What was a graphic designer like Franco Grignani doing with two nuclear scientists from Euratom?

Quite often, science and art are considered as the ‘two cultures’ dividing our society into two separate groups.
However, important phenomena in science and art have a common root.

What follows is another fairly unknown story.

In 1975 a very particular exhibition was held, first at the ‘Marcon IV’ gallery in Rome and then at the ‘Interart-Gallery’ in Milan, called ‘Operativo 3‘ and signed by a group of three people including Franco Grignani, Giancarlo Realini and Flaviano Casali.

Operativo 3, 1975
Operativo 3, 1975 [*]

Giancarlo Realini, born in 1938, was a physicist since 1968 in the teaching staff of the ‘Polytechnic School of Design’ in Milan (‘Scuola Politecnica di Design’), “committed to spreading the possibilities of application in the arts of the most recent technological discoveries” [from the catalogue of the exhibition] and was, together with Flaviano Casali [as from the magazine ‘arte e società’, 2, 1975], a research scientist at Euratom (‘European Atomic Energy Community’).
Flaviano (Farfaletti) Casali was a mechanical engineer involved in conceptual studies and design activity in the field of fusion reactors.
They both worked at the ‘Joint Research Centre’ in Ispra in the north of Italy, created by the ‘Comitato Nazionale Energia Nucleare’ (CNEN – ‘National Nuclear Energy Committee’). Recently reached by phone (Oct. 2021), Realini confirmed that both he and Casali were passionate about art, but they needed an expert to guide them, and Bruno Munari referred them to Franco Grignani. Their collaboration began in 1971.

Recalling in some way the aims of the group ‘Exhibition Design‘ – to which both Grignani and Munari took part in the period 1968-76 – the itinerant exhibition showed an activity of “aesthetic research” exploiting the latest frontiers in technological progress, through two main aspects called the “structural objectification” and “the limit as research”.

The two aspects, however, started from quite different research bases, due to the different specializations of Casali and Realini:

1. The “structural objectification”

The “structural objectification” proposed, more precisely, to photograph the internal strains of a material while it is being mechanically stressed, without destroying it or deforming it permanently.
In the exhibition catalogue, the group stated that

“there has never been any interest, except in an intuitive way […], in what happens inside the structure itself […]. The intimate labour of a form, with its internal strains, torsions, frictions, etc. has never been analyzed. […] Multicolored lines of force develop and move at the slightest variation of the impulse that generates them.”

Even if the Italian magazine ‘arte e società’ (issue n° 2, 1975) wrote about an “authentic discovery”, it must be said that such affirmations were limited to the artistic field: the theoretical study of strains in the field of materials engineering had in fact been known for some time, although limited in the restricted circle of ‘insiders’. However, there are some cases in which analytical methods are ineffective. Under the suggestion of Flaviano Casali, the group applied – for the first time with aesthetic purposes (although some early experiments had already been conducted by Bruno Munari in the 1950s) – the methods of ‘photoelasticity‘ (applied for the first time in Italy in 1909), whereby the visualization of the internal strains in a structure is technically obtained by investing a birefringent material under stress (epoxy resin, in the case of the group ‘Operativo 3‘) through a beam of polarized light. Before the advent of superior computer processing power, no other method had the same visual appeal for the stress pattern.

The duration of the research (“about two years”, as from ‘arte e società’, 2, 1975) was also due to the lack of experimental materials on the Italian market (mostly large Polaroid plates from England).

Grignani already used in the past industrial glasses, oils and deforming liquids in photography, and the images thus obtained by the ‘Operativo 3‘ are somewhat reminiscent of some of his previous photographic experiments.

2. “The limit as research”

“The limit as research” was the second fundamental aspect of the exhibition of the group ‘Operativo 3‘. Under the suggestion of Giancarlo Realini, the group proposed to use for aesthetic purposes the new conquests in the field of electronic elaborators (the term ‘computer graphics’ took hold in Italy almost a decade later).

One can certainly be surprised that Grignani, known for having created high complex geometric images using only his manual ability, had approached computers, and it is still believed – erroneously – that he was somewhat ‘allergic’ to the use of electronic technology.

But as in his youth he had been fascinated by Futurism and in particular by concepts, such as speed and dynamism, born from the exaltation of the progress in mechanical technology, the evolution of electronic technology in the 1970s could not leave him indifferent.
Even if the closest tool to a computer he owned at home was his Olivetti Lexikon 80 typewriter, it is worth remembering that in 1981 Cesare Musatti (who brought the Psychology of Gestalt to Italy) stated in an exhibition catalogue from ‘Lorenzelli Arte’ that in Grignani’s artworks “everything is calculated, everything is precise: and it is a work that could be the result of a well-prepared elaboration conducted by an electronic computer.”

