A. G. Rizzoli: Architect of Heaven

A third individual worthy of discussion is Achilles Rizzoli (1896–1981), an architectural draftsman whose production represents a lifelong obsession with the utopian reconstruction of a troubled past. Widely acclaimed among enthusiasts of idiosyncratic art, Rizzoli stands out as a true outsider artist, “distinguished from the cultural and social mainstream by a compulsive preoccupation” with the construction of a highly “personalized alternate reality” (Hernandez 1997:14). In his work a private world is literally built from the ground up, its fantastic architectural plans reflecting Rizzoli’s struggle to overcome worldly desire in the service of his divinely inspired visions.

The son of Swiss-Italian immigrants living in California’s Marin County, Rizzoli’s early years were marked by tragedy when his father walked into the woods with a borrowed rifle, mysteriously disappearing until his skeletal remains were discovered several decades later. Deeply disturbed by the subsequent unraveling of his family, Rizzoli moved to San Francisco in 1915, eventually taking sole responsibility for his ailing mother. During this time the spectacle and unbridled optimism of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition captured Rizzoli’s imagination. Struck by the transcendent potential of architecture to restore order and beauty in the wake of the ruin caused by the fire and earthquake of 1906, he became increasingly preoccupied with the notion of a utopian existence parallel to his own in which heaven may be made manifest through the hand of the architect. Working towards this end, Rizzoli embarked on a series of literary attempts, including a self-published collection of poems, titled Versified Fiction Romancing Total Love in Vivid Terms of Highly Entertaining Monumental Mediums. Needless to say, it was met with universal indifference, leaving Rizzoli and his mother in dire need of a more dependable source of income.

Relying on the limited formal knowledge of architecture that he acquired from membership in the San Francisco Architectural Club, Rizzoli found employment as a draftsman for an architectural firm where he remained until his retirement. His nights and weekends, however, became singularly devoted to the creation of a grand design for his fantastic ‘Expeau of Magnitude, Magnificence, and Manifestation’, an imaginary exposition filled with structures and ornaments intended to function as elaborate personifications of Rizzoli’s scattered family and scarce friends. Executed in ink on rag paper, these intricate renderings of cathedrals, skyscrapers and monuments are primarily influenced by Beaux-Arts ideals, but freely incorporate flourishes of Romanesque, Renaissance, Art Deco and Art Nouveau motifs as well.

These ‘Symbolizations’, as Rizzoli referred to them, served as a kind of surrogate for the engaged social contact missing from his life following the death of his mother. In them the artist explores an inverted “architectural physiognomy” in which “the conventions of architectural form [become] analogies to the character perceived in his human subjects” (Beardsley 1997:92). In this manner, Rizzoli’s mother is memorialized in the Kathedral, the physical and symbolic heart of the intended exposition. Those few who, out of politeness or curiosity, ventured into his small home to see his drawings became the celebrated subjects of additional monumental structures, with their attributes indelibly heralded in the margins of Rizzoli’s drawings.

At times there is a tangible and unsettling sexuality present in his work, particularly in those dedicated to a handful of neighborhood girls. Although he was a lifelong virgin, as dictated by his profound devotion to the Church, several of his illustrations employ architectural features such as spires, gargoyles, and basins meant to be allusions to genitalia. Lacking a crassness indicative of any potential predatory inclination, Rizzoli’s drawings point to a man struggling to remain chaste in the face of wayward desires. Indeed, much of his work may be seen as awkward attempts at understanding the fundamentals of social interaction so distanced from, and abstracted by his reclusive life style. “Not only an antidote to loneliness, but also the expression of it,” Rizzoli’s architectural projects are imbued with a poignant naiveté that explains his peculiar, and at times inappropriate inquires into “a phenomenon he seems hardly to have known at all: interpersonal relationships” (Beardsley 1997:94).

Another defining characteristic of the artist’s oeuvre is his obsessive integration of text within his drawings, a feature that is typical of outsider art. Employing an elaborate vocabulary of his own invention, Rizzoli filled the margins of his work with strange anagrams and acronyms, offering little information as to how they should be deciphered, thereby constructing an enigmatic and private code that restricts access to his intended mythography (Hernandez 1997:33 and 34). This effect is further compounded by Rizzoli’s fondness for adding commentary and critique to his work, often attributing his production to the talents of imaginary collaborators. While the motivation behind these rhetorical devices is unclear, they hint at an increasing yield to a visionary influence that would engage Rizzoli for the remaining years of his life.

Abandoning his Symbolizations and plot plans in 1944, Rizzoli poured his energies into what he referred to as A.C.E., or AMTE’s [Architecture Made to Entertain’s] Celestial Extravaganza. Comprised of 326 vellum sheets filled with prose, poetry and illustrations of architectural forms, the work is punctuated by visionary episodes and mediumistic transcriptions received from various historical figures and saints. Intended as a third testament of the Bible, Rizzoli wavered in his willingness to take credit for its creation, proudly proclaiming himself the author at times, then undercutting his accomplishment by relegating himself to the role of appointed “transcriber [of] saintly intercessions” (Hernandez 1997:57, after Rizzoli 1966).

Despite nineteen years of steady labor on the A.C.E. sheets, Rizzoli did not live to complete his task. After suffering a stroke in 1977 that left him paralyzed and unable to speak, he was moved by his niece to a convalescent home where he died four years later. Fortunately, the bulk of his work was put into storage by his family where it remained intact, but suffering from neglect, until it was salvaged in the early 1990s by Bonnie Grossman, the owner-director of the Ames Gallery in Berkeley, California. Working with Rizzoli’s surviving kin and an array of historical documents, Grossman was able to piece together the fragments of Rizzoli’s background, providing insight into his carefully guarded life. Through her research, Grossman eventually deciphered much of the word play used by Rizzoli, a key element in following the evolution of his ideas and iconography. Due to her ongoing efforts, Rizzoli may now be seen in the way in which he quietly craved: an extraordinary talent whose private visions and personal sacrifices were driven by the cause of utopian ideals and public delight.

Posted by admin on April 6th, 2007 | Filed in outsider art | Comment now »

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