This story appears in the December issue of VICE magazine.
It was 1980. Italy was mourning the victims of a terrorist bombing of a train station in Bologna and digging through the rubble of an earthquake in Irpinia. Meanwhile, within the corridors of power, the Communist Party was distancing itself from the Historic Compromise that had aligned it with the Christian Democrats, while wary eyes watched the election of former actor Ronald Reagan to the White House. The pursuit of personal satisfaction had prevailed over political ideologies, and postmodernism had precipitated a race to mass hedonism. That year, a magazine made its debut at the Lucca Comics Festival, one that would make history in the Italian publishing world. The magazine was called Frigidaire.
Frigidaire did not isolate its content to one specific topic, uncommon for Italian magazines of the age. Instead it engaged in a project of total communication: Comics, art, satire, literature, politics, philosophy, and music were melted into an unbreakable whole, all subjected to the same satirical impulse. The magazine has left its mark on an entire generation and gained a space in the collective imagination as the most irreverent and unconventional magazine in Italy. It was uncensored and bipartisan in its attacks in a time when satirists were often expected to take sides.
Frigidaire was published continuously until 1998, then on and off afterward, with a long hiatus between 2003 and 2009. Today, it's not easy to find it on newsstands in Milan. It's easier to buy it in the bar that one of its founders, Vincenzo Sparagna, frequents, in Giano dell'Umbria, a town of 3,000 inhabitants in Umbria. Sparagna had been with the magazine since its inception, but when he sold his home in Rome in 2003, the magazine came to a standstill. A friend told Sparagna that there was an opportunity to propose a project to the regional government in Umbria, and he conceived of a sovereign land where people might make a pilgrimage to see the art and ideas that make up the magazine. The plan was for a Museo dell'Arte Maivista, a museum of "never-before-seen art" that Frigidaire had made famous. Sparagna originally had his eyes on a 12th-century castle that had been converted to an olive warehouse, but one day he stumbled upon an abandoned fascist summer camp and decided to rehabilitate it. Hundreds of volunteers, artists, and comrades came to help fix up the summer camp, and it opened as the Republic of Frigolandia in 2006. It's now the magazine's headquarters and Sparagna's home, which he shares with his girlfriend and main collaborator, Maila Navarra, a graphic designer from Rome who was ten when Frigidaire was founded.
When I arrived at Frigolandia after driving through the Umbrian countryside this fall, it was already dark. Dogs were howling in the cold night. Out front, a big iron gate crowned with the word FRIGOLANDIA welcomed me. Sparagna was already asleep, but Navarra greeted me. She was up late laying out an issue of Il Nuovo Male, another satirical magazine she and Sparagna produce. She took me to the bedroom, where I was protected from the cold by an abundance of blankets and painkillers.
When I woke up, I took a tour of the pine forest surrounding Frigolandia. I admired the Nature Theater of Oklahoma (a wooden construction made by Luciano Biscarini, an artist from the city of Foligno, in memory of Franz Kafka) and the picturesque Casa Rosada, with its huge fireplace. At a playground, I finally met Sparagna, who was feeding four white dogs. Thick white hair popped out from under his black cap. He welcomed me into his studio.
"When you do not depend on anyone, you can afford to be sarcastic, ironic, but most of all truthful to everyone." —Vincenzo Sparagna
In the large room, there were two windows, two big bookshelves, and a desk resting on a huge trunk of chestnut wood. As we started to talk, Sparagna poured himself a glass of water with a squeeze of lemon. "I was convinced that there wasn't a magazine capable of a phenomenological analysis of the world, capable of distancing itself from the universe of ideologies," he said. "Even now we are rarely told what really happens, because it's easier to hide behind ideological shields. In those days this distortion was very strong. We have tried to narrate the world in real time, with a subjective point of view, free from any prefabricated cage."
The preparation for the first issue lasted about a year, and it came about after a meeting between Sparagna, who was working on Il Male, one of the most important Italian satirical magazines, and Stefano Tamburini, a graphic artist. "It all started when Stefano Tamburini and I had a convergent idea after the Cannibale [the comics magazine founded in 1977 by Tamburini and published by Il Male] closed, a forced end because it was losing too much money and Il Male could not support it anymore. Cannibale still had extraordinary comics and Tamburini wanted to continue it. On the other hand, as I was perhaps the first to understand the revolutionary importance of those comics, I was thinking of a new magazine. Il Male had in fact created space for the language of satire, but many other forms of storytelling were still unexplored." The two brought in Filippo Scòzzari, an illustrator and one of the key figures in the 70s underground, and they developed the idea for Frigidaire. "It has always been a brand, since its birth," he said.
