Monday, 18 April 2011

Favole di Esopo - Topipittori

Fables by Aesop, illustrations by Simone Rea, translation by Bianca Mariano*, Topipittori Editore, March 2011

I had been waiting for the publication of this book for about a year, I had fallen in love with  Simone Rea's artwork at first glance and since then, at regular intervals, I asked Giovanna and Paolo for some news about the book. I must have been a real pain in the neck!

The book was finally published in March, right before the Bologna Children's Book Fair, and to confirm how strange life can be, a few weeks before I had personally met Simone in Rome, during a wonderful laboratory at Orecchio Acerbo Publishing house.

But let's start with order, because today we're talking about what is considered the forerunner of modern fables, and this deserves at least a short introduction.

During the centuries, Aesop's Fables have been translated several times - from Greek to Latin, to medieval versions in vulgar (Isopet or Ysopet) – and revisions; in some cases we could as well say they were re-written, as it was the case with Jean de La Fontaine who rewrote them according to the needs of his times. Also from the iconographic point of view, the Fables have been the source of several interpretations: from the famous New York Public Library's Esopo Mediceo to the one from Augusta, dating the end of 1400, up to the very famous children's version, titled Baby's Own Aesop, by Walter Crane dating 1887, not to forget Milo Winter's and Arthur Rackham's dating the beginning of 1900. To end this quick excursus let me mention one last masterpiece: the interpretation Antonio Frasconi gave of the Fables, for those who can read Italian, Publisher Topipittori wrote this beautiful post on its blog. Several diatribes regarding Fables' paternity took place in time and space: in fact, to its primeval nucleus several additions were made in later epochs, imitating their style, in some cases metrics as well, to the point that the identification of the original Fables became quite difficult to evince. To this purpose I suggest you to take a look at the Fables Pedigree you can find here and to read this article where their classification is thoroughly explained **.

We could talk about Aesop's Fables for days, but let's get to our times because, as it seems, the attention towards this literature's classic hasn't decreased: as an evidence to what I'm saying, let me mention the recent version published by Milan Presse with artwork by Jean-Francois Martin, that was awarded with the Fiction Bologna Ragazzi Award, and the beautiful version object for this post.

For a start, please allow me to make a short evaluation on the Fable's selection the publisher made: we're talking 20 fables, for each one we have a double page spread; amid the selected Fables we find some famous texts, such as The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, The Cat and the Mice, The Fox and the Grapes, together with less usual ones such as The Donkey and the Mule and The Crab and its Mother. A refined selection that has been clearly meditated at length.

And now let's talk about Simone Rea's artwork!

                                                                            The Lion and the Dolphin

The first thing that strikes me while looking at those illustrations is the use of colour: even though there is not much space left for white, Rea's tables are sober and elegant. His colours, peculiar and wisely measured, fill the glance and give us a sense of time suspension: the seraphic azures, at times clear others more material, copious or transparent reds, or the more neutral nuances to whom the illustrator gives the task to soothe the turmoil resulting from other colours. If you notice, white appears in the details: in the dolphin's dress light lace above, or in the chair in the illustration that follows, in the dresses' collars or in the t-shirt and in the frog's face from the last illustration. Another aspect that meets my taste in particular is Simone's sensibility for material, for the scratched, scraped off stroke, that often gives images with a modern tone an air of something more consumed, as if we were observing a film worn by the many projections, as if to underline the infinite repetition of these stories, indirect recall to the Fable's ancient life.

The Monkeys and their Mother

Another important aspect that needs be taken into consideration about Simone’s images is their composition. In fact, in order to maintain a sense of space and lightness, and of course to allow text inclusion, where narrating elements are composite, the heart of image narration plays all around structures that tend to agglomerate, giving to the tables background the task to soothe the scene and to create enough space to insert the text. Framings, always accurately distinct, give reading its rhythm and liveliness. I would also like to emphasize Rea’s incredible synthesis capability when narrating: even if it’s true that the Fables don’t have large texts, on the contrary most of them do have a very succinct one, it is also true that some of these stories entered popular tradition in many countries and, consequently, were enriched with a particularly important cultural and iconic inheritance. Our illustrator’s ability, to my opinion, consists in having inserted with discretion and intelligence some archaic elements re-elaborated in a more topic key.

