YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Colorful Pals : 2 Gentlemen From Italy Add New Hues to Friendship With Opera Mural Project


They are just a couple of old friends from the old country.

That's the way Giovanni Palomba and Franco Altavilla describe the bond that has brought them together at a busy street corner in West Los Angeles.

One is an artist who for 45 years painted Michelangelo-like angels on church walls and ornate friezes on ceilings for celebrities such as Liberace and for other wealthy patrons.

The other is owner of an Italian restaurant where framed reproductions of old masters cover the walls and the music of Scarlatti and the scent of linguini primavera fill the air.

They met 16 years ago at an Italian church in Los Angeles' Chinatown. Palomba, who has lived in this country 4 1/2 decades, was surprised to learn that Altavilla was a skilled stonecutter. In fact, the restaurant site was first leased as a sculpture studio by Altavilla, a U.S. resident since the mid-1960s.

For years the two friends met frequently to discuss art and music and to argue politics. They would sit for hours, sharing bottles of wine and cheeses imported from their respective hometowns--the Naples area for Palomba, the village of Oria for Altavilla.

But when 77-year-old Palomba of San Pedro suffered a stroke that left him lying unconscious on the floor, he feared his life as an artist was over.

That thought left Altavilla stricken too. Palomba's talent was too precious to waste away, he decided. So was his friend's zest for life.

So Altavilla cajoled his friend to take brush in hand one more time to paint the walls outside his Gianfranco Delizie Italiane.

Each day he drapes plastic tarps over the front of his restaurant and maneuvers a motorized lift out of a back storeroom and onto the sidewalk. Then he loads paint cans into its basket and helps his friend climb inside.

Slowly--with deliberate and sometimes halting brush strokes--Palomba is creating scenes from the world's most cherished operas on the white stucco above Santa Monica Boulevard.

For both men, it is a labor of love.

"If I stay home, I feel like I'm dead or something," Palomba said. "When I paint, I feel like Pavarotti. I feel like a musician playing beautiful music."

Said the 57-year-old Altavilla: "It's fun to be with him. He is a very talented artist--his work will bring joy to many people."

After the stroke, Palomba was wary about climbing back on the ladders and scaffolding that helped define his career.

"It was the only time I'd seen him sad," Altavilla said. "He told me, 'I think I'm finished.' "

Palomba's strength gradually returned. But his nerve was lagging the day Altavilla proposed the opera murals.

"He said, 'No, it's too big for me now,' " Altavilla recounted. "I told him that I needed help, that I wanted him to make the restaurant nice. I told him not to worry, that I'd make a nice scaffold outside. I said we'd do it slowly."

Altavilla rented the motorized lift and the pair spent an hour arguing over it before Palomba finally acknowledged that riding on a platform was easier than climbing one.

It took three weeks to finish the first opera panel, "Cavalleria Rusticana." He started a scene from "Pagliacci" last week. After that comes "Rigoletto" and then either "Tosca" or "Madama Butterfly." The pair are arguing over which one to paint.

Palomba's wife, Grazia, watches from the sidewalk as the opera scenes take shape. "She helps me get the lines straight," the artist explained.

Passersby say they enjoy watching the wall being transformed. "Beautiful, terrific," said Andrea Thompson, a deputy district attorney who works at a nearby courthouse.

"It's giving life to an old building," said lawyer James Blatt of Encino.

It's giving life to two old friends too.

"Sometimes I think he may not finish," said Altavilla with a grin. "We'll get 'Madama Butterfly' done, I hope."

"You mean 'Tosca,' " replied Palomba with a laugh. "You think I'm going to retire? Never!"

Los Angeles Times Articles