A Conversation with Italian Calligrapher Massimo Polello

We’ve moved to Northern Italy today, to speak with faculty member Massimo Polello! A calligrapher for over 15 years, Massimo teaches and exhibits internationally and currently serves as the president of Turin’s calligraphy guild Dal Segno alla Scrittura. His calligraphy is seen throughout Master of the Golden Age, a prestigious limited edition volume from the Rijks Museum and he has also published his own book Traité de la Peinture: Extraits. His work has been featured in Letter Arts Review and in the brush lettering issue of Scripsit. In the interview below, you will get a peek inside Massimo’s 19th century atelier, learn more about the process behind the Rijks book and discover why the first workshop he attended left him with a literal fever.

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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 about 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, Uncial and Script alphabets (always drawn by Novarese) that we didn’t study but that grabbed my attention. And I told myself: “This is what I want to do first!”

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

In 1993 Piero DeMacchi (type designer and calligraphy enthusiast), invited French calligraphers Jean Larcher and Bernard Arin to teach in Turin. They taught two classes in five days, and there I learned my first two hands: Copperplate and Roman Trajans with Jean. I still remember after five days I was so tired and over-excited from 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 kinds of letters that become rhythm and lines.

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

After the five day workshop in Turin, Bernard Arin shocked me with his approach to the Italic (he taught this hand) more than the Copperplate and Romans from Jean. I decided to travel to Toulouse (where Arin was teaching at the Scriptorium School) and studied with him. I consider Bernard my teacher and my mentor for years, as he taught me the development of writing and why the letters are like they are today. He taught me the importance of their origin, the base of the letters. This is still present in my mind which I am trying to transfer to my students.

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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 multi-ethnic and mixed races area full of life. I can feel the “real” life, with a lot problems I know, but creative at the same time. It is full of very different shops and restaurants. This contrast really stimulates me coming here every day, for sure not a boring and sleepy place.

My studio is in a courtyard, an old stable that housed horses in the 1800s. It is an open space with big windows. My studio (ABC Atelier) has big tables that I use to work and where my students sit when I give them lessons or offer workshops. I use my studio as an art gallery as well, where in the last few years I have shown both my works and works of artist friends.

The best time of the day for me is the morning, when I can concentrate best. When I get into my studio I turn on the music, I drink a cup of tea and I plan my day. This is the best. I don’t really have warm-up techniques; I just start to do something. It doesn’t matter what but just something. I usually ride my bike to the studio or walk if it’s cold or rainy, I’m lucky because the walk between my home and studio is wonderful. I cross the river Po and a big garden and this is the best way to start the day. I think the flow comes not just from the head, but inside oneself, so I just wait for it.

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

Three essentials tools?




You know why.

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

I’ve had the chance to do many interesting projects in my career. Years ago I was commissioned by well-known Italian director, Luca Ronconi, to project, write all the text, titles and signs for the greatest art exhibition for the 150th anniversary 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, projections… then to work on the wall of the exhibition. I wrote kilometers of words, with only a brush. Another amazing commission came from Amsterdam, to work with Brody Neuenschwander on the luxury limited edition book for the Rijks Museum.

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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 contacted by Marcel Wander (a very well-known Dutch designer) in December 2014, who asked if I wanted to take part in a project involving small texts next to the masters of the Rijks Museum paintings for a limited edition book [click link for video]. The volume would measure 70 x 50 cm when closed, with full page paintings. Only after a month, Brody Neuenschwander and I joined the project.

They sent us spreads of page layouts with the design of the double pages of the book with a little explanation about the “style” and "atmosphere" they wanted. My first inspiration was the painting itself, followed by the very precise direction given. Of course after the first pages were done and sent by email (around 45 each) we had taken a certain “freedom” to interpret their directions.

Even though it is not perfect, I'm very proud of my Jewish Bride page, which is a very big double spread of Copperplate compositions. It surprised me that it took days of work and a lot of paper. I like the Philip Akkerman page for the ideas and marriage of text and image, the Wim Delvoye page for the 3D brush effects and the OIaf quote for the new lettering that I invented.

If it would be possible to make some changes, I would change all of the first 10-15 pages that I sent. I would also like to change the position and size of the design of the pages, which is sometimes very small.

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You will be teaching a course entitled “All Writings Lead to 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 Seattletters conference, 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 knowledge and maybe discover things with my students at Rendez-vous. I hope they will discover how writing and experimentation with these forms have the Roman influence at the base. We will do it through the study 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 classes, I use the historical shapes as a starting point to explore the creative potential in every different person I work with. We will work with these two hands that represent two aspects of our personalities that are always in contrast: rigor and freedom. I hope everyone will develop the weakest part of both. As always in my workshops, I will finish with the design of an object (a book or a box) where we will compile all of the ideas that we developed during the week.

I don’t really know how to 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.

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

Thanks to type designer Piero De Macchi, we’ve had a calligraphy guild in my home town of Turin since 1992. I’m currently the president of Dal Segno alla Scrittura (From Sign to Writing), which was founded at the same time as the calligraphy guild in Milan. We have seen hundreds of people come to the world of calligraphy, through two weekly courses and monthly workshops with national and international calligraphers. We have now more than 150 members, with a lot of young graphic designers, artists, and illustrators. We fill a small part of the black hole, as lettering is not taught in art schools. We also work with primary school students. Teaching writing in the national school system is perhaps even more important, as the next generation needs to be educated about the beauty of writing.

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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 things that are different from the lettering arts. I love the cinema, contemporary ballet, theatre, arts, and music.I make time to visit exhibitions and go to concerts, as it feeds my eyes and 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! Other recent passions? I sing in an amateur choir, and since I have a beautiful garden in my backyard, I love to take care of my lettuce, tomatoes and flowers.

Massimo Polello

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