Ricardo Cinalli, artist
When artist Ricardo Cinalli graduated from the University of Rosario in Argentina, a mentor offered to introduce him to Salvador Dali, if Ricardo was prepared to travel to London. In 1973, travelling by boat across the Atlantic to Barcelona in anticipation of encountering his hero, Ricardo was unfortunately delayed by two whole weeks and when he arrived in London, Dali was gone – but instead he discovered a whole new life.
At a party, Ricardo met Eric Elstob who was buying a house in Fournier St, opening the door to a surreal world of an entirely different nature. “We came to Spitalfields on a very depressing day. My God, it was a dump! I said to Eric, ‘Are you crazy?’ It was overwhelming – the market, the rats, the prostitutes and the meths drinkers outside the house. And the minute he opened the door I could see the place was in a horrible condition. But Eric explained to me to the history of the Huguenots, and the bells in the church rang and suddenly I understood the magic. He said to me, ‘You are invited to join my life’s project to restore this house.’ I had nothing to lose, so I said ‘Yes.’ He was a brave man to want to come and live here when no-one was interested. We had no money, we did all the work ourselves.”
Sitting comfortably in a green leather chair rescued from the Market Cafe, Ricardo speaks lyrically about his memorable introduction to Spitalfields, now these Herculean labours are safely in the past. It was an era when an imaginative few first recognised the beauty in the neglected houses and set about restoring them by their own labours, as Ricardo and Eric did at 14 Fournier St, taking seven years to bring it to conclusion.“It was a very exciting time, but for a person like myself it was very difficult, because I wasn’t used to this kind of dereliction, I was brought up in a house with ceilings and floors. We restored these houses with our own hands. Gilbert & George next door, they restored the panels one by one personally. To me it was unthinkable that I could do that, I was a painter, an artist. I came from a petit bourgeois background where you get someone else to do it. Yet I really had a fantastic time – it was horrible sometimes but there were moments of great joy too. And in the process I learnt something of the history of old London.”
After pausing to collect his thoughts silently,“I did that,” said Ricardo philosophically, gesturing towards Fournier St,” and then I did this,” he continued, referring to the house in Puma Court where he lives today. “And then I said, ‘Enough is enough!’”, he added, adopting the understated heroic tone of a Roman emperor reflecting on past victories, a role that suits his gracious nature and venerable Latin features perfectly.
Until this week, I only knew Ricardo Cinalli from his portrait on one of Simon Pettet’s tiles at Dennis Severs House, so I was exhilarated to walk into his five metre by five metre cube studio, dug into the ground beneath his narrow old house in Puma Court, complete with a glass pyramid ceiling looking up towards the lofty spire of Christ Church, Spitalfields. With supreme politesse, Ricardo opened the panel set into the floor of the studio to show me all the proud artefacts that he found in the construction of his studio, which are preserved there. As he dug down, Ricardo realised he was excavating a rubbish dump, with broken ceramics stretching from the sixteenth to the nineteeth century, innumerable oyster shells and clay pipes, rollers used by men in the eighteenth century to curl their wigs and even a pot of perfume with an address in Paris - once belonging to one of those Huguenot weavers that Eric Elstob first told Ricardo about, so many years before.
Working in his Spitalfields studio, Ricardo creates spirited and passionate paintings that are Baroque in their emotionalism and Surrealist in their imaginative extravagance. Over a career spanning more than thirty years, he has become internationally renowned for his works on canvas, his huge pastel drawings, his theatre designs and his murals which include a vast fresco in a cathedral in Umbria and now his magnum opus – more than five years in the making – a giant fresco covering all the walls of a custom-built edifice in Punta del Este in Uruguay. An Argentinian of Italian descent, with his modest manners and ambitious paintings, Ricardo convincingly incarnates the spirit of his Renaissance predecessors in the art of fresco.
Ricardo led me from his minimalist studio into the tiny old house balanced on top of it. We ascended a narrow staircase with trompe l’oeil panelling into a living room lined with actual wooden panelling rescued from the former synagogue in Fournier St. Each floor comprises just one room and on the next storey is Ricardo’s bedroom and bathroom, all in one space, with every surface painted with classical designs. Finally, we reached the kitchen under the eaves with windows on both sides – like the foc’sle of a ship – allowing us exciting views in both directions over the roofscape of Spitalfields.
As we drank our tea quietly, gazing up from the kitchen window to the spire that overshadows the house, Ricardo told me the story of how his cat “Dolce” went missing when he was living in Fournier St, while the church was being renovated. One still moonlit night, Ricardo heard a distant “miaow” coming from high up. Cats will always climb upwards, and Dolce was found at last, stuck at the top of the spire.
“Spitalfields has some magic element, don’t you think?” Ricardo proposed delicately with a sympathetic smile, casting his deep brown eyes contemplatively upwards to Hawksmoor’s bizarre edifice looming over us. Seeing it through Ricardo’s eyes, from his sunlit painted kitchen, at the top of this narrow house, perched above his extraordinary cube studio with the pyramid on the roof, it was only natural to agree. Ricardo Cinalli never met Salvador Dali but he found his own magic instead, here in Spitalfields.
In Ricardo Cinalli’s giant mural-in-progress in Uruguay, entitled “Humanistic Homage to the Millennium,” the figures are eight metres high. Click on this image to enlarge.
The glass pyramid on the roof of Ricardo Cinalli’s Spitalfields studio.
Banana boxes that are souvenirs of the seven years Ricardo spent restoring 14 Fournier St.
Finds discovered while digging the hole for the studio. Note the eighteenth century clay curlers for men’s wigs and the Huguenot perfume pot from Paris.
Looking towards Fournier St from the rear of Puma Court.