A Fifty-Year Love Affair

A printmaker’s romance with the city that inspires him.

Many small-town people can’t wait to move away and venture out into the world. But 75-year-old Marcello Lani isn’t like most people. A printmaker who creates watercolors and engravings, he has used his hometown, Urbino, as his muse for 50 years.

Marcello Lani

Marcello Lani, 75, on the streets of Urbnio, Italy.

Born in 1938, Lani was orphaned during World War II at the age of seven. It was in an orphanage that he began his lifelong love affair with art. “I had friends who had this huge passion for painting just like me. Most of all, we loved the human shape. So our friends just got naked and let us paint them and this helped us get to know the anatomy,” he says. While in the orphanage, he began to study printmaking and engraving.

He left Urbino for the first time when he was 21 and spent two years in Rome. He spent this time engraving and holding exhibitions of his artwork in order to make money. “I always brought my engraving tools with me. If I had been in Paris, I would have brought them to Paris, wherever I went. And when I wanted to relax from engraving, I used to go to museums,” he says.

After his time in Rome, he applied for teaching positions in various cities. When he was offered a position in Urbino, he decided to return home where he had family and a studio.

Marcello Lani in his studio

Marcello Lani in his studio on Via Posta Vecchia.

Lani taught engraving and printmaking at the Scuola del Libro (School of the Book) in Urbino for 36 years, passing on the lessons he learned from his teachers. Engraving is a lengthy process that involves great patience. Lani’s method requires wetting the printing paper for a day before working on it. He then uses a sharp, thin metal instrument to carve an image into a zinc, copper, or celluloid plate. After soaking the plate in acid to remove excess shavings, he adds the ink which settles into the etched design, and puts the plate and paper through his press.

Lani brings his graphic virtuosity to you together with the expression of a unique emotional interpretation of Urbino.

Lani typically creates several copies of a print, but each is an original because the colors are never the same. He has experimented over the years with this technique, first developed in the 1600s. His depictions of life in Urbino tend to use a single color scheme because he focuses on similar subjects. He uses reds and browns to bring the brick Renaissance buildings to life. His most common subjects are the cityscape of Urbino, buildings and streets in the city, or trees and flowers.

“Lani brings his graphic virtuosity to you together with the expression of a unique emotional interpretation of Urbino,” said Gastone Mosci, a lecturer at the University of Urbino, in a review of Lani’s work in the newspaper, Il Nuovo Amico.

Every line in the flowers illustrates his patience and every stroke of color in the sky tells of the love that this artist has for his city. But it is also plain to see in his watercolors, which he began painting in 2009, that he allows himself to interpret his city in any way that he feels inspired. The colors are wild and bright, with strokes that are barely contained by the outlines of the subject. “My world is also a little abstract,” he says. “In certain moments, the color in my artwork crashes as in impressionistic paintings and it gathers once again to reconstruct the shape.”

Over the years, Lani has had many exhibits throughout Europe, including one in Switzerland in 1964. At this exhibition, he met the actor Charlie Chaplin, who bought a few of his prints.

Lani’s desk

Lani’s desk in his print studio.

Though he retired five years ago, Lani hasn’t slowed down, working in his studio on Via Posta Vecchia a few days a week. The studio is like a museum of his artwork. The walls are lined with prints and watercolors of the city he loves. Cabinets and shelves are stacked with folders, each carefully labeled and full of prints. His artwork is so precious to him that he has tracked down pieces he regretted selling and bought them back. “I think I am one of the few artists that has bought his own pieces. It wasn’t easy to get them back,” he says.

He often takes walks around Urbino with his wife, Maria, and prefers to spend much of his time outdoors, where he also draws inspiration. “Nature becomes your friend. She suggests to you what to do.”

Walking through the streets, Lani waves and greets every other person he passes. He has light brown, kind eyes that crinkle at the corners whenever a smile spreads across his face. After suffering a heart attack last year, he walks slowly through the bustling Piazza Della Repubblica. He explains the meaning behind street names, such as Via del Rifugio, and he points out the building on that street where Urbino citizens took refuge during the air raids of World War II. Lani has observed his hometown in times of war and peace, but there are two simple reasons that he has focused on Urbino in his artwork. “Urbino—first of all it is my city. Second of all I love it deeply.”

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About Rachel Lake

This experience in Urbino has been my first trip outside of the United States, and the bar could not have been set higher. Throughout the trip, I have been unable to soak in all of the beauty and history around me. It has left me at a loss for words… but I’ll give it a shot. I am grateful for the training that I have received in my field of study, but more than anything, I am grateful for the cultural experience of a lifetime. Here in Urbino, I have seen the city through the eyes of several community members. Whether it’s a 75-year old artist who continues to find inspiration after fifty years of observing the city or a young college student who shares my dreams of travelling the world and journeying beyond the safety of their backyard, every single person I have met on this trip has taught me something new that I will never forget. I have also become close friends with people who would not have been brought into my life without this program. There’s something about being in a beautiful, historical country that can bring any group of people together and build friendships that will last. I am already dreading the moment when I will be forced to leave this beautiful city and these amazing, new friends.