Paolo De Poli (1905-1996) enameler, painter, metal worker, designer

Born in Padua in 1905, Paolo De Poli studied drawing and metal embossing at the art school of Pietro Selvatico in Padua, and oil painting at the school of Guido Trentini in Verona. Beginning as a painter, in 1926 he first participated in the Venice Biennale with a still life in oil. During travels and visits to art museums and archaeological sites, De Poli was captivated by the ancient art of vitreous or “porcelain” enamel, and from 1932 onward dedicated himself to creating works of enamels on metal. At the time, enameling was scarcely practiced in Italy and was traditionally confined to precious objects and sacred art. As there were no enameling masters, De Poli had to teach himself, at first experimenting with small decorative objects in varying shapes and opaque colors, improving and innovating his techniques until he mastered the craft.

De Poli’s earliest enamel works were small and classically painted. Some of his painted enamel panels and objects were exhibited in the Decorative Art section of the 1934 Venice Biennale. His preferred medium was copper, and through the 1930s he continued expanding the surface area of his pieces, enhancing the transparency and opacity of the enamels, the range of colors, and building greater thickness and texture. For transparent glazes, he learned to apply thick layers of colorless nail polish directly on the surface of the copper, building bright, intense layers of color while enabling the more delicate copper rose color to shine through from underneath. The finishing of pieces in the oven, the most difficult and unpredictable stage of the process, was the most creatively exciting part for De Poli. Together with mastering his techniques, he was elaborating his own distinctive expressive language.

Among De Poli’s early larger works were altarpieces and panels of the Stations of the Cross for churches in Padua, Bergamo, and Treviso. As his recognition grew, he had works displayed in international exhibitions in Brussels (1935), Paris (1937), New York (1939), as well as in decorative shows and art fairs in Florence, Cairo, Helsinki, Monaco, London, Oslo, Stockholm, and Beirut. In the 1940s he first collaborated with Gio Ponti on furniture and decorative panels, and later on novel design pieces and sculptural forms. In addition to vases, bowls, trays, plates, cups, plaques and doorhandles in enameled copper, he also worked on large decorative panels for ocean liners, hotels, universities, public buildings, and private collectors in Italy and abroad.

Besides Ponti, Di Poli collaborated with other renowned architect-designers such as Guglielmo Ulrich and Melchiorre Bega, as well as artists such as Filippo De Pisis, Bruno Saetti, Gino Severini, and sculptor Marcello Mascherini. He also collaborated on producing modern pieces of Murano glass and Faenza majolica. In the 1950s Ponti persuaded Di Poli to try enameling on steel and iron, incorporating silver leaf for color. First leading to pieces such as trays and sculptural animal forms, the transition from traditional enameling materials to steel and iron would prove pivotal to the art form. Ponti then commissioned Di Poli to create 28 silver-leafed panels for the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Plaza, New York (1958).

Color was at the center of Di Poli’s work, and during his long career he worked with some 400 colors, developing an extensive variety of striking combinations, often drawing inspiration from nature. A constant experimenter, he always searched for new forms, and new ideas for glazing, delighting in exceeding the limits of enamel in relation to the form. Working largely from his studio in Padua, Di Poli produced panels and decorative elements, furniture, balustrades, fireplace claddings, doorknobs and handrails. He also created unique pieces in enameled gold, mostly jewelry, for his wife, family and friends. Despite the high cost of enamel production, his pieces became among the most admired of Italian design products both in Italy and abroad, especially in the US. Di Poli’s enamel work came to be seen as a unique expression of Italian Modern style.

Di Poli remained creatively active for over fifty years. He exhibited 14 times at the Venice Biennale, and 10 times at the Milan Triennale, for which he also served on the board of directors. In 1970 he was decorated with the title Cavaliere del Lavoro. His personal archives of designs, prototypes, photographs, etc., are entrusted to the University of Venice, and many of his works are in the permanent collections of important museums. Regarded as the modern master of fired enamel, Paolo Di Poli revived the ancient art of enamel on metal, extending its traditional application to that of decorative objects for modern environments. Thanks to him, enamel work in Italy is now an established area of the decorative arts, as well as of study. As Gio Ponti put it, “If we can speak of an Italian art of enamel, it is thanks to De Poli.”

Brooklyn Museum, NY
Musei Civici, Padua
International Gallery of Modern Art, Ca’ Pesaro, Venice
University of Padua
The Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, Rome

The Italian Metamorphosis, 1943-1968, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, NY, 1994
Homage to Manhattan, Enamels by Paolo De Poli, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, NY, 1967
Italy at Work, Brooklyn Museum, NY, 1950
Homage to Paolo De Poli, Museum of Science and Technology, Milan, 1972
L’arte dello smalto: Paolo De Poli, Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, 1984

De Poli: Enamels, Guarnati, Milano, 1958
L’arte dello smalto: Paolo De Poli, by Pier Luigi Fantelli, Arte Grafica Bolzonella, Padua, 1984