The younger brother of surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico, Alberto de Chirico—who in 1914 adopted the pseudonym Alberto Savinio—was born in Athens in 1891 to a noble Italian-speaking family from Dalmatia. Following his father’s death, after a short stay in Italy, he moved to Munich with his mother and brother in 1906. In Germany he studied counterpoint with the composer Max Reger and wrote an opera entitled Carmela. At the end of February 1907 he and his mother left Munich to move to Italy, living first in Rome and then Milan and Florence. Here the brothers studied ancient languages, classic and modern literature, music and philosophy, and practised painting and drawing, working alongside to lay the foundations of the new Metaphysical language.
In 1911 he moved to Paris, where he completely separated his activity from his brother’s—Savinio writing music and De Chirico painting, but in January 1914 his brother introduced him to Guillaume Apollinaire. The two became friends and collaborators, and Savinio participated briefly in the activities of the avant-garde artistic circles that gravitated around the poet. Savinio’s first literary production developed in this cultural milieu. He collaborated with Les Soirées de Paris, the journal directed by Apollinaire, and in May 1914 he held a concert at its headquarters, presenting Les Chants de la mi-mort, a mixed work of “dramatic scenes” inspired by the Risorgimento, in which music, literature, theatre and set design blended together, taking up the old Romantic aspiration of Gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art.
When Italy entered the Great War (May 1915) the brothers returned to Florence, and were sent to Ferrara as part of the infantry reserves. Here they began to correspond extensively with Ardengo Soffici and Giovanni Papini, who helped introduce them to Italy’s literary and artistic circles. Carlo Carrà arrived in Ferrara in the spring of 1917, giving rise to the short-lived alliance that would arbitrarily be dubbed the ‘Metaphysical School’. In Ferrara Savinio abandoned music and devoted himself entirely to literature, although he never stopped drawing, virtually working in secret. From 1919 to 1923, Savinio, his brother and Carrà were part of the driving force behind the literary and artistic group surrounding the Roman magazine Valori Plastici, founded by Mario Broglio.
n the early 1920s Savinio collaborated with all of the leading literary reviews in Italy, including La Ronda, Il Primato and Il Convegno. During this period he also returned to music and theatre, collaborating with Luigi Pirandello’s Teatro d’Arte, which in 1925 staged the ballet La morte di Niobe in Rome, with music and lyrics by Savinio, and set design and costumes by De Chirico. In 1926 he joined his brother in Paris, and began to paint seriously, gaining both critical and public acclaim; unfortunately, this success was short-lived and came to an end with the crash of 1929. His first solo show, held at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1927, was presented by Jean Cocteau. Although his brother became estranged from the movement, Savinio continued to cultivate the contacts he had made with André Breton and the Surrealists. On a commercial level, he worked with the galleries that gravitated around Paul Guillaume and Léonce Rosenberg, and in 1928 the latter commissioned him to decorate one of the rooms in his Parisian home.
In 1933 he returned to Italy, initially settling in Turin but then moving to Rome. Starting in the mid-1930s and throughout the 1940s, he devoted his time exclusively to literary activities and journalism. During this period he virtually abandoned easel painting, practising it only occasionally, and devoted his time to graphics, often illustrating his own publications and those of other authors. Following World War II he took up music again, composing the ballet Vita dell’uomo. At the same time, he also directed plays and designed sets, collaborating successfully with the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, for which he executed his last work in 1952 with the staging of Gioacchino Rossini’s Armida.