Elide Cabassi. The Portrait of a unique Italian artist living in Moscow


By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

Wiesbaden, November 2020 – Border Areas” is the title of an extraordinary art exhibition with the works from the Italian Painter Elide Cabassi. The exhibition (October 23rd till 22nd November 2020) was opened in the Moscow State Museum-Cultural Center A.N. Ostrovskij. It got sponsored by the Italian Embassy in Moscow and the “Italian Cultural Institute” a well as with the support from various Russian institutions, among them the “Russian Academy of Fine Arts.” The Introduction for the Catalogue was written by the curators of the exhibition Olga Juŝkova and Maria Gadas. Its title: “Between Italy and Russia – The painting oeuvre of Elide Cabassi.” Forewords for the catalogue were written by Karen Lawrence Terraciano, wife of the Italian Ambassador to the Russian Federation, Pasquale Terracciano, as well as by the director of the Moscow based “Italian Cultural Institute “, Luigina Peddi.

Both Terracciano as well as Peddi express great admiration for the work of the Italian painter, who was born and raised as artist in Italy, particularly in Florence. Since 1995 Elide Cabassi lives as resident in Moscow. Her entire work of art is reflecting an intense artistic “dialogue” between the artists of the Italian 14th century (among them Duccio Bueninsegna 1255-1319; Fra Angelico 1395-1555; and Leonardo da Vinci 1452-1519), and the classical Russian artists, among them the famous Icon painter Andreij Rublev( among his most famous Icons we find “Trinity”; “Archangel Michael” and the “Apostle Paul).” Elide Cabassi conducts the “art of dialogue”, by assimilating not only the various art epochs, including the Italian Renaissance as well as paintings from the Russian Avantgarde, but also the religious philosophy of Pavel Florenskij and Emmanuel Lévinas. Very impressive is also the engagement of Elide Cabassi as art teacher at the “Casa di Mosca”, an orphanage center, where seven years ago Elide Cabassi began to create a “laboratory of art” for orphans who live in very difficult conditions, in order to teach them the art of painting and that way help them to discover the beauty of art for themselves.

The passion which Elide Cabassi shows in her engagement as teacher is the same which also characterizes her entire work of art, in which we can see, as Terracciano observes, that the way in which Elide acts, is similar to the attention she is giving throughout her paintings in the most sublime form to the weak and marginalized people in society, by fighting for justice. “Art can show the capacity of man to transcend conflicts and create out of chaos order and joy.” Another foreword was written by Luigina Peddi, Director of the Italian Cultural Institute in Moscow, who emphasized that we can find in Elides work the “revelation” of masters from the 14th century, sublimated by way of her artistic “intuition”, including philosophers and poets of our time. “She leads a dialogue with all those. The force of beauty is reflected in the work of Elide where light emerges and fuses with space and where new dimensions of internal landscapes are opened.”

Florentine and Russian art tradition

Elides artistic sensitivity was developed in the context of her art studies in Asti and Florence, but it was esthetically innovated by her deep study of Russian art. “The energies of Cabassi that are profoundly Italian have absorbed the multiply and nearly imperceptible variations of light and emotions … She has internalized the Russian Icons and gives an “esthetical testimony of an old and profound friendship between Italy and Russia,” Peddi emphasized.

Elide was born in 1963 in the North of Italy not far away from Brescia, in a miner’s family, being raised together with six brothers and three sisters. Life conditions were very modest and she was the only one to study after acquiring maturity and choosing as profession that of an artist. At the age of 3 Elide and her family moved to Piedmont. After school Elide went to Asti and then to Florence in order to study at the “Academy of fine arts.” Many of the teachers at the time were from the 68 generation, being active in civil society. A deep influence on the formation of her artistic mind was exerted on Elide by Goffredo Trovarelli, who himself had been influenced spiritually by Giorgio Morandi.