The group ‘Operativo 3‘ stated in the exhibition catalogue that

“one cannot deny the possibility of stimulation that the computers can exercise on an attentive and sensitive operator. This is realized in the close dialogue that is established between man and machine through the enormous amount of detailed and overall images that can be requested from the computers.”

Of course, at that time there were strong limits: computers were mainly used by large industries, laboratories and universities and “the reasons why not many results have so far been achieved without an immediate utilitarian purpose are to be found in the high cost of using the computers and in the technical difficulties encountered. In fact, those who would have something to say from the aesthetic point of view, are not familiar with the language of programming”, a situation that confined the use of computers still at the boundaries of artistic experimentation (the first Apple Macintosh launched onto the market is from 1984).

For the works realized within the ‘Operativo 3‘ group, Giancarlo Realini had the chance to trust upon an IBM 7090 supplied to Euratom in Ispra since 1961, a powerful data processing system that occupied an area of c.ca 500 square meters; sold in 1960 for $2.9 million (equivalent to $20 million in 2020) and used by NASA to control the Mercury and Gemini space flights, it was defined in 1966 in Italy as a calculator that “makes possible the impossible”. At that ‘epic’ time, the results of computer processing could be displayed exclusively on plotter printing [from a personal interview with Realini in Oct. 2021].

Professor Maddalena Dalla Mura from the IUAV in Venice recently (2016) examined the reception of the computers and the digital revolution in Italy through the articles that appeared in the magazine ‘Linea grafica’ in the period 1970-2000, and reported how “the great changes that then [the mid-1970s, Ed.] worried the world of typography, such as photocomposition and the increasingly widespread application of the computers, seemed to have little interest within the so-called ‘creatives’.”

Franco Grignani was an exception, and in the exhibition catalogue of ‘Operativo 3‘ and later (1976) in an article in the magazine ‘Rivista IBM’ he was presented as follows:

“An observer of the changing realities that the event of technologies bring into man’s life and conscious of the rights of independence and creativity of the human mind, he proposes to the computer (the machine) the mockery of mathematical absurdity or the conceptual trauma of affirmation and negation in order to counterpose the triumph of the imagination and the consciousness of the inner infinity to the terrible speed of calculation.”

Franco Grignani and Giancarlo Realini, Affirmation and Negation, 1975
“Affirmation and Negation”, 1975, a precursor of animated pics by frames: the word ‘si’ (‘yes’) is transformed by computer instructions into its opposite ‘no’; idea by Franco Grignani, realization by Giancarlo Realini with IBM 7090 [b]

The research of the group ‘Operativo 3‘ ranged from the generation of complex structures by combining simple geometric figures, to the combination of deformations through rotating movements and many other graphic experiments which were later exhibited (1977) or published (1983) by Realini, who produced further studies on his own in the following years.

Again, we can find – as always in Grignani’s work – some similarities with earlier ‘hand-made’ works:

The exhibition catalogue concluded:

“Different researches as theme and visual result, but always aimed at an almost exasperated use of the machine and the tools of realization, in search of their limits.”

That’s a little story about the exhibition, recalled by Realini: Realini, Casali and Grignani were answering some questions about their work, Realini and Casali talking and talking… while Grignani kept in his silence; so, someone asked him: «But, Architect, do you have anything to say?» – «Me? I work». And that was all: that was my grandpa, he managed to be incisive with just a couple of words and silence the entire audience.

However, the magazine ‘arte e società’ (issue n° 2, 1975) underlined how art critics were unprepared for this kind of exhibition, unlike the public, which proved instead to be “attentive and demanding”.

Later recalling these experiences, Realini wrote in 1983: “A few years ago, when for the first time these works went out of the narrow circle of the insiders and were exposed to the public also with specific exhibitions, some were tempted to consider them as the expression of a ‘new art’. In our opinion, it would be more correct to say that a new working technique was being revealed which, economic matters aside, even artists could access. In fact, the works displayed, even if made by technicians not particularly interested in an ‘aesthetic’ discourse, had to have a value of stimulus, of novelty for the real aesthetic operators, who, we will never tire of saying, must intervene on that fact of historical importance represented by the widespread diffusion of electronic processors” [from Giancarlo Realini, “Disegnare col Computer”, 1983].

