Theatrical set designer and costume designer, artist of inWomen.Gallery.

Francesca Maria D´Antonio in one of the traditional Abruzzi dresses designed by her
© Francesca Maria D´Antonio

FDV: Francesca you are a complete artist, you dedicate yourself to painting, sculpture, costume and scenography. You studied at the Academy in L’Aquila: what did the Academy of Fine Arts mean to you, how did it affect your career and what was it like living that environment after the terrible earthquake in 2009?

FMDA: My path was born a bit by chance, a bit by fate. I had never thought of enrolling at the Academy. During high school, I entered the conservatory, during the opera singing course, and it was precisely this course that introduced me to opera, theatre and craftsmen. The entrance to the Academy of Fine Arts after high school was the continuation of a natural path because already at the age of six years drawing was my only “means of communication”. The course of scenography was the one that came closest to my personality: I loved photography, cinema, theatre, music, singing, sculpture, tailoring, painting…. everything that contributes to the realization of a show. I wanted to enroll in a fashion academy because I was more inclined to work as a costume designer, but in the end, I won the academy because I was already enrolled at the Music School in Pescara and my family didn’t have the economic possibility to make me study in another public school at that time. When I started the course at the Academy of Fine Arts in Pescara was 2009. L’Aquila was a wounded city, so was the academy, everyone was wounded after the earthquake. The bonus for the students allowed me to take a three-year course at no great expense and this was certainly a great help. Unfortunately – I want to be honest – with hindsight and as often happens, I regretted this choice for several reasons: 1) The expectation I had on my educational path was too high; 2) I expected more detailed, professional courses and this was not the case; 3) Once I finished university I realized that I hadn’t learned anything…. the only good fortune had been to experiment with various interesting subjects such as sculpture, costume and analyzing the history of entertainment with a great professor whom I remember fondly.
Although I wouldn’t recommend enrolling at the Academy so easily, I must say that there I discovered my way and what I knew, could and wanted to do; perhaps this is the most important thing… to understand what I wanted to do in life.

FDV: How does one become a set designer? What do you recommend to those who want to do this job?

FMDA: I am a set designer on paper, I have a degree in set design but you don’t become a set designer on paper.
You become one by working. This is the only way. Finding a good master and working alongside him is the best thing to do. I was lucky enough to work with the Iezzi brothers, Filippo and Gianluca. Two fantastic people from a human point of view and from a professional point of view! One year in the laboratory I learned everything the academy could not give me. I worked above all in the realization of scenographies starting from construction (carpentry) to painting and sculpture. There were also several opportunities for design, work organization, time management… a continuous race against time… a bit crazy hours and all this really trained me and even tried! That’s why I advise those who love the show to enter a workshop first and then to enrol in the academy, not the other way around.

FDV: Among the works on inWomen.Gallery, there are sketches for the costumes of the protagonist Abigaille from Verdi’s Nabucco, a character who is both loved and hated at the same time. Who is Abigaille for you? What woman wants to tell us?

FMDA: The character of Abigaille has always fascinated me. Nabucco was my first opera as an opera singer and I had the pleasure of performing it twice with different productions. Abigaille is the antagonist of the story, the apparently evil and cruel character, but she is, in my opinion, the real victim of the story. A slave “adopted” by the king who feels great jealousy towards her sister Fenena, the king’s recognized daughter. Abigaille is ready to do anything to get her father’s attention, to feel that she is his beloved and legitimate daughter, but she tries to get him to kill her sister… In short, she has not chosen the right path. She is a woman who conquers power and slowly collapses showing all her frailty… in fact, she commits suicide with poison and before dying she asks forgiveness from everyone. While the public generally hates this character, I am moved in the final scene when she, as a strong and imposing woman, collapses and opens her heart confessing her suffering and asking for forgiveness. For me, Abigaille falls into that category of people who are apparently strong because they are afraid of suffering. Abandoned women, children who suffer for fear of abandonment… she reminds me of women who live in indifference and who feel inferior to others. Abigaille chose the wrong path but only to feel loved and important for someone. In the sketches, I wanted to make her feel this. In the first one, we see her strong, beautiful, sensual look; in the second drawing there is a mixture of asceticism and childlike tenderness: her dress changes, her make-up is imprecise, her hair becomes disheveled… her emotional collapse begins. In the third sketch, she is close to death… she has no way out. She realizes she has made a mistake and is unable to find a solution to her situation so she kills herself with poison. How many times have we felt like this in a blind spot like you?

FDV: One last question: how do you think the theatre can change after such a difficult period of lockdown following a global pandemic? What consequences could lockdown have on “technical” workers like you? Do you miss working behind the scenes?

FMDA: The lockdown came at a particular time. The entertainment world had already been in crisis for some time. There were already difficulties in getting paid, companies didn’t respect the times, theatres didn’t even…
I had been struggling to do this job for years without the “push” of someone. The Covid slapped everyone a bit hard, but I think that the greats of the theatre perhaps almost needed it. I’ve always struggled to get my name written on my work – it’s hard to get respect if you’re “young”, except that at the age of thirty you’re considered old. It is even more difficult for a girl to work in this environment. Small workers like us are not considered enough and yet the show is only possible thanks to us who are behind the scenes. The theatre has big problems now, it’s true, but it had a lot of them even before and maybe they will always remain because there is a system that is a bit sick. Do I miss the theatre? I miss it so much.

Francesca Della Ventura
Francesca Della Ventura

Francesca Della Ventura is a journalist, curator and contemporary art critic, as well as founder and director of inWomen.Gallery.