Trovarelli became a “compass” for Elide. He was very much attached to classical culture, teaching the traditional painting technique and revealing the secrets of behavior of colors, the chemical particularity of material and the method of working with oil. He transmitted to the pupils that painting is not to follow a “fashion” or to obey the rules of the market. He introduced the pupils to the “history of art” and made them understand to respect great artists of all times especially focusing on Italian history of art. Trovarelli proposed to the pupils to enter in dialogue with the masters of the past. From Giorgio Morandi he had assimilated a classical approach to do a systematic study of nature and in his work he was a “moderate realist.” Still today Elide uses for Water color paper produced by a Sicilian laboratory, other screens were prepared for her by monks from the Russian monastery of Pskov. She also visited the classes given by Stefano Farulli (from the famous music family Farulli known for their “Quartetto Italiano”). Farulli had a large influence on the esthetical taste of Elide during the first phases of her development.

Elide Cabassi, “Rossi cespugli”. Olio su tela, 21×61, 1994

In Florence Elide studied also the works of contemporary painters and the grand masters of 20th century. She was attracted by the works of Paul Klee and the Russian avantgarde. In 1991 she received a scholarship for a study in Moscow, offered to her by the Italian Foreign Ministry to do research about Russian Avantgarde. However this endeavor could not be realized, because at that time, the period after the fall if the Berlin wall and the tectonic changes occurring in Eastern Europe, there was a coup in Moscow.

Elide was interested in different versions of expressionism from the USA and Europa; likewise she studied the poetry of Paul Celan who had lost his entire family in the “Shoah”, as well as the writings of the French philosopher Simone Weil. She also studied the films of great filmmakers such as Bergmann, Rossellini, Pasolini, Visconti and Tarkovskij. She likewise studied Mexican painters such as David Alfari Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and Jose Orozco and felt attracted by the expressionism of the North – in the US this included the works of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Edward Hopper.

From Florence to Moscow

In the year 1992 Cabassi returned to Russia, after having received the ability in Italy to teach as art teacher; she began to work as teacher at the Italian School Costanza Vinci and at a Kindergarten Nr.1835, while interacting as art teacher for various schools. At that time she worked with a group of philosophers, psychologists and linguists from the “Institute for the development of Education”, chaired by Prof. Yuri Gromyko.Elide wrote many articles for the Institute’s publication.

Elide Cabassi, “Omaggio a Giotto”. 1996 Olio su tela. 200×130

Since she wanted to stay in Moscow, Elide at that time wrote letters to the mayor of Moscow Juri Luzkov and to Vladimir Putin, at that time Prime Minister of the Russia Federation, asking them for help concerning her residence stay. To live in such a cultural environment was new, since it was not comparable to art cities like Paris or New York. In Moscow there had been however important personalities such as the painter Marc Chagall, Vassilij Kandinskij, Kazimir Malevic and others. European painters like Henri Matisse returned from Moscow, having been inspired by the wealth of Russian art.

So why would Elide chose Russia as a place to live and work? What fascinated her was its white light, the silence, the huge woods of birch trees and particularly the Russian churches of the North with the Icons. The human wealth, its profound culture and spirituality – all these were the reason to stay in this “country of the soul” as Marina Cvetaeva once wrote.

Elide felt in perfect “tune” with Russia and its culture. Living in Moscow she studied the works of the most important museums of the city. At the same time she made extensive studies of the bible, the works of the well-known Russian Philosopher Pavel Florenskij(1882-1937), as well as the work of Leonardo da Vinci and the famous Icon painter Andreij Rublev (1360-1430). In an essay published in the German Quartely Cultural Magazine “Ibykus” (2002) “My Andreij Rublev” Elide compared the art of Masaccio, Leonardo and Beato Angelico to Russian artists such as the Icon Painter Andreij Rublev. According to her ”these painters share the same aim: The approach and unification of the Divine and the Human.”

Elide Cabassi, “Andreij Rublev”. 1996 Olio su tela. 200×85

It is mentioned in the catalogue that Elide lived for three years in the apartment of the well-known art historian Michael Alpatov (1902-1986). Everything had remained the same in the apartment of Michail Alpatov and she could use his huge library and study his books on art and poetry. Elide came to Russia to immerse in the environment of this country with all its characteristics. What really attracted her is “the incredible human wealth, its culture and profound spirituality.” The country became a laboratory for her artistic activity. Instead of big canvas with acryl she paints more and more with oil colors and gradually the scraper gets replaced with the paintbrush.

