Alessandro Biffignandi, one of Italy’s finest painters of cover art and illustrations for comics and magazines, is primarily associated with his intimate connection with Italian erotic pocket books in the 1970s and 80s. His signature rarely appeared, so even in Italy he was little known, and only in recent years has his work been celebrated.
Erotic horror comics, ‘sexy fumetti’, began to appear in Italy in the late 1960s, but exploded when Renzo Barbieri set up Edifumetto to publish titles like Biancaneve, an erotic version of Snow White, and Zora la Vampira. The covers painted by Biffignandi and his contemporaries featured bare-buttocked and -breasted models, colourful monsters, and hints of sadism. The storylines covered everything from horror to history, fantasy to fairy tales, but the best feature was inevitably the eye-popping covers by Biffignandi and his contemporaries Emanuele Taglietti, Roberto Molino and Carlo Jacono. In the mid-1970s these titles sold in their millions every month, but sales had collapsed by 1984, although some titles would continue to be published until the end of the decade.
Alessandro Romano Biffignandi grew up in Rome, and developed an early interest in art and cartoons through reading the Italian Disney comic Topolino. At seventeen he made his debut as a cartoonist working on Captain Walter for AVE. After graduating from art school, where he developed a fascination with film posters, he became an apprentice to movie theatre billboard designer Averardo Ciriello, then at the age of twenty he was head-hunted by the studio of Augusto Favelli, at the time Italy’s most prolific provider of movie posters.
He settled in Milan in the late 1950s, initially providing work for French comic strips Flambo, Agent K-3, Peter Berg, John Kine and Rombo Bill, and covers for Nevada, Hondo, Kiwi, Rodeo and Zemla, published by Lyon-based Lug. An association with the D’Ami studio in Milan meant that from 1960 he became a prolific cover artist for the pocket war libraries published in the UK by Fleetway Publications. His talents ranged from sports (a dozen covers for Tiger Sports Library) to schoolgirls (Schoolgirls’ Picture Library), and the fantastic (Fleetway Super Library Stupendous Series).
Biffignandi was also an illustrator for Italian magazines, amongst them La Tribuna Illustrata, Domenica del Corriere, Grazia and Confidenze, and cover artist for I Rosa Mondadori, Intrepido, Il Monello, Lanciostory and UFO. During the early 1970s he was commissioned by Giorgio Cavedon’s company Ediperiodici, which had launched a series of adult horror titles, and that in turn led to his long and fruitful association with Edifumetto.
In 2016, less than a year before his death, the London-based English-language publisher Korero Press produced a retrospective of Biffagnandi’s erotic work, Sex and Horror: The Art of Alessandro Biffignandi, with a foreword by the American artist and sculptor Mark Alfrey, which as the book is no longer available we reproduce here:
Italy has been keeping an exciting secret from you! In the early 1970s a bold new type of adult comic book began to hit the country’s newsstands. Known in Italy as ‘sexy fumetti’, these comics were notorious for featuring no-holds-barred sex and violence, and their covers were rendered by some of the greatest Italian illustrators of the time. The foremost name in the ‘sexy fumetti’ cover art of the period was Alessandro Biffignandi, who produced some great work for the publisher Edifumetto.
I found my first ‘sexy fumetti’ original cover painting by sheer luck. One day, on a whim, I felt compelled to do a web search for ‘Italian pulp art’. I’m not sure why I chose this combination of terms; maybe I had certain expectations: I knew that Italy has been knocking it out of the creative park since the Renaissance. I’m a big fan of spaghetti westerns and the stylish Italian horror films of the late 70s. I love the styles of European comic art, and their healthy attitude toward nudity.
So it seemed logical to me that I’d find something of interest. Alas, I found just one item: a painting listed in a gallery of American comic and sports collectibles. It was by ‘A. Biffignandi’, and was simply described as ‘Italian pulp art’. Despite my 25+ years of appreciating popular comic, fantasy, and movie poster illustration, this painting, with its background featuring Rome’s iconic Colosseum, presented a style and feeling I’d never seen before. I traced the surname Biffignandi (pronounced biffin-YAHN-dee), got the artist’s first name, discovered what this painting had been created for, and then learned with great joy that this was just one of about a thousand such works floating around Europe.
So why has this art been a secret for so many years? Actually, it has not been a secret in many parts of the world. The ‘sexy fumetti’ were created in Italy, and then licensed and translated into over a dozen different languages, finding distribution throughout the many countries of Europe, Central America and South America, North Africa, and French-speaking Canada. Tens of millions of copies were produced over a decade. Only a paltry twenty or so issues, however, are known to have been translated into English — those were published in the UK; none are known to have been published for the sexually uptight American populace. So it’s probably due to the language barrier that English-speaking countries, regardless of their massive comic fanbases, have to this point had such little awareness of Italy’s adult comics.
Biffignandi is the last of the old masters, and one of the very few of his kind who rendered cover art for publisher Edifumetto’s infamous adult comics. His covers sometimes referenced famous TV and movie characters, set in bizarre and unlikely situations. It’s an approach that pre-dates the American lowbrow pop art movement by about twenty years. Biffignandi’s extraordinary talent often elevated the subject matter above exploitation. At first glance the image serves its commercial intent. But then something else happens: you hesitate to turn the page, as if your mind is determined to grasp the mystery of the imagery.
Had he been alive in the time of Michelangelo, we might be discussing his works for the Catholic Church. What might Michelangelo have painted, had he been looking for work in 1970s Italy? Particularly notable is Biffignandi’s use of colour. No matter how colourful the work, there’s always a perfect harmony to the palette. Typical ‘sexy fumetti’ cover art can appear garish, but in the hands of Biffignandi the colours sing like a choir. His brushwork is a trademark of his art: it’s a style that resembles the dimensional rake marks of a sculpting tool. Which is fascinating to me, being a sculptor myself. His brush strokes appear effortless; in fact, his work seems to lack a single laboured or unnecessary stroke.
Biffigandi’s paintings were usually rendered with little knowledge of the comic’s storyline. But relation to the story was not imperative: it was the covers that sold the comics. Additionally, buyers weren’t limited to the adult market; although the comics were labelled ‘for adults only’, friends of mine who grew up in 1970s Italy have told me about buying these comics at the age of twelve! Newsstand vendors would strategically place the adult comics alongside mainstream ones such as Tex and Superman.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed some brief interactions with Biffignandi. Although we don’t speak the same language, we have managed to communicate through internet translators and friends. I’ve found him to be a kind yet shy man. Having hired him for a commission, I found him to be easy going and masterful in his work, even at the age of eighty.
Biffignandi’s work for Edifumetto deserves a page in the history of pop culture art. As with artists like Mark Ryden and Robert Williams, his subject matter should in no way preclude it from high regard. After all, there are plenty of writhing naked bodies, gut-ripping demons and erotic themes to be found in the legacy of great Classical art. Since I’ve been collecting ‘sexy fumetti’ cover art I’ve been torn between keeping its existence a secret from other potential collectors and sharing it with everyone I can. The latter approach has won out, and I’m thrilled that my fellow collectors have agreed to join in and contribute to this fine portfolio. So, prepare your eyes for a heavy dose of visual adrenalin. An inspiring dreamscape of beauty and horror from a true Italian master, Alessandro Biffignandi.
We would like to thank our Russian friend Yuri for suggesting the inclusion of this artist.