The empty streets of Milan seem alien to those used to the bustling energy of the city; during the pandemic a quick trip to the supermarket becomes a jarringly foreign act. Milan’s artistic heart is still beating, however. It may feel a little far away, drowned out by the noise of the media, but the creative spirit of the city is perhaps stronger than ever in these uncertain times. Creativity is flourishing behind every window of every apartment that has been turned into a makeshift studio, office and gym in a matter of days.
In Italy, children grow up learning about the works of Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael, masters of a Renaissance era ushered in by the plague; in recent weeks, many Italian residents have danced on balconies and improvised living room concerts. Here, there is an understanding that art is a way of survival, and some of Milan’s artists are determined to share this message.
Award-winning illustrator Emiliano Ponzi is one of them. With the help of Spazio Fuori Luogo, a creative space in Milan, and the online magazine Open, he has created the art project Covid Uncovered. “Covid Uncovered says a lot about the role of art,” he says. “It serves as a mirror of the times, but it also actively engages with the communities the artists belong to.”
The project invited 19 creatives – virtually gathering from the safety of their own homes – to produce a life drawing, each featuring a nude figure wearing only a type of face protection, whether a scarf or army-grade gas mask. These works of art, which remind viewers that beauty can be found even in the most difficult of times, will be on auction until 3 April and all the proceeds will go to support the Italian Red Cross.
As Ponzi explains, Covid Uncovered has a double aim. On one side, it is creating a tangible difference, providing financial help. On the other, it’s encouraging artists from all over the world to take part in the project and use the hashtag #artists_vs_covid19, thus uniting a community that is, for now, physically isolated.
“Staying home doesn’t mean staying still,” says Irene Bruni. Not only did her creative hub Spazio Fuori Luogo serve as the base for the Covid Uncovered project, but it is also providing free entertainment (and education) by moving its popular life-drawing sessions online for the time being. Those who are missing the part-art class, part-aperitivo event are welcomed into the creative space, even if only through their computer screens. Film clips and photographs are shared, and the artists are challenged to draw them as they would with a real life model. More importantly, Bruni encourages everyone to share their work on the Skype chat and on Instagram. “Above everything else, we didn’t want to lose the sense of community those nights created,” she says. “Even during the most difficult moments, I think that every single one of us could, and should, do something, with our own resources and using our own skills. This is how we can help others, and, in turn, ourselves.”
Twice a month, women from all over Milan meet in a different location – from bars to studios – to spend the night drawing with a special guest as part of Ladies Drawing Nights. The group is ever-changing, giving everyone the chance to attend the limited-admission events at least once; through their Instagram profile and brand-new website, the community camaraderie is kept strong.
With bars closing down and public gatherings being discouraged, it seemed likely that Claudia Alexandrino and Martina Elisa Cecchi’s Ladies Drawing Nights, which had become a staple of Milan’s creative scene, would have to be put on hold. However, the pair saw the lockdown as a way to make the event more inclusive, admitting more budding artists from all over the world. “We wanted to create a weekly event to forget about this crazy situation and focus on art,” Alexandrino explains. “We also saw it as an opportunity to open the gathering to women who were not based in Milan.” Although their focus remains on Italian illustrators, they’re now able to involve guests from further afield, like Berlin-based Elenia Beretta.
Whether it’s professional illustrators raising money for medical organisations, or those who are picking up a brush for the first time out of boredom, Milan’s artists are showing the world that creativity can’t be limited by brick walls. “When we dust off our empty offices and are born again from our own ashes, it will be a beautiful day,” Emiliano Ponzi says, and with paint-stained fingers, it is a little bit easier to believe him.