Rossi Cespugli” [1994] Ill. Nr. 24 (see above) in the catalog precedes a long series of works in which she experiments the potential of the red color and combines it with other colors. Elide uses color as a principal means to express, very similar to Mark Rothko basic emotions such as tragedy, ecstasy, sadness. Elide works on the color red and white. The red triumphs over death, it’s the Christian symbology of resurrection and in Russia this red / white color often is met in the context of the Russian Icons. In terms of the difference between Italians and Russians, the notion of space in relevant. What attracted Elides attention was what could be called “internal space”. She was fascinated by the severe simplicity of images in the Icons of the School of Novgorod and Pskov and the refinement of the brush. The Novgorod School called forth profound emotions in her. The “Rosso inverno” (ill.28) is painted on red background. For her the reflections of Pavel Florenskij concerning the relation between earth and heaven, between the visible and invisible world became important. According to Florenskij the artist is making an “ascending” movement and the soul nourishes itself by contemplating the essence of the reign of the heavens.

In 1996 two paintings of major importance were made by Elide: “Tribute to Giotto (ill.36 see screenshot) and Andreij Rublev (ill 37- see screenshot above). It’s the painter of Icons whose oeuvre represents one of the peaks of Russian art. The two works were painted in sequence. For Elide this was the moment to express on the screen the encounter of two diverse spaces; the one of the Renaissance and the one of the Russian Icon. Sometime later in the painting “Nostalgia of Leonardo” (2000 – ill.47) this is like revisiting Leonardo’s Anunciamento (1472-1475). Elide expressed a concept of space which is typical for the Italian Renaissance. On the horizon we see woods and trees, rivers and mountains.

Light of the watercolors

The profound sense of “sacred space” is revealed to the artist in Pskov. As a young student she had studied in Asti and Florence the churches of the 12th/13th and 14th century. She was deeply hit by the churches of Pskov – see in particular the painting “North of Russia” (Ill. 95) and she makes a series of water color paintings at the time. For Elide the technique of the Water Color has importance since it is bringing forward a subtle work on color and light. The technique of the Water Color extrapolates across light touches of the brush and produces the most subtle tones of color. In Pskov the white walls of the Church receive reflections from the snow and the shadows and around this there is silent space, it’s a silent life.

Elide Cabassi, “Notte d’autunno”. 2002 Acquerello su carta di cotone. 23×18

There is a small icon of Novgorod “Angelo dai capelli d’oro” (XII secolo) which can be looked at in the St Petersburg Museum. It inspired Elide to paint “Angelo II (2012, Ill 73), a variation on the subject of Duccio di Buoninsegna.

Art as pedagogical method

How is it possible that an Italian artist founded a laboratory in an orphanage house “La Nostra casa” in Moscow? The answer is given by the director of the house Vadim Mansov who recalls that Elide began her education work at the orphanage center “La nostra casa” 7 years ago. She managed with her pedagogical method to transform the entire place by constructing a kind of “Italian laboratory” which radiates in terms of colors and furniture an Italian atmosphere.

Elide Cabassi, “Angelo II”. 2012 Ispirato alla Maestà di Duccio Olio su tela. 35×31

As the Director put it, there were children with many problems in the Casa di Moscow. When a child with great problems enters the art laboratory, this child may not become and artist, but “Elide is capable to show what is inside the person. She emanates human warmth and brings forth in each child something special which expresses itself in the child’s artistic work. (…) I would never have thought that one of our children would reach the level of painting Icons. But there is a pupil who learned from Elide to do this with great passion and so he decided to continue his studies at an art school.”

The author of this article personally got to know and appreciate Elide Cabassi in October 2001 in Munich, where at the time the Italian Cultural Institute had organized an exhibition with Elide Cabassi’s paintings under the title “Le soglie dell’essere”.

All the illustrations of the present article are from the catalogue o the exposition


23 ottobre – 22 novembre 2020
Museo Statale – Centro Culturale «Integrazione» A. N. Ostrovskij
ul. Tverskaya, 14, Mosca


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