Cipollino and others: Illustrations for Gianni Rodari’s books in Italy and the USSR

October 27

The first edition of Gianni Rodari’s Adventures of Cipollino was published in the USSR in 1953 under the editorship of Samuil Marshak. The tale of a brave little onion who helped his poor neighbours restore justice was translated by Zlata Potapova. An animated film and a ballet were created based on the book, and in 1973, director Tamara Lisitsian made a film starring Gianni Rodari (as himself) and his daughter Paola. The film was shot during one of the writer’s visits to Moscow.

We are used to seeing images of Cipollino and other characters from Rodari’s books as created by Soviet and Russian artists. Employees of the children’s centre at the Library for Foreign Literature suggested we learn about the Italian editions of the writer’s most known works. At the request of, they prepared a series of illustrations for various books by Gianni Rodari and explained why they are interesting.

Paola Rodari

Gianni Rodari’s daughter was one the most beloved illustrators of her father’s books. The first book with her illustrations – Tante storie per giocare, or Many Tales to Play With – was published when she was 14. In this book, the writer invites the audience to play with stories and to pick the ending they like. The final chapter, Endings that the Writer Likes, explains why Rodari picked one ending or the other.

Gianni Rodari. Tante storie per giocare. Roma. Editori Riuniti. 1971

Paola Rodari’s parents met in the late 1940s. Her mother, Maria Teresa Ferretti, was a secretary for the parliamentary faction of the People's Democratic Front in Modena. In her interview with La Reppublica, Maria Teresa said that she met Rodari when he came to cover the work of their election headquarters. In 1953, Rodari was invited to Rome to work as an editor of the children’s magazine Il Pioniere, and he left Modena together with his young wife. Paola was born in 1957.

Gianni Rodari was extremely popular in the USSR and often visited the country, sometimes together with his daughter. Legend has it that during one such visit, little Paola was enchanted by toys made for the Cipollino story she saw in Soviet children’s stores. Gianni Rodari himself liked them very much, for becoming a toy maker was his childhood dream, and he even referred to his poems as toys made of words.

Three years later, another book by Rodari with Paola’s illustrations was published, Novelle fatte a macchina, or Stories Written on a Typewriter. The illustrations in this book are more detailed than in the first one, and Paola depicted her father on the cover.

Paola Rodari devoted her life to the creation of interactive science museums where children can play with the exhibits and learn hands-on about the laws of physics and natural phenomena such as electricity, gravity and optical illusions.

Paola Rodari currently lives in Trieste and teaches museum studies to future experts in research communications. The idea of viewing science as a game is quite typical for Gianni Rodari and his book for adults, The Grammar of Fantasy.

Raul Verdini

Raul Verdini worked together with Rodari on the children’s magazine Il Pioniere and created illustrations for the first edition of the tale of Cipollino in 1951. It was a small black-and-white book. Many years later, in 1974, when Cipollino and his author became world famous, another edition was published with Verdini’s illustrations, this time in colour.

The painting on a wall comes to life, dictator Giacomone hides the fact that he wears a wig, an innocent man is imprisoned, but in the end truth is victorious over lies. Haven’t we already read something like that? The comic book Le avventure di Scarabocchio, or the Adventures of a Doodle, was published in 1954, and four years later, Gianni Rodari developed this plot in his famous novel Gelsomino in the Country of Liars. The illustrations were also created by Raul Verdini, and this edition keeps being reprinted.

Gelsomino is a boy with a very powerful voice. He finds himself in a strange country where bakeries sell ink, only counterfeit coins are used, cats are prohibited to meow and forced to bark, and citizens read news from a newspaper called A Model Liar. In this country, where everyone tells lies, drawings come to life.

Verdini was known in the USSR as a satire artist. His cartoons, created together with Abram Sterenberg, appeared in the magazine Krokodil. Soviet readers loved his dynamic drawing technique, and in 1976, the USSR published an album with Verdini’s drawings on Italian issues with Russian captions.

Bruno Munari

Mixed media artist Bruno Munari was engaged in designing furniture, advertising and children’s book writing and illustrating. He was also one of the first artists to make art installations. In 1974, he was awarded the Premio Andersen prize (not to be confused with the Hans Christian Andersen Award) for his contribution to children’s literature. Munari created the world’s first museum laboratory for children in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan. In these laboratories, children can play and explore the world through art.

Gianni Rodari was also interested in seeing the world through the eyes of children. In his younger days, he worked as a primary school teacher. Rodari admired children’s mistakes and even wrote a book about them, Il libro degli errori, or The Book of Errors. Munari created illustrations that looked like children’s drawings for this book and for Favole al telefono, Fairy Tales over the Phone. These images express the vivid imagination that both Munari and Rodari wanted children to develop.

Gianni Rodari. Il libro degli errori. Torino. Einaudi. 1964

Anatoly Kokorin

There were also Soviet artists among notable illustrators of Rodari’s books. Anatoly Kokorin was born in 1908. He studied art at the Higher Institute of Art and Technology in Moscow from poster artist Dmitry Moor, Constructivism painter Lev Bruni and prominent printed graphic artist Pyotr Pavlinov. During the war, he worked at the Mitrofan Grekov Studio of War Artists, and painted war-ravaged cities in Austria, Germany and Poland. After the war, Kokorin created a series of watercolour paintings devoted to Soviet cities. But the focus of his work was book illustration. He worked on Alexei Tolstoy’s The Golden Key, poems by Gianni Rodari, and fairytales by Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen. He was awarded the gold medal of the USSR Academy of Arts for his illustrations of Hans Christian Andersen’s works.

Kokorin’s illustrations are made using a relaxed, sketch-like technique. But this easiness is deceitful, for it can only be achieved through years of practice. His illustrations for Rodari’s books feature the artist’s keen eye for detail and precise observations of life. After the war, Kokorin travelled around Europe and made several albums of sketches during each trip. He also visited Italy and saw the people about whom Rodari wrote filastrocche with his own very eyes.

Filastrocche is a form of Italian folk poetry, funny rhymes or nursery rhymes with a rhythmic structure. Samuil Marshak, the main translator of Rodari’s poems into Russian, especially valued the rhythm and folk character of Rodari’s poetry. Rodari began his writing career with poems when he worked as a journalist. In the famous books about Cipollino and Gelsomino, there are even chapters made up of songs sung by the characters.

Mikhail Mayofis

Books illustrated by Mikhail Mayofis, a graduate from the graphic art department of the Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture in Leningrad, were displayed at the world book fairs in Bologna, Bratislava and Leipzig at the end of the 1960s. The artist was 30 years old at that time. Mikhail currently lives and works in Los Angeles.

Mayofis’s illustrations for Stories Written on a Typewriter differ from Paola Rodari’s humorous drawings. They are much less childish and funny. Mayofis depicts Rodari’s heroes in a contemporary environment, and grown-up problems in children’s stories are the focus of his works.

The images of the characters from Adventures of Cipollino are surprising and very accurate. These heroes are not vegetables, but people, each having their own character. Here we see Cipollino with rough green hair, grumpy Countess Cherries wearing plate hats, and energetic Duke Tangerine. Fruit transform into details of a theatrical costume, and readers become spectators of a play.


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