were the sculptor Salvatore Fancello, from Dorgali, who prematurely died on the Albanian front during the Second World war, and Costantino Nivola from Orani, who arrived in the USA in 1938 following the issue of racial laws that forced him and his Jewish wife Ruth to leave Italy. Some others were troubled personalities who worked elsewhere in Sardinia or abroad and who purposely returned to the most black and sick "center" of their "Athens" to express a critical reflection on the past, present and future of the city, such as Salvatore Cambosu from Orotelli, who stated his desire for Nuoro’s rebirth and development in his neo-realistic writings in the second half of the 20th century – and the jurist Salvatore Satta, who merciless condemned the city in his work Il giorno del giudizio, which even caused a scandal, published in 1977. This "Athens of Sardinia" was, therefore, a mother, but also a stepmother that had always been able to, and still can, make people think, discuss and divide. They, as citizens of the Barbagia and of the world, had to untie, separate, unravel and spool a tangle of threads, through their public and institutional commitment - such as that of lawyers and politicians like Pietro Mastino and Gonario Pinna – and private, almost domestic, commitment, which could effectively cut and carve the trunk of a tree with many rings - as demonstrated by the painter Francesca "Pupa" Devoto and the eclectic Giovanni Antonio Sulas, "saved souls" (basically solitary) that focused on the research of art and beauty, by keeping in touch with the innovations offered by the debate of the "Short Century" without leaving Nuoro or Sardinia, which, at that time, were both under a process of increasing and unmanageable transformation, subject to the hetero-imposed and hetero-directed and, sometimes, painfully unrecognizable, logic of progress (and profit).

During Belle Époque, a few decades after the Unification of Italy and a few years before the advent of the twentieth century, when she permanently left Nuoro and moved to Rome, the young Grazia Deledda had no doubts: in that moment of special intellectual turmoil and abundant artistic production in her hometown, the latter seemed "the heart of Sardinia”, or even, the symbolization of Sardinia with all its characteristics and "the open field where the incipient civilization fights a silent battle against the odd Sardinian barbarism, so exaggerated overseas". Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, the city can look back and, at the same time, continue to compare its current "state of the art" with the image of its "yesterday". This comparison will undoubtedly lead to a pulsating vivacity, criticism and a desire for openness far beyond those waves which, in the past, were a liquid, yet opaque, barrier, that fomented stereotypes and myths, created respect and fascination, and emanated prejudice and mystery. The magnetic legacy of that joy of being in the world - as citizens of Nuoro, as “barbaricini”, as Sardinians - endorsed by the early writers and illustrators of the Island, is also present, obviously and necessarily changed and updated, in the works of artists, writers, contemporary intellectuals and in all the entrepreneurial experiences, in the institutions, in the museums and in the cultural events that are between tradition and innovation, between local and global.

The need to give a coherent and cohesive concrete book shape to the richness of the debate and (even academic) research in Sardinia and about Sardinia, along with the existence of a literary heritage of novels, short stories and essays, led to the founding of new ad hoc publishing houses in the last decades of the twentieth century - such as Soligraf (since 1977); then Arti Grafiche Solinas, since 1999), Ilisso (since 1985) and Il Maestrale (since 1992) - that not only intended to promote new authors and new topics, but also to publish updated and philologically-refined critical editions of those works that an authentic "Sardinian" library must have had. Their publishing activity was therefore a privilege to the contributions concerning the history, traditions, customs and the archaeological and historical-artistic heritage of the territory. Their publications even included the debuting narrative or poetic works of some of the most important living Sardinian writers, such as the author of Nulla (1997) – “a kind of Spoon River", which was equally influenced by Edgar Lee Masters and by Salvatore Satta’s masterpiece -, Marcello Fois from Nuoro, who was one of the founders and promoters of the Literature Festival “Isola delle Storie”, which has recently proved the role of the small village of Gavoi as international crossroads of prose and poetry, and, lately, even of visual arts.

