First published: Spring 2015
Maria Elisa Campiotti Bérgami (1913–2011) was born in Ibitinga, a small town in the centre of the state of São Paulo, in southern Brazil, whose embroidery industry has played a large part in the local economy since the 1960s, displacing its earlier reliance on agriculture and cattle-raising. Her parents had come to Brazil from Italy. Known as “Zica”, she grew up from an early age in the city of São Paulo where her appreciation of rural settings as well as her sharp eye for the details of urban life that richly informed her visual art and helped give her pictures their distinctive character.
In the São Paulo, Bérgami lived in districts in which vestiges of traditional Brazilian life and the older urban landscape could still be found. In 1938, encouraged by her husband, an attorney, who gave her a piano as a gift, she began studying music. Her warm-hearted view of the big city was reflected in Lampião de Gás (Gas Streetlight), a nostalgia-tinged song she wrote in 1957. The Brazilian singer Inezita Barroso recorded this appealing waltz a year later, and with it scored a big, popular hit. In 1960, the song became a success in Japan when Yoko Abe performed and recorded the song in a Japanese translation. The Brazilian musicologist and music journalist José Eduardo Homem de Mello once called Lampião de Gás “the most beautiful song ever written about São Paulo”.
Bérgami, who also wrote poetry, went on to compose dozens of other songs, and in the early 1960s began to draw. Just as her songwriting was characterised by a mixture of longing, nostalgia and melancholy, her ink-on-paper drawings of everyday scenes – children playing in parks, traffic flowing along broad avenues (with an occasional head-on collision), agglomerations of high-rise buildings, bicycle races, elegantly dressed couples sweeping across the floors of dance halls – are both charming and reportorial. They are filled with informative visual details, from the shapes and textures of leafy trees to the patterns in the grillwork of a cast-iron fence or the posture of a respectful supplicant, kneeling to address a priest.