Wild at Heart: Antonio Ligabue

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Antonio Ligabue was a major 20th-century naive artist.

Antonio Ligabue was self-taught, he has mostly painted subjects that portray wild and exotic animals. The artist expressed in his works the emotions that he was unable to communicate orally. He did not make use of models and painted from his distinctive visual memory: the scenes that most impressed him were reworked through his artistic filter. Childhood memories, landscapes, daily episodes, films, postcards, and books became part of his iconographic heritage. These sources of inspiration were combined with a more “sophisticated” knowledge, acquired from prints or art publications, mainly Vincent van Gogh, Gustav Klimt, Fauvism, and the German Expressionists, with whom some of his paintings have aesthetic and stylistic analogies. Among the various subjects, Ligabue preferred to portray animals, both domestic and exotic, in situations of calm or tension (ambushes, aggressions, fights); scenes of daily life (fields and plowing), Swiss landscapes, and hunting.

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Antonio Ligabue


Antonio Ligabue was born in Zurich, Switzerland, on December 18, 1899, to Maria Elisabetta Costa. On January 18, 1901, his mother married Bonfiglio Laccabue, who on March 10 recognized the child by giving him his surname.

Ligabue never lived with his real family: since September 1900, he was assigned to Johannes Valentin Göbel and Elise Hanselmann, a childless couple of Swiss Germans, whom the artist always considered as his parents; in particular, the artist had a deep, though troubled, bond with Elise. Ligabue was placed in several classrooms due to his academic difficulties throughout elementary school.


In September 1913, he was entrusted to Johannes Valentin Göbel and Elise Hanselmann. Because of the bad economic conditions, Ligabue had suffered from vitamin shortages and rickets since childhood, and his physical growth stalled, leaving permanent scars on Ligabue’s face. His problematic behavior and academic difficulties caused him to shift schools multiple times: first in San Gallo, then in Tablat, and ultimately in an evangelical school in Marbach, from which he was dismissed in May 1915 due to his blasphemous practices. However, Ligabue learned to read at a certain pace at school, and even if he was unable to do arithmetic and writing, he found continual comfort in painting. Later, he relocated to Staad with his adoptive family, where he had a nomadic existence, occasionally working as a farm laborer.


He was hospitalized for the first time at a mental institution in Pfäfers between January and April 1917, following a serious nervous collapse. He was expelled from Switzerland in 1919 after hitting Hanselmann during a fight. He was transferred from Chiasso to Gualtieri, the birthplace of Bonfiglio Leccabue, but he didn’t speak any Italian and fled, attempting to return to Switzerland. When he returned to Gualtieri, he was assisted by the Hospice of Mendicità Carri. In 1920, he was offered a position on the banks of the Po as a laborer. He began painting at the time. In 1928, he met Renato Marino Mazzacurati, who recognized his true ability and showed him how to utilize oil colors.

Antonio Ligabue

During those years, he committed himself entirely to painting, wandering along the Po. He was hospitalized at Reggio Emilia in 1937 for self-harm. Andrea Mozzali, a sculptor, released him from the mental institution and took him to his house in Guastalla in 1941. The painter changed his surname from Laccabue to Ligabue in 1942, allegedly due to his hatred for his father, whom he blamed for his mother’s uxoricide. He worked as a translator for German troops during WWII. After hitting a German soldier with a bottle in 1945, he was sent back to the institution, where he remained for three years.

Self portait

His creative efforts grew more active in 1948, which piqued the curiosity of journalists, critics, and art dealers. His debut exhibition was held in 1961 at the Galleria La Barcaccia in Rome. He had a motorcycle accident and suffered from paresis the following year. Ligabue requested to be baptized before passing away on May 27, 1965, at the age of 65. He was buried in the Gualtieri cemetery, and Mozzali’s bronze burial mask was put on his headstone. In the community, he was known as Al Matt (The Fool) or Al Tedesch in the local dialect (The German).

Source: Antonio Ligabue Mueseum

The Mediterranean, A Sea of Culture Conference in Naples

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