The variety of these artistic talents effectively emerges thanks to the collections and the artistic directions of the numerous local museums, such as the Museo della Vita e delle Tradizioni popolari sarde (known as the Museo del Costume), which, since its foundation on the hill of Sant’Onofrio in Nuoro between the 1950s and 1960s, has kept the objects and symbols of Sardinian material and immaterial culture and has even been recently renovated and refurbished. The Istituto Superiore Regionale Etnografico (ISRE), founded in 1972 to safeguard and promote research in the field of conservation and restoration of the Sardinian cultural heritage with successful initiatives, such as the recent Festival IsReal (Realistic Film Festival, launched in 2016) and the biennial Sieff (Sardinia International Ethnographic Film Festival, since 1982), which was the “training ground” of some filmmakers such as Salvatore Mereu from Dorgali and Paolo Zucca from Cagliari. Another important museum is the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Nuoro that, in a nineteenth-century palace belonged to Giorgio Asproni and overlooking the square, keeps local artefacts dating back to a period between the Palaeolithic and the Middle Ages. It is located next to another relevant museum, the Museo TRIBU, an artistic environment built in the same location where the old Court was, next to the Cathedral of Santa Maria della Neve, which, since 2010, in addition to the sculptures and ceramics by Francesco Ciusa, kept in the Ciusa’s museum that was founded after the major exhibition of the artist’s great chalks in 2005 – has simultaneously and progressively exhibited the works of the Sardinian painters, illustrators and photographers of the twentieth century recently rediscovered, historicized and canonized by critics. Even the publishing house Ilisso has played a crucial role in this high-profile operation, thanks to its catalogs, monographs and studies that have not only become essential for researchers and amateurs, but have also enriched the literature of Sardinian art over the years. The masterpieces of twentieth-century Sardinian artists are also kept in the Museo MAN, which was founded in 1999 to keep the works of contemporary artists, including young local artists. Even the Galleria Chironi 88, founded on the initiative of Alessandra Piras, was a pioneer showcase for traditional and avant-garde artists (including Giovanni Nonnis, Gino Frogheri and Maria Lai) in the heart of Barbagia, which, between 1966 and the 1990s, risked a cultural involution.

Even local museums, such as the Museo delle Maschere Mediterranee and the MATer (Museo dell’Archeologia e del Territorio) in Mamoiada, the Museo Archeologico and the Museo Civico “Salvatore Fancello” in Dorgali (near the Acquario di Cala Gonone) and, finally, the Museo Nivola in Orani (whose exhibitions periodically include works by foreign artists, in addition to those of “its” Costantino/Antine/Tino) feature this richness and variety, with their numerous exhibitions in line with their cultural heritage and peculiarities.

Nuoro not only spreads the voices and expressions of everyone, "its" artists and its "guests", but it also amplifies, modulates and accompanies them with sounds and harmonies that are so ancient that are cutting-edge: the Ente Musicale of Nuoro, for instance, founded by the singer from Nuoro Antonietta Chironi in 1987, has promoted Jazz Seminars and the International Festival “Nuoro Jazz” for over twenty-five years every summer, which beckon Sardinian and Italian students and young talents in classrooms and in the city, and the most important musicians at international level, including the multi-instrumentalist from Nuoro Gavino Murgia and the trumpeter (who had also been an artistic director for five decades) from Berchidda Paolo Fresu, and, obviously, a transgenerational audience of fans, that have become more and more expert and attentive in listening. This is the typical audience that can be found at the Teatro Eliseo, built in the early 1940s, which has recently become again one of the symbols of Nuoro’s cultural life after its renovation. Its existence proves the interest of the city and the Barbagia for performing arts and the activities of theatre companies, including Bocheteatro (in Nuoro, since 1988) and the Barbariciridicoli (in Ottana, since 1993), that have played an active role in institutional and non-institutional performing contexts.

The decline after the age of Pericles, which clouded the splendor of Greece in the fifth century BC and which was occasionally experienced even by the "Athens of Sardinia" centuries and centuries later during its “complicated” twentieth century, can, thanks to its concrete and passionate commitment, therefore become Sardinia’s spectrum or historical monstrum, that is the image that it doesn’t want or intend to give to the world and even to itself: even if its "Acropolis" was in ruins, Nuoro - along with its cultural District - continues to build its buildings of wisdom, reflection and high divulgation, and invites the world to become not a mere spectator, but one of its actors.

