Athos Menaboni – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
Italian-born artist Athos Menaboni arrived in Georgia in the late 1920s and remained active until his death at the age of ninety-four. Early in his career, he focused primarily on painting murals and creating other decorative items for clients in Atlanta and around the state. He then turned to painting birds from nature, usually in pairs and in their natural habitats. Today Menaboni is best known for his many paintings of over 150 different species of birds.
Youth and education
Athos Rodolfo Giorgio Alessandro Menaboni developed a deep respect and love for nature from his early childhood in the seaport of Livorno, Italy. The second of five children, he was born on October 20, 1895 to Jenny Neri and Averardo Menaboni. His father was a ship supplier and a successful businessman, which allowed the family to live prosperously. Averardo had clients from all over the world who often gave him exotic animals that would become pets. He even had his son build an aviary for a collection of exotic birds.
Menaboni’s artistic talent was evident in his childhood, and at the age of nine he began art lessons with Ugo Manaresi, an Italian marine painter. He then became an apprentice with Charles Doudelet, a Belgian artist specializing in mural painting. He also studied with sculptor Pietro Gori and later attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, Italy, until the outbreak in 1914 of World War I in Europe. During the war, Menaboni served in the Italian army for four years.
Reluctant to join the family business after the war, Menaboni joined the crew of the American ship SS Colthraps under Master John Hashagen, a family friend who sponsored Menaboni when he arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1921. This sponsorship allowed Menaboni to remain in the country, and he later became a citizen in 1939. He d first lived in New York. , where he struggled financially and socially because he barely spoke English. In 1924 he left New York to take up the position of artistic director of a new real estate development on Davis Island in Tampa, Florida, remaining there until he went bankrupt in 1926.
Career in Georgia
After leaving Florida, Menaboni settled in Atlanta, where he remained for the rest of his long life. At first, Menaboni lived in a downtown boarding house, where he happened to meet Sara Regina Arnold, the niece of its owners and a student at Shorter College (later Shorter University) in his hometown of Rome. After a year-long courtship, the couple married on August 14, 1928, and Sara soon began to juggle several roles as Menaboni’s social secretary, allowing him the solitude he craved as an artist; as his agent, sending his work to galleries and actively seeking clients for him; as a collaborator, providing text to accompany his ornithological drawings; and as a partner in making their home a wildlife sanctuary.
The couple settled into a small apartment and survived financially through commissions acquired by prominent Atlanta architect Philip Trammell Shutze. Menaboni designed murals for Swan House, the home of Emily and Edward Inman which is now part of the Atlanta History Center. This work led to additional commissions for private homes, public buildings and places of worship. Although they lived in a thirty-six apartment building in downtown Atlanta, the couple earned a reputation for rehabilitating injured and abandoned animals, especially birds.
The childless couple yearned for a place of their own, surrounded by nature. In 1939, the couple bought a six-acre plot of land in Sandy Springs, where they built first an aviary and then, in 1942, a house. Their property was known as Valle Ombrosa (“Shady Valley”), named after the village of Vallombrosa, located southeast of Florence, Italy, where Menaboni had spent summers as a child.
In 1937, during a lull in commissioned work, Menaboni had time to paint a cardinal from memory, inspired by the work of John James Audubon and Menaboni’s own careful observations of the bird in the wild. This unique painting opened up a new avenue of work for Menaboni when Molly Aeck, a visiting interior designer and friend, saw the painting and sold it to a client. Menaboni eventually obtained federal and state permits to capture rare and protected species from the Valle Ombrosa aviary for study. In his quest for precision, Menaboni occasionally studied bird carcasses and specimens in museum collections, but preferred to capture an animal’s distinct personality by observing it in the wild. He was meticulous in painting the birds and flora of their habitat. Using thin layers of oil paint to create a translucent quality – a technique he called his “underpainting method” – he painted on wood, silk, canvas and glass.
The peak of Menaboni’s career came in the 1940s and 1950s, when he created annual Christmas cards for Robert Woodruff, president of the Coca-Cola Company. His work appeared in advertisements and magazines, leading to the publication in 1950 of the book The birds of Menaboni, with illustrations by Menaboni and text by his wife. He also illustrated the article on the American bird in The World Book Encyclopedia in 1957, and his work was widely exhibited during this time. His lithograph American bald eagle is included in the Georgia State Art Collection.
Menaboni died on July 18, 1990 from complications of a stroke. His wife died on August 10, 1993. The couple left their estate in Callaway Gardens. The largest archive of Menaboni papers and possessions is at the Troup County Archives in LaGrange, and the Menaboni Collections are also at both the Manuscript, Archive, and Rare Book Library of Stuart A. Rose at Emory University in Atlanta, and the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia in Athens.
Exhibits honoring Menaboni’s life and art continue to be mounted across Georgia. Other recent exhibitions have taken place at the Albany Museum of Art, Berry College in Rome and on Jekyll Island. In 2016 a permanent exhibition, Athos Menaboni: nature in its transcendent detailopened at Callaway Gardens.