Virulentia by Aldo Braibanti and Transfert per Camera by Alberto Grifi

Transfert per camera verso Virulentia, directed by Alberto Grifi, 1967. Close-up of Aldo Braibanti.

The 14th of July 2018 will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Aldo Braibanti‘s sentencing to nine years of prison, accused of having exploited two young men, Pier Carlo Toscani and Giovanni Sanfratello,1 and subjected them “to his own power, cowing them into a state of total subjugation”. Aldo Braibanti was a poet, a philosopher, a myrmecologist, a composer of collages and assemblages, a scriptwriter for radio and cinema, an author and director for the theatre: born in 1922 in Fiorenzuola d’Arda (Piacenza), he graduated in philosophy from the University of Florence. During World War Two, he was a member of the Florentine Resistance, and was twice arrested and tortured by the Fascist police who burned everything he had written up to that moment. From 1947 to 1953, he founded a polyvalent art centre at Torrione Farnese in Castell’Arquato (Piacenza) together with the brothers Renzo and Sylvano Bussotti and other friends, before moving to Rome in 1962 with Giovanni Sanfratello, with whom he had an affair that was sadly brought to an end by scandal, and when Sanfratello was kidnapped and committed, against his will, to a mental hospital in 1964.2  Braibanti’s sentence was reduced in 1968 to two years thanks to his anti-Fascist activity; however, the court case he was involved in, which was ascertainably spurious in the light of the accusations, the backgrounds of the accusers and the words spoken in his defense by Italian intellectuals of the time,3 succeeded in one fell swoop in claiming far more than one victim.

At that time, Braibanti was working hard on a complex theatrical operation “in several phases” called Virulentia, which was drastically interrupted by the sentence against him. When he moved to Rome, Braibanti began to engage with the practice of theatre, capitalizing on the ideas he had developed during his time at Torrione Farnese, where he composed pièces and drafted screenplays which were gathered in the four-volume work, Circo.4 In the capital city, he gathered around him artists from the avant-garde of theatre, literature, painting, music and film, assembling a heterogeneous group of collaborators, such as: Giancarlo Nanni and Memé Perlini, his assistant directors, along with Ermanno Agatti, Lou Castel, Carlo Cecchi, Cale Cogik, Sergio Doria, Lidjia Yuravic, Anita Masini, Gianni Proiettis, Isabel Ruth, Manuela Kustermann, Gioacchino Saitto, Dominot Schreiber, Massimo Sarchielli, Patrizia Vicinelli and Alberto Grifi.

In his autobiographical reminiscences, Braibanti used to define his collaborators as theatre “professionals”, while “the theatre operation became a chorus in which the choryphaeus was the direction”: the text was understood as a “work open in all directions”, in the context of a dialogue “between director and actor, that built on the opening lines proposed by the director as author”, identifying “the place of theatre” with ” workshop experimentation”, because he considered workshop practice to be indivisible from the practice of theatre. Braibanti frequently underscored the maieutic function he attributed to the role of the director, just as he often insisted on the intention to merge theatre and cinema, which he considered to have “more affinities than differences”, seeking “the exit doors from the theatre” and from the “theatre cavity”.

More specifically, Virulentia was composed of ten “Bandi”, a “series of independent monographic performances which were a prelude to the final performance”, presented in Rome in various contexts starting in 1965, and all sharing one major theme: “the radical and non-violent struggle against all violence, especially in its most insidious form, hidden persuasion “.

Transfert per camera verso Virulentia, directed by Alberto Grifi, 1967. Images from the fourth Bando, on the beach at Ostia.

“Bando”, literally, was to mean announcement, a crier’s proclamation, the song of the herald […] The first Bando described the birth of the names of things, and took place simultaneously in four different non-theatre venues. The second Bando focused on fear, and was held in my then-assistant Giancarlo Nanni’s large painter’s studio. The third was based on Reich’s “orgone”,  and was performed in a proletarian circle, where I also held an exhibition of collages with Gianpaolo Berto. The Bando led to a debate as if it were a natural complement. The fourth Bando took place on the beach at Ostia, the fifth in the piazza at Ostia Antica, and the sixth and seventh in the Teatro del Leopardo, using all of its spaces. The fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh Bando all shared the same theme, play, “enjoyable” play (“diletto”), in all its variations, including its resolution of the social “crime” (“delitto”).  The eighth Bando centred on the theme of ceremonials, starting with the Japanese tea ritual. But this Bando, as well as the ninth about hidden persuasion, was never performed in public […]. During the two years I spent in prison, I got used to considering my own constrained situation as the ninth Bando […]. The tenth Bando was to be the final performance […]. The actors in the Bandi were not professionals: I selected them personally on the basis of auditions focusing on the possibility of dialogue. The audience too was selected, and limited: the first Bando was exclusively for journalists, the second for painters, the third for workers, the fourth for children, the fifth, sixth and seventh for musicians. The actor performed in the middle of the audience, and no provocations were included. […]  I operated personally among the actors, seeking to perform the role of coryphaeus, either with a partner, or in a direct dialogue with the other professionals.5

Transfert per camera verso Virulentia, directed by Alberto Grifi, 1967. Close-up of Lidjia Yuravic.