Short bibliography

  • G. DELEDDA, Raccolta delle tradizioni di Nuoro, in “Rivista delle Tradizioni Popolari Italiane”, Roma, 1895; poi Tradizioni popolari di Nuoro, Milano, 1895; Nuoro, Il Maestrale, 1994; Nuoro, Ilisso, 2010;
  • S. SATTA, Il giorno del giudizio, Padova, CEDAM, 1977; Milano, Adelphi, 1979; Nuoro, Ilisso, 1996; Nuoro, Il Maestrale, 2006;
  • E. CORDA, Storia di Nuoro. 1830-1950, Milano, Rusconi, 1987;
  • E. CORDA, Atene Sarda. Storie di vita nuorese. 1886-1946, Milano, Rusconi, 1992;
  • M. CORDA, Corso Garibaldi. Frammenti di cultura nuorese, Nuoro, Il Maestrale, 1994;
  • G. PITITU, Nuoro nella Belle Époque, Cagliari, Edizioni AM&D, 1998;
  • M. CORDA, Elogio del Microcosmo. Saggi di cultura nuorese, Milano, Mondadori, 2001;
  • F. MASALA, Architettura dall’Unità d’Italia alla fine del ‘900, Nuoro, Ilisso, 2001;
  • M. CORDA, L’identità culturale nuorese tra mito e storia, volume primo, Cagliari, Arkadia; 2010;
  • M. CORDA, L’identità culturale nuorese tra mito e storia, volume secondo, Cagliari, Arkadia; 2011;
  • M. CORDA, L’identità culturale nuorese tra mito e storia, volume terzo, Cagliari, Arkadia; 2012

Barbagia; Grazia Deledda; Nobel Prize; 19th century; 20th century; “Rivista delle Tradizioni Popolari Italiane”; Angelo de Gubernatis; Nuoro; Athens of Sardinia; Island; art; visual arts; painting; illustration; sculpture; photography; literature; prose; poetry; music; Francesco Ciusa; Sebastiano Satta; Pasquale Dessanay; Antonio Ballero; Giacinto Satta; Francesco Cucca; Priamo Gallisay; Sardegna; Sebastiano Guiso; Piero Pirari; Raffaele Ciceri; Nicolina Deledda; minor arts; applied arts; Deco; International Deco; 1920; San Pietro district in Nuoro; Museo Deleddiano of Nuoro; Grazia Deledda’s House-Museum in Nuoro; La madre dell’ucciso; Venice Biennale; Belle Époque; Caffè Tettamanzi of Nuoro; via Majore of Nuoro; Corso Garibaldi of Nuoro; Monte Ortobene of Nuoro; Parnassus; Attilio Deffenu; Great War; “Sardegna!”; Salvatore Fancello; Dorgali; Second World War; Costantino Nivola; Orani; USA; Ruth Nivola; Sardinian Neorealism; Salvatore Cambosu; Orotelli; Il giorno del giudizio; Salvatore Satta; Francesca Devoto; “Pupa” Devoto; Giovanni Antonio Sulas; Unification of Italy; Rome; 21st century; tradition; innovation; local; global; publishing industry; Ilisso; Il Maestrale; Arti Grafiche Solinas; Soligraf; history of Sardinia; traditions; customs and traditions; archeology; history of art; Marcello Fois; Nulla; Spoon River; Edgar Lee Masters; 2000s; Festival of Literature “Isola delle Storie”; Gavoi; Museo della Vita e delle Tradizioni popolari sarde of Nuoro; Museo del Costume of Nuoro; Sant’Onofrio Hill in Nuoro; 1950s; 1060s; Istituto Superiore Regionale Etnografico of Nuoro; ISRE of Nuoro; Museo TRIBU. Artistic environment of Nuoro; Ex-Court of Nuoro; Cattedrale di Santa Maria della Neve of Nuoro; Museo Ciusa of Nuoro; Museo MAN of Nuoro; 20th century; contemporary art; Museo Nivola of Orani; Ente Musicale of Nuoro; Antonietta Chironi; Nuoro Jazz Seminars; International Festival “Nuoro Jazz”; Gavino Murgia; Paolo Fresu; theatre; performing arts; Teatro Eliseo of Nuoro; Bocheteatro; Barbariciridicoli; Ottana; decline; age of Pericles; Greece; Greece in the 5th century BC; 5th century BC; Acropolis; Cultural District; Tradizioni popolari di Nuoro in Sardegna; Milano; Padova; CEDAM; Adelphi; Elettrio Corda; Rusconi; Mario Corda; Gianni Pititu; Cagliari; Edizioni AM&D; Mondadori, 2001; Franco Masala; architettura; Arkadia