Lacking adequate recognition by art critics, unfortunately the group ‘Operativo 3‘ disbanded shortly after the first two exhibitions in 1975, although Giancarlo Realini later exhibited some further results at the ‘Galleria San Fedele’ in Milan, in February 1977. The birth of the computer “is very recent,” wrote Realini in this exhibition’s catalogue, “its penetration throughout the world very rapid: so rapid that we have not yet realized how much the computers have become necessary for our lives […] it is certain that their use will be increasing more and more.”

Giancarlo Realini has certainly been a forerunner of Computer Graphics in Italy, but abroad things were going faster and, while still in 1985 the Italian magazine ‘Linea grafica’ stated that “it still remains to be understood how graphic designers will use all the features of these new techniques”, already in 1973 Melvin Lewis Prueitt, a staff scientist from Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, was able to create 7-colour 3D computer graphics: all those who were young in Italy in 1981 can remember the beautiful animated computer graphics theme of the television show ‘Quark’ that he was commissioned, slightly anticipating the far more complex computer-generated polygonal animation in the cult movie ‘Tron‘ (1982, incidentally a financial failure for Disney at the time).


The collaboration with the two scientists was not an isolated one: in the same year 1975, Professor of Nuclear Science Giuseppe Caglioti, born in 1931, met for the first time Franco Grignani at the anthological exhibition “Franco Grignani. A Methodology of Vision” at the ‘Rotonda della Besana’ in Milan. Facing Grignani’s artworks, Professor Caglioti was fascinated – in a sort of Stendhal syndrome [as declared in 2018] – by the “disconcerting analogy between the process of spectroscopic measurement of quantum structures and the dynamic perception of ambiguous images”.

Still many years later (2013), Professor Caglioti remembered a dialogue he had on that occasion with Grignani:

«Maestro – I ask him – how come the quantum spectroscopy measurements that we physicists make in the laboratory, on which our scientific certainties are based and on which the concrete developments of new technologies are founded, resemble in such an evident way the optical illusions that I feel at the moment of the perception of these undecidable, ambiguous, absurd, inconcretizable structures of yours?» He replies: «These works are not meant to be observed by easily impressionable people. Also, why inconcretizables? Go ahead and touch them, professor!» I remained deeply disturbed. The reassuring certainties of laboratory life were melting like snow in the sun. The visit to that exhibition triggered anguished questions about the foundations of scientific problems in which I was engaging. […] Nights full of nightmares followed. There was only one way out: study the problem, trusting in the help of the person who had unwittingly raised it.

Recently reached by phone (Sept. 2021), Professor Caglioti recalled to me how he was directed to this exhibition (held some months before ‘Operativo 3‘) precisely under the suggestion of his colleagues Giancarlo Realini and Flaviano Farfaletti-Casali.

Thus was born a deep collaboration between Grignani and Caglioti that would last for years and led to some jointly agreed artworks and to the joint publication in 1983 of the book “Simmetrie infrante” (“The Dynamics of Ambiguity”, cover by Grignani): by using the concept of broken symmetries, Professor Caglioti enlightened the similarities between the process of creation of an artwork and of a scientific theory, as well as the similarity between the process of perception and of measurement.

Franco Grignani, cover for Simmetrie infrante, 1983
Franco Grignani, cover for Simmetrie infrante, 1983 [7]

Professor Giuseppe Caglioti is still engaged in the diffusion, also for didactic purposes, of the possibilities of aesthetic interpretation of some otherwise complex aspects of quantum mechanics, with constant reference to the work of Franco Grignani (see: ‘Scienza in rete‘).

Professor Giuseppe Caglioti speaking before a high school audience, April 28, 2018
Professor Giuseppe Caglioti speaking before a high school audience, April 28, 2018

“People think that men of science are there to educate you, and poets, musicians, etc., to cheer you up. That the latter have something to teach does not occur to them.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein, quoted by Giuseppe Caglioti, 2013

[*] courtesy of Daniela Grignani
[a] & featured pic (1973): ‘Operativo 3’, Marcon IV Gallery, Rome, exhibition catalogue, 1975
[b] ‘Rivista IBM’, supplement to issue n° 4, 1976
[c] Giancarlo Realini, Galleria San Fedele, Milan, exhibition catalogue, 1977
[d] Giancarlo Realini, “Disegnare col Computer”, 1983, courtesy of Giancarlo Realini
[7] AIAP / CDPG Centro di Documentazione sul Progetto Grafico, courtesy of Lorenzo Grazzani
[25] Il Post & M&L FINE ART, courtesy of Matteo Lampertico
[32] Lorenzelli arte, courtesy of Matteo Lorenzelli
[35] Design is fine, courtesy of Andrea Riegel

Last Updated on 23/10/2021 by Emiliano