By Lucy Vivante
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Rome
Mariella Gualtieri lives in the seaside city of Vasto in the Abruzzo region of Italy. She grew up northwest of Vasto, in a small town called Pollutri. Here, her great grandfathers worked with olives: one as a miller, and the other as a merchant selling olive oil. Nicola Mariotti, the merchant relative, didn’t sell it in his town, or even nearby, because everyone had their own olive oil. His business revolved around selling olive oil in the mountain towns of the Abruzzo, where the climate is too cold for olives to grow.
Mariella’s paintings of olive culture center on the harvesting of olives, but also include such tasks as the pruning of trees. From the age of eleven she was involved in the annual harvest. She remembers a man who had been hired to help with the harvest, and seeing Mariella’s small hands shivering in the November air, he said, “If only olives were the size of oranges, we’d finish sooner.” From this memory, and also because of the importance of olives for her family’s livelihood, she paints olives as if they were the size of oranges. Her blog is called realfantasy1371. She chose this title to highlight the pairing of the real with the fantastic in her work.
This combining of the real and imaginary can be seen in her New York City olive orchards. In 2005 she visited New York and was surprised by the immense trees in Central Park. She was also drawn to the High Line Park. One of the reasons for putting the olives in New York City was her wish that Americans could have better food. In our conversation she didn’t say that she thought US food was poor – she is too polite for that. Still, it is clear that she thinks that olive oil is the fundamental ingredient of good cooking, and American cooking could do with more olive oil. In our conversation she seemed particularly concerned that the Mediterranean diet was only affordable to rich people.
The Great Wall of China is the backdrop to another of her olive harvest paintings. Mariella is now working on a painting of Milan’s cathedral with an olive orchard. She says of the work, “the inspiration for the painting comes from Renzo Piano’s project for transforming this marvelous city into a green metropolis, and from themes coming from Expo 2015.” Healthy diet and feeding the planet are among the fair themes. Mariella and her husband have recently become parents to twins, and proper nutrition is very much on her mind. Her two-year-old twins are given a tablespoon of olive oil in their daily soup, up from the teaspoon they had with their earliest pap, called “pappa” in Italy. The olive oil and the amounts are on the recommendation of the family’s pediatrician.
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She is a self-taught artist and calls her style “naive.” (Her degree, which she received at the University in Pescara, was in Economics. She works with her husband in Vasto, where they own an insurance agency.) From an early age she enjoyed drawing with colored pencils. Once she was looking with her grandmother at a calendar, which had an image of Saint Anthony. She told her grandmother that she would copy it, and her grandmother smiled thinking she wouldn’t be able to. Mariella doesn’t remember the drawing, just the look of surprise on her grandmother’s face at the very faithful copy. For years she worked with acrylic paints, but since 1998 favors oil colors. The series of olive grove paintings were started in 2001. In addition to painting landscapes with olive trees, she paints portraits on commission and seascapes featuring fishing machines, known as the trabocco, peculiar to the Abruzzo and Adriatic coast.
She has exhibited her work at Vasto’s main exhibition space, the Palazzo D’Avalos, an early 15th century building. The name sounds Spanish because it is. Vittoria Colonna the poet, and close friend of Michelangelo married into the D’Avalos family and spent time in Vasto. The palace houses the city’s archaeological collection, has a permanent collection with works by Abruzzo artists such as Francesco Paolo Michetti and Giulio Aristide Santoro, and temporary exhibition space. Her show was a one-woman show and took place in 2007.
Her family sold their olive groves some time ago. I asked Mariella how she bought her oil. She said that she uses two olives oils in her kitchen. From local mills she buys olive oil to use on salads, to dress vegetables, and on bread. Every November she stocks up on De Cecco olive oil, which goes on sale at local supermarkets to make room for the new season oil. De Cecco, best known for its pasta, is an Abruzzo company, with its headquarters about an hour from Vasto. She uses this oil for frying.
Mariella says that a typical Abruzzo salad is made from sliced oranges, dressed with excellent olive oil, and sprinkled with salt. Oranges and olives in art and in cooking.