The walls of Sparagna's office were covered in sketches, wood carvings, and giant photographs from the magazine's past, like the one of the art critic Achille Bonito Oliva naked on a couch, which ran on the cover in 2011. This was perhaps an example of the arte maivista—"never-before-seen art"—for which the magazine had become famous. "It was a way of parody and mockery to illustrate our concept of art that is always never seen because it renews at every glance," he explained. "There are works that have been seen thousands of times, like the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo, among many others. However, every time you look at them you feel new emotions, because they posses a vibe that makes them 'unseen' each time. The term was originally born to define the original ink drawings that I have been doing since adolescence but that we never published. They were not comics, nor illustrations; we just did not know what to call them. Then [Frigidaire cartoonist Andrea] Pazienza said: "It is art that exists, but it has not been seen. It is arte maivista!'"
Like any other artistic movement, arte maivista has its own manifesto. "We started off as a joke, but it soon became a way of defining all art by Frigidaire as the art of listening to art. In fact we have had very different styles and artists. These collaborations are the result of our ability to listen, which means looking at, discovering an artistic image when it is born, before it ends up in museums or enters the communication system and becomes well known."
Arte maivista is art that lives in the darkness of the slums, from which, from time to time, you can see extraordinary beams of light emerge. In spite of never being seen, much of the collective's art has been well absorbed into the culture. Even today, young people are getting tattoos of RanXerox, one of Tamburini's comic antiheroes and a character that originally appeared in Frigidaire. "Indeed, there is a permanence, a lasting effect of the pages of Frigidaire," Sparagna said, just the lemon seeds left in his glass. "It is not by chance. Right from the beginning we tried to look at reality with the eyes of the future."
Another futuristic element of Frigidaire was its graphic design, which hasn't changed its main elements since the magazine launched. "I believe it represents our personality, and it made us unique. Frigidaire's design, laid out back then by Tamburini and edited by me, today with the artistic help of Maila Navarra, takes inspiration from Bauhaus and brings together readability and elegance," Sparagna said. "It's surprising, but it never exceeds into cloying eccentricity. The design allowed us to draw a parallel, in a clear and brilliant way, among the different areas of human knowledge, from science to literature, from daily news to politics, from comics to satire."
I asked Sparagna how satire had changed in the past few decades. "The satire that was born some forty years ago with the '77 movement was independent from media. With respect to that form of satire, the only ones who have stayed consistent with their basic philosophy are us," Sparagna said. "When you do not depend on anyone, you can afford to be sarcastic, ironic, but most of all truthful toward everyone. When no one respects you out of convenience or connivance, you can afford not to respect anyone. A satirist can only be a marginal genius. Of course there is also a more official satire, a satire I will unhesitatingly call sycophantic."
For Sparagna, the key to satire remained staying outside the realm of power and influence. It was key that Frigidaire was always independent. He mocked a friend who published comics in an Italian newspaper as being held hostage by the imperial press. "When I criticize him, he says, 'Nobody censors me,'" Sparagna explained. "He doesn't understand that the problem is not the censorship; it's that you belong to a system, you are part of a situation that is managed by other people, you became a court jester. You draw your strip, but the conversation is managed by other people, you are their comic break."
"With free satire you can look at reality as it is, with no influence from evidence but by approximation and following your instinct." —Vincenzo Sparagna
Satire can't limit itself to a basic laugh, which can be achieved through any kind of comedy. As Gipi, the Italian cartoonist, pointed out on a talk show right after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, satire is a pungent literary or artistic attack against those who hold political, social, or cultural power. And that's what Il Male, Il Nuovo Male, and Frigidaire have done. In the late 70s and early 80s, Sparagna helped to create several fake editions of newspapers, which he then distributed in their home territories. He and his colleagues illegally set loose a fake Trybuna Ludu in Poland in 1979, and the next year they distributed a fake version of Pravda during the Moscow Olympics. "We realized that in 1983 in Russia there was turmoil surrounding the war in Afghanistan. We spoke about it with Vladimir Bukovsky and other Russian intellectuals who lived in exile in Paris and who were fighting Bolshevism, which denied liberty, a fundamental value, and we decided to make a fake Red Star [a newspaper for Soviet soldiers] to be distributed in Russia," he said. The real target were the 500,000 Russian soldiers deployed at the time. Satire, they thought, could challenge the war.
The front page read ENOUGH WITH THE WAR! EVERYBODY HOME! alongside an image of a Russian soldier breaking a Kalashnikov in two. The Lithuanian dissident journalist Savir Shuster, who had been in Afghanistan and had contacts there, joined Sparagna in distributing the paper. "Obviously the thing was quite complicated," he said. "We had to set KGB on the wrong track, so we split into two groups, one of which got inside Kabul, which was occupied by the Red Army. That is how Frigidaire managed to jeer at the Soviet Union. We distributed a huge number of copies, and we got back home all in one piece. The feat had a worldwide resonance. Moreover, Russian newspapers, including the real Red Star, responded by accusing us of being paid by Reagan. But the more they denied, the more likely our fake news seemed, to Russian readers, used to the constant lies from the regimen. They tried to counter our slogan 'Enough with the war!' with their 'The war goes on!' It was tragicomic."
