A lyrical illustrated cosmogony serenading the ephemeral and the eternal.
By Maria Popova
“Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them,” Albert Camus wrote. Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer, observed a century earlier as she contemplated the nature of the imagination and its three core faculties: “Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently… that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us.”
This “discovering faculty” of the imagination, which breathes life into both the most captivating myths and the deepest layers of reality, is what animated Italian artist Alessandro Sanna one winter afternoon when he glimpsed a most unusual tree branch from the window of a moving train — a branch that looked like a sensitive human silhouette, mid-fall or mid-embrace.
As Sanna cradled the enchanting image in his mind and began sketching it, he realized that something about the “body language” of the branch reminded him of a small, delicate, terminally ill child he’d gotten to know during his visits to Turin’s Pediatric Hospital. In beholding this common ground of tender fragility, Sanna’s imagination leapt to a foundational myth of his nation’s storytelling — the Pinocchio story.
In the astonishingly beautiful and tenderhearted Pinocchio: The Origin Story (public library), Sanna imagines an alternative prequel to the beloved story, a wordless genesis myth of the wood that became Pinocchio, radiating a larger cosmogony of life, death, and the transcendent continuity between the two.
A fitting follow-up to The River — Sanna’s exquisite visual memoir of life on the Po River in Northern Italy, reflecting on the seasonality of human existence — this imaginative masterwork dances with the cosmic unknowns that eclipse human life and the human mind with their enormity: questions like what life is, how it began, and what happens when it ends.
Origin myths have been our oldest sensemaking mechanism for wresting meaning out of these as-yet-unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions. But rather than an argument with science and our secular sensibility, Sanna’s lyrical celebration of myth embodies Margaret Mead’s insistence on the importance of poetic truth in the age of facts.
The tree is an organic choice for this unusual cosmogony — after all, trees have inspired centuries of folk tales around the world; a 17th-century English gardener marveled at how they “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons” and Hermann Hesse called them “the most penetrating of preachers.”
It is both a pity and a strange comfort that Sanna’s luminous, buoyant watercolors and his masterful subtlety of scale don’t fully translate onto this screen — his analog and deeply humane art is of a different order, almost of a different time, and yet woven of the timeless and the eternal.
The story begins with a comet that crashes onto earth, bringing with it the seed of life. Out of it a tree grows. Lightning strikes it, severing a small branch that comes alive and begins roaming the earth.
As the branch-body encounters the world and its creatures, it lives and dies and lives again — in the bellies of beasts, in the bellowing depths of the ocean, in the moon-kissed valleys of the earth — until it crawls out of the primordial seas of existence as the promise of a new tree.
Reminiscent in spirit to the Japanese pop-up masterpiece Little Tree, though dramatically different both conceptually and aesthetically, Sanna’s modern myth explores the commonest story of all — the shared journey of existence and its counterpoint — with uncommon imaginative elegance.
Pinocchio: The Origin Story, inarticulably beautiful in its analog entirety, comes from Brooklyn-based Enchanted Lion, modern mythmaker of such inspired treasures as The Lion and the Bird, Cry, Heart, But Never Break, and Louis I, King of the Sheep.
Complement it with this illustrated celebration of ancient Indian origin myths and its contemporary Western counterpart, A Graphic Cosmogony, then revisit Sanna’s beguiling previous book, The River.