Bibliotheca Hermetica: Mario Diacono and the arts of alchemy

By Bob Nickas

‘The Seven Days of Creation,’ from Gregorius Anglus Sallwig’ts (Georg von Welling) Opus Mago-Cabalisticum et Theologicum (Frankfurt, Germany, 1719). Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

  • Mar 2, 2020

Poet, essayist and gallerist Mario Diacono, on the cusp of his 90th year, has led one of the most unusual lives in postwar contemporary art, beginning with his first gallery in Bologna in 1978, where he showed Arte Povera artists like Jannis Kounellis and Pier Paolo Calzolari. In the 1980s in Rome, he became involved in the revival of painting, showing the work of many important Neo-Expressionist artists, and he later opened spaces in New York and Boston.

In 2007, with the closing of his final gallery in Boston, he became more fully involved in the Collezione Maramotti in Reggio Emilia, the private museum opened that year by the family behind the Max Mara fashion company, a collection he has helped shape for more than 30 years. But throughout much of his life in contemporary art, Diacono has led an extraordinary parallel existence rooted in the distant past, as one of the world’s foremost collectors of books and manuscripts devoted to alchemy and occult philosophy. The following are edited excerpts of a recent conversation between Diacono and the curator Bob Nickas, conducted in Boston, where his library resides.

‘The Rebis (Androgynous,)’ from Salomon Trismosin’s Aureaum Vellus (Rorshach am Bodensee, Germany, 1598-99). Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

Bob Nickas: We’ve been friends for more than 30 years now, and I’ve known that you collected books on alchemy and how foundational they’ve been for your mind, but until you recently published a catalog of them, I didn’t realize the extent of this fantastic collection. Among 126 books, the earliest is from 1523, and there are many rare titles—one I recognized right away, Daniel Defoe’s ‘A System of Magick;’ or, a ‘History of the Black Art’—and another with a particularly resonant provenance, ‘Essais de Sciences Maudites,’ by Stanislas de Guaita, which came from the library of André Breton, author of ‘Surrealist Manifesto.’ How did your interest in alchemy come about?

Mario Diacono: When I was 20 years old, in June of 1950, I ran away from home, from Rome, and went to Venice with the romantic idea of embarking on a ship sailing for India. That didn’t happen because, once at the port, I was asked if I had a card showing I was a member of the maritime union, but I had never set foot on a boat before. In any case, first of all, I wanted to see the Venice Biennale, and I don’t know how, but I managed to get into the press preview. There, I heard about the exhibition of an avant-garde American painter, and I soon found myself in the Jackson Pollock show at the Museo Correr, I think: it was ‘bouleversante,’ as the French would say.

Gian Enzo Sperone, Francesco Clemente and Mario Diacono, Rome, 1980

Diacono reading Erving Goffman’s ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,’ a book that Vito Acconci told him was important for his work, 1972

BN: Overwhelming.

MD: Yes, and to this day it remains the most memorable exhibition I have ever seen. Anyway, having remained unmoored in Venice, I started to spend my mornings in the Marciana Library. At that time, before entering the main reading room, you would pass a row of vitrines in which were exhibited some of the library’s most spectacular possessions. Among them was a Greek manuscript from the 10th century, open at a double page with two highly enigmatic images, the Ouroboros and the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra.

BN: Not to be confused with the queen of Egypt, but Cleopatra the alchemist, one of the few women involved in the practice, and of course the Ouroboros is the snake eating its own tail.

MD: For some weeks, every morning I was stopping in front of these images, interrogating their meaning. When, in 1964, I found in the window of a Roman antiquarian bookseller a 1925 Italian book titled ‘On the Historical Sources of Chemistry’ and ‘Alchemy in Italy,’ and a short time later a friend, Emilio Villa, pointed me to the Italian translation of Jung’s ‘Psychology’ and ‘Alchemy,’ that Venetian interrogation kept coming back incessantly.

BN: And this obsession, if I can call it that, led to your collecting these books?

MD: More than an obsession, it was an unstoppable investigation. But I didn’t start to buy original hermetic/alchemical early editions ‘cum figuris’ until I had some real money of my own.

BN: ‘Cum figuris’—with illustrations?

MD: Yes. I began to buy these books with the money I had earned teaching 20th-century Italian literature at U.C. Berkeley from 1968 to 1970.

‘Nothing is more rewarding than going through a museum on acid. The artworks, especially Chinese and Japanese scrolls, come alive, become fluid—you enter them and become part of the representation.’ —Mario Diacono

BN: You were there in a very heady time. The Free Speech Movement had spurred a real engagement with protest, particularly against the war in Vietnam. Reagan, who was then governor of California, was hell-bent on crushing the student movement. You told me once about a demonstration for People’s Park, when you and a young friend were warned by a National Guard to leave or else you’d end up being arrested. The Guard had been ordered to surround the demonstrators so the police could arrest everyone.

MD: Soon after we left, hundreds of students were arrested and had to spend the night lying on the ground of the parking lot of the police station. ‘The Fascist Gun in the West’: that’s what Reagan dressed as a cowboy was called on posters put up all over San Francisco.

BN: How do you remember your time at Berkeley—politically, socially? And who do you remember from there?

MD: I was aware of the Free Speech Movement before I went to Berkeley. Actually, that was the very reason why I chose this university over others. Politically, I was following from a distance the activity on campus of my favored groups, the Students for a Democratic Society and the Black Panthers. Socially, I started doing what my students were doing, smoking pot in the evening and taking acid on Sunday morning.

BN: Mario! I didn’t know that. Going to high mass on Sunday!

Illustration from Charles W. Leadbeater’s ‘Man Visible and Invisible’ (London: Theosophical Publishing Society, 1907). Photo: Oresti Tsonopoulos

MD: Art-wise, I met Ronald Kitaj a few times, who was teaching there and whom I interviewed for the Italian magazine ‘Collage.’ I was impressed by the films of Bruce Conner, and I visited regularly the exhibitions of San Francisco’s galleries. Besides the time spent in the library for my graduate-student classes, I went to all the anti-Vietnam demonstrations—‘U.S. out of South-East Asia! ROTC must go!’—and almost every week to a Fillmore West concert. The most unforgettable one was Jim Morrison. Every Sunday I visited one of the museums in San Francisco. Nothing is more rewarding than going through a museum on acid. The artworks, especially Chinese and Japanese scrolls, come alive, become fluid—you enter them and become part of the representation. It’s not exactly 3-D, but you may call it an LSD vision. Really, it was the entire social, political, musical environment that I soaked up for almost three years there that caused in me a sort of ‘biosophical’ rebirth. Nothing has been the same for me after Berkeley.

BN: I know you well as a word-breaker/word-maker. ‘Biosophical.’ You were thus equally and at the same time reborn biologically as well as philosophically. Back then, were you already wearing the many amulets that you always have strung about your neck? Anyone meeting you, even for the first time, can see that there is occult knowledge about your very person.

MD: I started wearing them when I was in Berkeley, probably influenced by the hippie syndrome, but ‘occult knowledge’ is too strong a term. I am a son of the Enlightenment. At the time of the Enlightenment, having esoteric knowledge was not a contradiction. I have never been part of any occult practice. I’ve only been deeply interested in European esoteric iconography and thinking, just as I have been in prehistoric, tribal, Indian and Tibetan Tantric iconography—in the sacred/secret side of history. The amulets I am wearing are in gold, silver, bronze and iron. I carry them as symbols of the ages of Man.

BN: When did you go back to Rome from the U.S.?