Events like this fill the pages of the magazine and the life of Sparagna, who, in 1984, decided the most sensible way to settle Frigidaire's debts was to travel to Morocco to buy 100 kilos of hashish to resell in Europe. "You have to get into the shoes of someone who doesn't have a cent but needs to make up millions," Sparagna said. "The magazine needed money. And I, being of humble origins, have a lot of friends who grew in the slums, where you come up with anything to get by. Long story short… a friend knew a girl who had married a guy from Morocco whose brother had a farm in Ketama. So there was this possibility of being given a hundred kilos of hashish on credit. We 'just' had to go pick it up."
Sparagna's travel companion, a dissident who also wrote for Frigidaire, was a sailor. He thought the pair could make their escape from the country on a big, motorized inflatable raft once they got their hands on the stash. "We traveled to Marbella, Spain, and after several rounds of complicated calculations to figure out how may tanks of oil we should have brought, we set sail toward the open sea in a dark night with no moon," he said. "It was dusk when we started to see the African coastline. Somebody replied from the beach to our torch signals, and a small boat approached us to hand off the hashish." But once they loaded the goods, they realized that they had used more gas than anticipated, and they wouldn't be able to get back to Spain. They were forced to trade their spare outboard motor for gas, and brave the Mediterranean without a backup. "We floated under the African sun all day long, and by the evening we were on our way back. But, blame it on the second bottle of Carlos Primero, a Spanish brandy that we downed, we took the wrong route, and we kept going in circles in the pitch black of our second night at sea." Sparagna said a killer whale and a flock of dolphins circled their raft, but it's possible he had taken too much of the hashish. When they finally arrived back at Marbella, at dusk, a detective was waiting for them on the pier.
Not every moment in Frigidaire's history was as comical: Tamburini died in April 1986, which came as a shock. The magazine staff thought he had been recovering from a heroin addiction, but he was actually continuing to use heavily. Around the same time, the magazine lost key funding. "Our will to resist prevailed. But then, in June 1988, we learned that Pazienza had also died of an overdose. That was our bleakest moment, a moment full of pain and desperation. The magazine was still alive and full of comics and stories, but the joy of the early years was gone."
"Had you ever thought of quitting?" I asked Sparagna toward the end of our talk.
"Not really," he replied. "We had to defend our project's continuity, even if these tragedies were of course totally unexpected. Tamburini and Pazienza were ten years younger than Scòzzari and I. The youngest ones had died, and it was really tough to go on." But, he continued, "with free satire you can look at reality as it is, with no influence from evidence but by approximation and following your instinct. We operated behind satire's mask, and we could shout the truth about pretty much everything."
Looking out the window of Sparagna's studio, I observed the medieval village of Giano, just a few thousand feet away. In the garden there were pines, a persimmon tree, cherry trees, basswoods, oaks, and a henhouse. I asked how he and his colleagues ended up creating this incredible republic of art, more similar to an amusement park than a museum.
"Like every invention, Frigolandia was born a little bit by chance and a little bit by necessity," Sparagna told me. "But more by chance, I'd say." Since its founding, Frigolandia has had problems with the local government. When, in 2007, the Italian Marxist Oreste Scalzone returned to the country from France after the statute of limitations passed on crimes he had been accused of in April '68, Frigolandia hosted him for a press conference. The government was not pleased, and it tried to evict Frigolandia but failed. "Instead of being grateful for the thousands of people who came to Giano to visit the museum, politicians from left and right keep being hostile," Sparagna said. "They only focus on speculative projects that all feature our disappearance."
We were to have lunch in Frigolandia's kitchen, where there was a big wooden table inspired by Brueghel's The Peasant Wedding. While Sparagna prepared a delicious pasta with tomato sauce, he told me about his daughter, who in the past worked with Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott and now lives in New Zealand and works for the government. As he stirred the sauce with a wooden spoon, he told me about his nephews and described ocean landscapes and the beauty of faraway lands.
I asked him what he thought about the new generations of artists. "Every generation is made up of a lot of different social segments," he said. "On the other hand, the younger generations have been heavily influenced by the cultural and idealistic devastation of the past twenty years. This is something you can easily tell from the widespread idea that you have to wait for your personal talent scout. 'I need a talent scout.' You have no idea how many think or are convinced of that. This is unfortunately the easiest way to paralyze anybody. If you think you have qualities… put them in action! Don't wait for somebody to discover you. There are of course exceptions, and we have a lot of examples, young writers, cartoonists, illustrators who work with us just for the pleasure of communicating and realizing their dreams, starting with Maila Navarra. She came to Frigolandia to show me her beautiful drawings, and in a few years she became the soul of the magazine and the Republic."
After officially becoming a citizen of Frigolandia, with a passport and all, I got into my car and prepared to drive off. The memory of Sparagna's smile, hidden behind his mustache while he said goodbye, put me in a good mood, even as something told me I would never see the place again.