Kolë Idromeno’s ‘Dy Rrugët e Jepës’ - Jeffrey P Charest
Kolë Idromeno’s ‘Dy Rrugët’, 1896
In 2015 while researching Albanian musical instruments for my doctoral Thesis, I had my first encounter with the Albanian painter Nikollë ‘Kolë’ Idromeno (1860-1939) and his monumental painting ‘Dy Rrugët e Jepës’, ‘The Two Roads of Life’. In a work on Albanian mythology, I found an image of a group of Albanian men adorned in fezzes, drinking raki and listening to music on an old-style Albanian saz and violin or qemane held upright, ‘á la Turk’. But what most intrigued me were the two leather-winged devils that stood alongside the men, enjoying the festivities and urging them on. What was the meaning of this? Naturally, an intensive internet hunt for the source of this image ensued. It came from Kolë Idromeno’s ‘Dy Rrugët e Jepës’’.
At my first sight of the entire painting I was astounded by its panoramic size (200x175 cm), its wealth of detail - 10 vividly coloured human, angelic and diabolical figures - and the epic quality of its composition and philosophical and religious themes. The convivial gathering forms one vignette in a vast tableau that encompasses the whole range of human activities from the saintly to the heinously brutal, and social classes from lords and nobles to the most abjectly poor. As I investigated this painting and its history I discovered that it provided a glimpse into an obscure aspect of Ottoman-era Albanian culture: the practice of picture-recitation, an art form once enormously popular throughout Europe and Asia until the twentieth century advent of cinema and television.
Idromeno was born in 1860 in Shkodër; his father Arsen Idromeno, native to Parga, today in Greek Epirus, moved to Shkodër in 1856 where he married Roza Saraçi, daughter of a well-to-do Shkodran family. Kolë showed an early interest in the arts and in his early teens he was apprenticed to the famous Italian photographer Pietro/Pjetër Marubi who had made Shkodër his home in exile. In 1875 Arsen, on Marubi’s advice, enrolled his son in the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice. Kolë remained there less than a year but spent several years working as an artist’s apprentice and traveling around Italy studying great artworks of the Italian Renaissance, whose influence is evident in ‘Dy Rrugët’, especially in its depictions of heaven and the mouth of hell.
Detail of heaven, ‘Dy Rrugët’
In addition to painting, Kolë worked as photographer, cinematographer, composer and architect - he designed Shkodër’s St. Stephen Cathedral’s coffered ceiling and Parrucë Mosque - and his art featured in many international exhibitions in his lifetime. He died on 12th December 1939 and was buried in the Rrmajit Catholic cemetery in Shkodër. Though a huge crowd accompanied his funeral procession, sadly ‘the press of the time, neither in Shkodër nor in Tirana, wrote not a single line about him.’
Detail of the mouth of hell, ‘Dy Rrugët’
Idromeno played an important role in the Albanian Renaissance, the Rilindja movement of the late 19th-early 20th century, and is often called the ‘Father of Albanian Realism’. Realism, an artistic school developed in the mid-19th century. It eschewed the Classical and Romanticist preferences for idealism and mythological or historical themes, opting instead for everyday subjects shown ‘warts and all’. Realism differs from naturalism in that where the latter aims to faithfully reproduce how things appear in nature, realist painters often incorporate social or political commentaries in their works.
This blend of realism, social commentary and Renaissance influence infuses Idromeno’s religious paintings with their special character. The commitment to realism saved his overtly religious paintings like ‘Dy Rrugët’ from the communist anti-religion purges. ‘Dy Rrugët’ in particular functions as much as an ethnographic document of turn of the century Albanian society as it does a tool for Catholic moral instruction.
Idromeno painted ‘Dy Rrugët’ between 1890-1896, restoring it around 1909 (curiously adding Edith Durham’s image near the road to hell’s arch). At some later point, the painting was lost and not rediscovered until the 1970s. It was repaired and restored and in 2019 it featured in a major exhibition of Idromeno’s works at the Galeria Kombëtar e Arteve, the National Museum of Art, in Tirana. Currently ‘Dy Rrugët’ is on display at the Shkodër Historical Museum near the city centre.
According to Albanian art historian Eleni Laperi, Franciscan friars in Shkodër commissioned the work as a kind of traveling storytelling device they could take and display to often non-literate parishioners throughout the north Albanian highlands. Idromeno and the Franciscans felt great concern for Albania’s moral and cultural conditions; in the Malësia’s isolated valleys seemingly endless blood feuds, the notorious gjakmarrë, could decimate the male populations of entire villages or regions. As a result, men would sometimes marry their dead brothers’ widows - practice frowned on by the church—even taking two or more wives, perhaps in imitation of their Muslim neighbours. In addition, rural priests often felt profound dismay at the decidedly pagan theological views of their rustic parishioners; Edith Durham recalled one cheerful young gallant who professed no fear of gjakmarrë because when he died his soul would go to neither heaven nor hell but would simply fly away like a bird on the wing.
Detail of a blood feud, ‘Dy Rrugët’
The painting’s depiction of gjakmarrë and other social ills thus graphically illustrated, in specifically Albanian visual language, the friars’ sermons on the rewards of virtue, wages of sin, and the Gospel.
The art of picture-recitation was a popular form of entertainment that originated in India during the Mauryan Empire of the 3rd-1st centuries BCE. Itinerant minstrels and storytellers would recite or sing epics, romances or heroic legends while gesturing to the various scenes on their painted scrolls or screens to bring the stories to colourful life for their enthralled audiences. In the 1st millennium AD Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Manichaeans and wandering priests of myriad ‘folk’ religions from Java and China to Russia and Egypt had adopted picture-recitation as an effective and popular missionizing method. An 18th century Arab scholar described Iranian Sūrat khwān as ‘someone who, sitting in marketplaces, displays and lectures for people on figures of gods and men and their treatment on the day of resurrection, both rewards and punishment, and receives some (money) from them.’
By the 9th-10th century, rolled paintings depicting scenes from the exultet liturgy of the Praeconium paschale or ‘Easter proclamation’ were used in southern Italy. The Shkodran Franciscans that commissioned ‘Dy Rrugët’ appear then to have been following a tradition of picture preaching already a millennium old.
On one level, Idromeno painted this landscape as an earthly Albanian highland scene familiar to its audience. Compositionally, he followed ancient genre convention as he centered the painting on the mountain that points directly to the realm of heaven, with several bands of rocks and trees marking off the two main fields of action - the roads to heaven and hell - as well as individual vignettes along each path. In the picture-recitation tradition this artistic strategy lent coherence to the complex, densely populated compositions and aided reciters as they verbally unfolded the narrative’s episodes.
Detail of itinerant storytellers, ‘Dy Rrugët’
This composition follows another picture-recitation tradition in which the mountain represents the Axis Mundi, where heaven and earth meet, and the tree becomes the Tree of Life. The earthly landscape thus transforms into a sacred, cosmological one, where the human figures’ everyday actions are revealed as meaningful patterns of events with spiritual consequences in life and the afterlife.
Taken together, these points - the painting’s intended use for religiously themed picture-recitation; the portrayal of heaven and hell; Idromeno’s use of rocks, trees, and mountain to lend narrative structure and symbolic meaning to the landscape, and the densely arranged and vividly coloured figures - suggest to me that Idromeno, his Franciscan patrons and their intended Albanian audiences were working within an Albanian picture-recitation tradition still living at the close of the 19th century but that seems to have since disappeared, unremarked, yet awaiting further investigation.