A Conversation with Italian Calligrapher Massimo Polello


Where did you grow up and what first sparked your interest in letters?

I grew up in Turin, located in the north-west of Italy. I developed my love for the letters and lettering while studying graphic design in college. I remember my first book how to draw letters with rapidograph pen and rulers, written by Aldo Novarese, a well-known type designer from Turin. I really studied the structure and shapes of the letters Bodoni, Times and from Nebiolo design, which was really good training! But in the first section of this book there was Italic (Cancelleresca) Gothic and Uncial and Scripts alphabets (always drawn by Novarese) that we didn’t studied but that grabbed my attention. And I told myself: “This is what I want to do first!”

What is the first hand that you learned, and which hands resonate with you most today and why?

After years in 1993 the type designer and calligraphy lovers Piero DeMacchi, called two French calligraphers-teachers Jean Larcher and Bernard Arin came in Turin for 5 days workshop two classes, and there I learned my first hand: Copperplate and Roman Trajans with Jean. I still remember after 5 days I was so tired and over-excited for this experience that I had a very high temperature and fever for the next week.

Today I’m still in between the love of two worlds: cursive hands and capitals. I’m definitely most attracted to cursive and all kind of letters that became rhythm and lines.

Which teachers have made the deepest impact on you and your work and why?

After the 5 days week workshop in Turin Mr. Bernard Arin, in the other class, shocked me with his approach to the Italic (he taught this hand) more then the Copperplate and Romans from Jean. So I decided to travel to Toulouse (where Arin was teacher at the Scriptorium School ) and study with him. Today I can consider Bernard my teacher and my mentor for years, he taught me the very essence and the developing of the writing, why the letters are like this today. He taught me the importance of the origin the base of the letters and this is still present in my mind and I’m trying to transfer it to my student too.

Where do you create, and how have you organized your workspace? What is your best time of day, and do you have any particular routines or warm-ups before you begin?

I work every day in my beautiful studio full of light in the heart of Turin, close to the main railway station. This area is a multiethnic and mixed races area full of life, I can feel the “real” life, with a lot problem I know, but creative at the same time. Full of very different shops and restaurants. This contrast really stimulate my coming here every day, for sure not a boring and sleepy place.

My studio is in a courtyard an old stable where in the ‘800 century was “parked” horses. Big windows in a open space. My studio ( I called ABC Atelier) have big tables that I use to work and where my students stay when I give them lessons or offer workshops. I use my studio as art gallery as well, in the last past years I shown my works and artist friends works.

The best time of the day for me is the morning, I’m more concentrate and when I get into my studio I turn on the music, I take a cup of tea and I’m planning my day. This is the best. Not really I use warming up technic. I’m just start to do something, doesn’t matter what but do something. I use to arrive from my home with my bike or by walk if it rain or too cold and I’m lucky because my street to my studio from home is wonderful, I cross the river Po and a big garden and this is the best way to start the day. Then since I think the flow is coming not from the head but from inside I’m just wait……

What are three of the most essential tools of your practice and why?

Three essentials tools?




You know why.

What has been one of your most meaningful commissions or projects? What made this project particularly special, challenging and/or rewarding?

I had the chance to have many interesting projects in my career. Years ago I was commissioned by a great and well know italian director, Luca Ronconi, to project, write all the text, title, signing, direction, for the greatest Art Exhibition for the 150th Anniversary exhibition of the Unification of Italy, "La Bella Italia”. It was a big challenge for me, it took two months of hard work, first for the organization, drafts, project….then on the wall of the exhibition. Kilometers of text, words, only with brush. Then another amazing commission came from Amsterdam and work together with Brody Neuenschwander on the luxury limited edition book for the Rijks Museum.

Could you tell us about your process for creating the lettering in Rijks, Masters of the Golden Age? Did you receive specific direction for the overall project and each text, or did you have a certain amount of creative freedom? What is one of your favourite pieces from the book, and why is it special to you?

I was been contacted by Marcel Wander a very well know Dutch designer on December 2014 if I want take part in a project about small texts next to the masters of the Rijks Museum paintings images for a limited edition book, a volume measuring 70 x 50 cm when closed, with paintings full size

Only after a month me and Brody Neuenschwander are involved in this project.

They sent us spreads pages layout with the design of the double pages of the book with at the corner a sort of "style" took from internet and a little explanation about the "atmosphere" they want on it. So my first font of inspiration was the painting itself. Then the very precise direction they give us. Of course after the first pages done and sent by email (around 45 each) we had token a certain “freedom” to interpretate what they want.

Even is not really perfect I'm very proud of my JEWISH BRIDE page a very big double page copperplate compositions that surprised me it tokes days of works and a lot of paper…, PHILIP AKKERMAN page for the idea and the good marriage with the image, WIM DELVOYE page for the 3D effect that my brush made, and generally for all with the gothic style that I don't love really much that …and OLAF quote for the new and totally invented lettering I made.

But if would possible some changes I will changes all of the first 10/15 sending pages .... I would like change also the position, size in the design of the pages, sometimes very small that make them not really nice.

You will be teaching a course entitled “All Writing Lead Through Rome: Through Rigor and Freedom“ at Rendez-vous. What knowledge and skills will students gain from this experience and how would you describe your style of teaching?

The idea of this topic came to me during a dinner at the past conference in Bellingham while talking with some friends. It’s a kind of “summary” of my last years experience and research. I will be lucky to share this and maybe discover something together with the people will be at the next conference with me in class. I hope they will discover how the writing and experiment on this have at the base the Roman influence. We will do it through the study (obviously) of the Roman Capital shapes and a contemporary hand called Roman Coursive which is in my opinion a “real” version of pure calligraphy. As always in my class (many people know that) I use the historical shape as starting to explore the creative possibilities in every different person I’m working with. We will work with this two hand that represent in one way two aspects of our personality always in contrast: rigors and freedom. I hope everybody will develop the weakest part of both. As always in my workshop I would to finish with the design of an object (book or a box) where put all together the ideas developed during the week.

I don’t really know how describe my style of teaching. After workshops, students most often use the word “patient” to describe me, and I guess this is true. I think everyone is different, so I adapt my teaching to each individual and I try to work with the positive side and potential I see in everyone.

What is the calligraphy community like in Torino and across Italy? What does community mean to you, in the context of the lettering arts?

In my home town Torino since 1992 by the initiative of the type designer Piero De Macchi, exist a calligraphy guild where currently I’m the president called Dal Segno alla Scrittura (From sign to writing), borned at the same time of the calligraphy guild in Milan, ACI. There we have counted hundred of people approach at the world of Calligraphy, with two weekly courses and monthly workshop with National and International calligraphers. We have now more than 150 members. Even if have now a lot of young graphic designers, artists, illustrators then before so than means a small function in the big black hole of the teaching of lettering in the art schools we are now working with the children at primary school where exist another big black hole of the teaching of the writing in the national school system, maybe for me even more important in terms of next adult that should be educated at the beauty of writing.

Outside of calligraphy, what are some of your other interests and hobbies? What is something about you that people might be surprised to learn?

I consider it very important to have other interests out of the calligraphy world. I really do my best to do something very different from letters or similar. I love the cinema, contemporary ballet, theatre, arts, music and I make time to visit exhibitions and go to concerts. I view this like feeding my eyes and my spirit. Another passion is cooking, and as an Italian, I love to eat and cook, so I often cook for myself and my friends and take cooking lessons! Another recent passion? I sing in an amateur choir.

Massimo Polello

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