The author also refers to the “practice of free processes”: “processes in which the director engaged with the stage professional” that led to the script as the product of a series of improvisations. Braibanti speaks of a performance that “began on the first day of the workshop”; of work sessions that were in fact “an entire performance” with guests that “filled the image of an audience”; of rehearsals that “would be integrated, like the individual cells of an organism” and lead to the “final performance”, i.e. to the “rehearsal that the director considered to be more mature and integrated”; of the “drastic downscaling of man, of his body and his culture” that the director demanded of his actors, putting them in the “provocative situation of  a cultural strip-tease”, gradually eliminating “the various degrees of exhibition” until they achieved a sort of “regression into childhood “. The rehearsals were held prevalently in Braibanti’s home in Via Portico d’Ottavia, where the director asked the professionals to experiment with their own action, to “create something that would be their own object”, a “fetish”, “something inappropriate”. These quotations derive from conversations I had with Giaocchino Saitto and Manuela Kustermann, who took part in this experience of which all traces seem to have vanished, and which appears difficult to reconstruct, as no scripts or reviews have survived.

However one of the professionals who participated in Virulentia was Alberto Grifi, a director and filmmaker who in 1967 made an audiovisual reportage on the rehearsals and the Bandi titled Transfert per camera verso Virulentia. This audiovisual piece, lasting about 15 minutes, was made by editing video and audio fragments recorded by Grifi, who agreed with Braibanti to film a documentary of the entire operation. But Braibanti didn’t like Trasfert because it contained private scenes out of context, and he in fact took his distance from this “short work”; Grifi then edited Transfert in several different versions, showing them on sporadic occasions to galvanize public opinion about Braibanti’s trial and sentence, but failed to get any positive response. A video of Transfert per camera may be seen on Youtube, uploaded by the Associazione Grifi channel: the narrating voice of Alessandra Vanzi, who reads an excerpt from an article Braibanti wrote in 1964 Formiche, uomini e macchine,6 confirms that this is a later re-editing of the original. In any case Transfert is now the most evident vestige, one of the easiest to find, of Braibanti’s work with the professionals for the Bandi that were staged between 1965 and 1967. The images show the rehearsals in the home in Via Portico d’Ottavia, in which the actors may be seen improvising and developing physical and vocal scores, or intent on articulating or pronouncing the words of poetic texts, or the Bandi on the beach at Ostia and in the Teatro del Leopardo; while the sound editing constantly overlaps the recorded voices of the actors with Braibanti’s voice to serve as a metacomment for the images. Among the phrases that may be heard, it is possible to distinguish excerpts from Giornale per mezzo secolo, a composite text included in Circo: this makes it possible to postulate that some of the works contained in that collection may have been used for the script or draft of Virulentia.

Transfert per camera verso Virulentia, directed by Alberto Grifi, 1967. Images from the fourth Bando, on the beach at Ostia. In the forefront, Lou Castel and Dominot Schreiber.

Two other audiovisual works by Grifi may be considered as further tributes to Braibanti by the Roman filmmaker: Il grande freddo in 1971, dedicated to artifice in artistic experimentation, features the same curved mirror that was filmed in Transfert per camera; Orgonauti, evviva!, made between 1968 and 1970, the title of which clearly refers to the orgonic theories of Wilhelm Reich that inspired the third Bando, features Gioacchino Saitto, and a narrating voice pronounces words from the same excerpt of Formiche, uomini e macchine that was heard in Trasfert.

Transfert per camera verso Virulentia, directed by Alberto Grifi, 1967. Images from the fourth Bando, on the beach at Ostia. In the forefront Dominot Schreiber.

Alberto Grifi has often spoken of the initiatives he promoted during those years, along with painter Giordano Falzoni and actress Patrizia Vicinelli, who worked in Virulentia, to raise awareness about the Braibanti case, but then in 1968, Grifi too was arrested and condemned to two years in prison for selling drugs, while in April of that year Patrizia Vicinelli was condemned to tenth months in prison and escaped to live in hiding in Morocco for eleven years.7 The trials of Braibanti, Grifi and Vicinelli still raise a series of questions today, the answers to which may not be found in simple acts or eyewitness accounts; many gaps remain with regards to their work in common, or their work with other professionals in Virulentia, of which, as has been ascertained, only fragmentary, though extremely valuable, traces remain. It is certainly legitimate to assert that the shared artistic and human experience of this variegated ensemble, which met for months in Via Portico d’Ottavia to create a total performance that would break through the narrow halls of traditional theatre cavities, illuminated a path that others would later have the good fortune to follow, but which at that time, was feared by most.

Photography courtesy of Associazione culturale Alberto Grifi: