Venetian Ezio Toffolutti is deeply connected to the German-speaking world. Set and costume designer, artist, designer, architect and theater director, the Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon De Gruyter defines him as “dt. – ital.”, Deutsch-italienisch, Italian-German.
When the Wall still divided Berlin, he lived in the east, in the Berlin of the Volksbühne, where he worked alongside Benno Besson, the Swiss theater director who was a student of Bertolt Brecht. He had decided to go there, to “see what Brecht was like”.
He acquired a close familiarity with epic theater and retains his enthusiasm for it. Not even after he returned to Venice in the 1980s did his consideration for Brecht diminish. You can see he enjoys talking about him just as he had been told about him by Besson himself. Likewise, he likes to talk about Benno, with profound admiration. “Benno – smiles Ezio – could create a stage set even with just one chair”.
Benno Besson was an extraordinary master and while Toffolutti learned much from him, he was able to develop his own creativity, free from any stylistic dictates. As Nora Eckert points out, his stagings are not recognizable: each one is different from the others. Ezio Toffolutti is convinced that “each piece needs a different space”. He moves from elaborate scenery to sets with just a few simple elements.
Toffolutti has directed plays and musicals, has worked in famous theaters in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, Athens, Brussels, Geneva, Helsinki, Milan, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Vienna, Zurich and in important festivals such as the one at Avignon, the Venice Biennale, the Salzburg Festival and the Wiener Festwochen.
The cosmopolitanism conveyed by his rich curriculum is clear as soon as you meet him. He speaks German, English and French fluently, and his studio is frequented by artists and intellectuals from around the world. But Ezio remains “Venetian by birth and Venetian by choice”, even if he has not given up his connection with the capital of Germany, where he often returns. In the multilingualism of the atelier there is an element that never disappears: the Venetian accent. Ezio speaks different languages, but with a cadence that makes him and the languages he speaks unique.
“Language”, insisted Ca’ Foscari professor Giovanni Freddi, “is culture”. In saying this he meant to underline the importance of the context in which languages are used, and to illustrate that language never stands on its own but is rather an expression of culture understood broadly. Ezio Toffolutti is no exception. The accent, the intonation, the rhythm with which he speaks, and the jokes he makes reveal his visceral bond with the place in which he was born and his love for it.
One often talks about Venice with him, during conversations, in his atelier or at a bar or bacaro. He frequents some of them regularly, where he has an empathetic relationship with the managers and staff, who reciprocate with affectionate respect. A lover of good wine and Prosecco (but the good stuff), preferably organic, he likes to create occasions for meeting around tables that are reminiscent of the German Stammtische, where regular customers exchange opinions, dialogue and debate with each other. Ezio is the soul of the groups that gather around these tables – pleasant meeting places along the banks of the canals.
He accompanies his friends during conversations that seem to turn into tours of the city. His is an unusual gaze, which brings attention to aspects that are normally overlooked. Such as the light. He indicates which light fixtures are in harmony with the city and enhance its beauty, and which instead dazzle and prevent admiring precious elements like the reflections of the water or the colors of the palazzi.
Sometimes the lagoon city loses something which was once part of its beauty. Nothing escapes him, and he does not give up. On the contrary. These injuries become sources of inspiration. It was he who proposed to ytali that we question the increasingly widespread practice of cutting the aft “pizo” of the gondola – the upper end portion – and who gave us his provocative work “Castration alla veneziana”. An image that has a strong impact on everyone.
He also has a particular bond with the seagulls, who crowd the city with overtourism but are less annoying than undisciplined tourists. Some of them are at home on his terrace. They protect the city, in their own way, when they literally, and on the fly, take the bread out of tourists’ mouths. “You don’t eat in the street”, says Ezio, who is actively committed to tourism that respects the environment, the conservation of historic buildings, and respect for local living conditions.
His friends, even though they know him well, continue to sometimes be caught off guard by his statements. But they listen to him, are infected by his spirit of observation and they realize more than ever how important what he says is. Their view of the city changes after speaking with him; they notice its lights, the reflections on the water…
His narrative of the city has also reached those who live beyond its confines, touching the sensibilities of artists and intellectuals like the Turkish-German writer and winner of the 2022 Büchner Prize Emine Sevgi Özdamar.
Emine and Ezio are long-time friends. They’ve known each other since the Volksbühne days, and they are both linked to Benno Besson. Both continued to work with him in France as well. In her latest novel, Ein von Schatten begrenzter Raum (Suhrkamp 2021), Özdamar mentions Ezio several times. The protagonist meets him in France with Benno and they work together on the staging of “The Caucasian Chalk Circle” by Bertolt Brecht – in French. The young woman struggled to understand French, the language used by her colleagues. She felt small. But the company of Ezio, of Benno and of the group with whom she ate fondue prepared by Benno on Sunday was welcoming and valued her. Before leaving they sang and had her sing a song in Turkish. They loved her voice – and so she didn’t feel small anymore.
Her affection for Ezio has also remained alive in the real world. Sometimes they meet in Berlin, and Ezio sends her videos, photographs, or tales of his city. I happened to talk about him with Emine recently on the telephone while on vacation in her native Turkey. The writer did not fail to ask about him, to tell me about his messages, to comment on them, or to mention the most recent articles that have appeared in the international press about his stagings, in French or German, and she says: “Wie schön!”, How beautiful!
Translation by Paul Rosenberg