Athos Menaboni (1895–1990)
Italian-born artist Athos Menaboni arrived in Georgia in the late 1920s and remained active until his death at the age of ninety-four. His early career focused primarily on corporate projects, including the creation of murals for clients in Atlanta, before he turned to painting birds from life, usually in pairs and in their natural habitats. Today Menaboni is best known for his numerous paintings of more than 150 different species of birds native to the Atlanta region.
Athos Rodolfo Giorgio Alessandro Menaboni developed a profound respect for and love of 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 (known as Babbo) Menaboni. His father was a ship chandler and successful businessman, which allowed the family to live prosperously. The family vacationed in the mountains of Tuscany and often captured wild animals as potential family pets. Babbo Menaboni built an aviary to house the increasing number of wild birds that his family brought home.
Menaboni's artistic talent was evident in childhood, and at the age of nine he studied with Ugo Manaresi, a marine painter. Two years later the child became an apprentice to Charles Doudelet, a Belgian artist who specialized in painting murals. He then studied with the 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. The teenager joined the Italian army and served for four years.
Loath to join the family business after the war, Menaboni joined the crew of the U.S. vessel Colethraps under Captain John Hashagen, a friend of the family who sponsored Menaboni upon his arrival in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1921. This sponsorship allowed Menaboni to stay in the country, and he later became a citizen in 1936. He lived initially in New York City, where he struggled financially and socially because he barely spoke English. In 1924 he left New York to serve as art director and interior decorator for a resort on Davis Island in Tampa Bay, Florida, remaining there until the resort went bankrupt in 1926.
Menaboni was briefly employed as an interior designer for a shrine temple in Macon, Georgia, before settling in Atlanta, where he remained for the rest of his long life. At first Menaboni lived in a boarding house on Eleventh Street, where he fortuitously met Sara Regina Arnold, the niece of his landlords and a student at Shorter College (later Shorter University) in her hometown of Rome. After a one-year courtship, the couple married on August 14, 1928, and Sara soon began juggling multiple 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 his collaborator, supplying text to accompany his ornithological drawings; and as his partner in making their home a sanctuary for wildlife.
The couple settled into a small apartment on Eleventh Street and survived financially through commissions acquired through the prominent Atlanta architect Philip Trammell Shutze. Menaboni designed murals for Swan House, the home of Emily and Edward Inman that is now part of the Atlanta History Center. That work led to additional commissions for private homes, public buildings, and places of worship. Though they lived in a building with thirty-six apartments in midtown Atlanta, the couple developed a reputation for rehabilitating injured and abandoned animals, particularly birds.
The childless couple longed for a place of their own, surrounded by nature. In 1939 the couple purchased a six-acre parcel of land in Sandy Springs, where they built first an aviary and then a house. In 1942 they moved into the new house, named Valle Ombrosa ("Shady Valley"), after the village 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 from memory a cardinal, which was inspired by the work of John James Audubon and Menaboni's own careful observations of the animal in nature. This single painting opened a new avenue of work for Menaboni when Molly Aeck, a visiting interior decorator and friend, saw the painting and sold it to a client. Menaboni eventually obtained federal and state permits to capture rare and protected species in the aviary at Valle Ombrosa in order to study them. In his pursuit of accuracy Menaboni occasionally studied carcasses of birds and specimens in museum collections, but he preferred to capture an animal's distinct personality by observing it in nature. He was meticulous in painting both the birds and the flora of their habitat. Using thin layers of oil paints for a translucent quality, he painted on wood, silk, canvas, glass, and mirrors.
The height of Menaboni's career occurred during the 1940s and 1950s, when he created yearly Christmas cards for Robert Woodruff, the president of the Coca-Cola Company. His work appeared in advertisements and magazines, which led to the publication in 1950 of the book Menaboni's Birds, with illustrations by Menaboni and text by his wife. He also illustrated the American bird article in The World Book Encyclopedia in 1957, and his work was exhibited widely during this time. His lithograph American Bald Eagle is included in Georgia's 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 to Callaway Gardens. The largest archive of Menaboni papers and possessions is located in the Troup County Archives in LaGrange, and Menaboni collections are also found at both the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University in Atlanta, and the Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Georgia in Athens.
The Albany Museum of Art opened an exhibition entitled Living on the Wind: The Bird Paintings of Athos Menaboni in 2001, and in 2009 an exhibition of Menaboni's work entitled Athos Menaboni: Portrait of a Painter opened at Kennesaw State University. The Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State has one of the largest collections in the world of Menaboni’s work.