In 1987, Exploratorium photographer Susan Schwartzenberg went to Pontito to photograph the scenes of many of Magnani's paintings. The paintings and photos were shown in 1988, when the Exploratorium first began investigating the subject of Memory. Today, the museum is creating a new set of exhibits and experiences to explore human memory. Franco Magnani's extraordinary paintings, and Susan Schwartzenberg's telling photographs, will be featured at the upcoming exhibition, which opens in February, 1998.

Visualizing the Past

We sit in the kitchen of Franco's house in San Bruno, a suburban community south of San Francisco with a terrain somewhat reminiscent of the Italy of his youth. Franco disappears periodically into other rooms and comes back with paintings of Pontito. A lanky man with a ruddy, angular face, he tells his stories of the town with an almost childlike enthusiasm, pointing out landmarks in the paintings. He needs little prompting to jump from one painting, one story, to another.


Magnani's first painting of Pontito, made almost a decade after he left, was of his house. It is one of the more distorted and expressionistic of the painting and probably reflects some of the homesickness he was feeling at the time.

Franco's first painting of Pontito shows the house in which he was born in 1934. A tangle of memories pertain to that house, mostly revolving around his mother. His father died in 1942, when Italy was in the throes of war and depression. His mother went to work in the family fields, while the five children helped with chores. The family often went hungry. Franco understandably speaks of that period of his life as "rough times." Yet he says that he remembers not so much the suffering of those years as the sense of purpose and intensity with which the family lived.


Recently, best selling author and neurologist Oliver Sacks, who wrote about Magnani in his book An Anthropoligist on Mars, talked to us about Magnani's work. The RealAudio clip that appears here is the first of many that appear throughout this story. In this clip, Oliver Sacks speaks of Franco's childhood. Please select either 28.8 or 14.4. If you need the RealAudio player click on the Real Audio selection.

A Memory Artist


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 Memory - ©1998 The Exploratorium