It would take your grandfather’s hands to explain your hands. Because talent, perhaps, cannot be taught, but only nurtured. There has to be a seed, of course, but also someone who takes care of it. You never wanted to be an artist, Achille, even though that is all you did in life. You gave new meaning to forms, things, to the point of making them common, domestic, even anonymous. That was your aim: to use them so they could be used, until their creator was forgotten. Humilitas is the motto of the House of Borromeo. Every Milanese artisan, architect or artist has this imprinted in his or her genetic code.
In order to exist, stories travel a long road before they reach us. The voyage of the Johnson family from England to Milan was a long one too. They settled here, setting up shop in the early 1800s. James made metal buttons for the army. In 1860 his son Stefano moved the foundry to Corso di Porta Nuova. At number 15. Your grandfather Giacomo, in charge of the plant, worked right here. He had a practical mind and an eye on new developments. He was the first to import the vermeil technique for the medals the foundry produced in everlasting tribute to the local bourgeoisie. Sterling silver plated with 10k gold. Little treasures at an affordable price. Noble without being arrogant. Humilitas, indeed.
It was but a short walk to Brera. A walk taken every day by Giannino, your father, when he studied at the Fine Arts Academy. Maybe considering making one’s living with art, in Milan, wasn’t so discreditable. But the father of Livia, the girl Giannino had met by the lake in Lierna, certainly didn’t approve. He was the principal of a classical high school in Brianza, an almost superhuman authority in those austere years. The last thing he intended to do was to grant his daughter’s hand in marriage to a disreputable bohemian who came from the big city, with his head full of wild ideas. What would people say? But Giannino, like the father, had good hands and a head on his shoulders. An artist, yes, but with a practical bent. “Adelante,” but “con juicio.”He began engraving medals for the Johnson foundry. A job, a salary, a family. A home to organize. And, while he was at it – a tireless worker, but still an artist – a sculpture workshop. Where? At Porta Nuova, obviously.
It takes your father’s passion to explain your own, Achille. You must have roamed around your city in those years, and seen his works, the same works you had watched as they came to life in that workshop at Porta Nuova. If you walked by the Cattolica University there was his Christ the King at the university entrance. If you entered the cathedral you did so through the door sculpted by your father, the one that is always open, so nobody looks at it: the baptism of St. Augustine, yet another story of Milan. On the way back home, ever since you were about nine years old, you trailed your fingers through the water of the fountain of St. Francis, at Piazza Santa Maria degli Angeli. At Porta Nuova, obviously. Art was an everyday thing, a domestic thing for you, a family thing.