The Gnat and the Bull

Let me clear this point: Fables, where they formed part of popular cultural patrimony, at first had a purely moral task and, only in a second moment, a pedagogical one, especially from the moment they were designated as an essential element in children’s educational equipment; in both cases the parallel between animal’s and human behaviours is perfectly clear, as much as it’s clear these behaviours were used as an example to communicate a common sense lesson. While observing Rea’s tables it appears quite evident how his playing with some elements, as for instance clothes used to dress animals as if they were men (not a new expedient but still used with remarkable skill), or the insertion of modernity cross-references (I’m thinking for instance at the puzzles magazine you find in The Monkeys and Their Mother ‘s image above, but also at the digital camera in The Frogs' Complaint against the Sun just to name a couple), do contribute in a decisive way to the reader’s identification process and, as a result of this, to an easier assimilation of the message contained in the text. It’s curious to observe how a similar process, in specific animal’s clothing, applied by two contemporary artists, almost the same age, may generate such distinct results: if we take Martin’s Fables illustrated for Milan Presse, and we compare them to Rea’s, we can recognize the similarity of intents that differs in the way these are filtered by the artists both in the chromatic choice, minimal in Martin’s tables, more complex in Rea’s ones, and in the settings: decidedly more retro for the French and more contemporary for the Italian. We’re talking here two excellent interpretations, no doubt. Were I forced to find a small flaw, I would instinctively think that the amazing artworks produced by Martin might be less immediate to a younger reader, that the refinement of his tables, and their reference to artworks from the first decades of the 20th century, might risk to lose that feeling of empathy I fully find in Rea’s artworks. It’s though appropriate to remind that children aren’t a single entity and that, any single one of them perceives and filters images according to his/her own sensibility, therefore my digression right above might be completely useless: what stands out, in the end, is the amazing work they both produced.

One last note goes to the book’s flyleaves: perfect anteroom for what we will find in the internal pages, inhabited by animals-children simply outlined with pastels, gently laid on the page, ready to lead us into this archetypal travel and to bring us back to where they found us, maybe slightly different.

If you’re curious to know more about Simone Rea, you can take a look at his blog.

*    with the exception of The Crow and the Fox, done by Topipittori.
** just for complete information, and if you can read Italian, let me signal as well this extract from Confessioni e battaglie by Carducci where, at point III, he tells about "l'Esopo senese curato dal Targioni e dal Gargani" [Aesop from Siena edited by Targioni and Gargani] that was published by Le Monnier in 1864.

Copyright© text and images, Ed. Topipittori 2011. Images have been published with the Publisher’s permission, any unauthorised reproduction being severely forbidden.


  1. Dear Cris,
    Thank you for this analysis of the two recent Aesop collections. I especially appreciated the sensitive comparison you made between Martin's "French" style and Rea's "modern" Italian style. I liked how you delicately described how children might be more receptive to one stylistic approach over the other. Because children, and readers in general are not monolithic, this may be inconsequential. Still, it is a very important issue that publishers and artists decide very early on in the process of matching talent and design within the publisher's universe of books.

  2. Ho Rob! Thanks to you. I do agree on what you say about the fact that children are not a unique entity and, I'm sure, plenty of readers will fall in love with Martin's version. Also I particularly enjoyed observing how their sensibilities worked on the same tales, how they were able to make them so personal and both so unique. I loved Martin's rarefied images, the few colors he used and how he did, and I loved as well Rea's sense of balance. Well, I could spend ages talking about this! :-)

  3. Of course the "their" in the third sentence was referred to the two illustrators... Sorry!