Artist Feature • Marta Polato: Tree Lore from the 2019 “Erbario Suggestivo” series


Behold the work of engraver, illustrator, and printmaker Marta Polato. Polato is an Italian artist born in Padua and based in Venice. Her works capture the dance — both earthly and otherworldly — of European mythic traditions, herbal folklore, and occult currents. Like the flora they depict, Polato’s works emit a deep potency.

Polato is highly-versed in her media, and dedicates to it the kind of serious time and labor that any engaged artistry commands. Ever oriented towards refining her technique, Polato is fully-conscious of form, content, and historicity. A 2021 graduate of the Biennium in Graphic Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, her former student bio on the Italian art hub Giovani Artisti reads:

“… Her poetics have always brought out a passion for themes of the occult and esotericism, with a strong symbolic meaning through the most ancestral suggestions. The natural and symbolist element represent the pivots from which her graphic corpus develops, which branches out into the expressive means of engraving techniques and artistic drawing; with the prevalent use of black and white by means of a basically incisive sign, her work moves among the most archetypal images giving them a new identity — anchoring itself strongly to mythology, history, and poetry…

Marta Polato

Polato was born in a town in the province of Padua, and has always been dedicated to the visual arts since childhood. She enrolled in the Modigliani Art School where she graduated in 2015 with the address of Figurative Design. In 2013 she came into contact for the first time with the engraving disciplines and the world of art printing at La Corte della Miniera in Urbino, an experience that would lead to her enrollment at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice in the School of Graphic Art under the chair of Professor Andrea Serafini. Here her artistic experience moves between various disciplines of graphics and printing, including: chalcography, xylography, screen printing and lithography; always progressing equally in the studies of the history of art, drawing, illustration and anatomy. In 2018 she obtained the 1st level Diploma in Graphic Art, choosing to extend her academic career in the two years of the same discipline. She also tries her hand with pure, self-taught, and amateur passion in digital and analog photography.

Dualities and liminal spaces abound in Polato’s work. They are interwoven among a rich and raw herbarium. Here, syncretic visions of vegetation, crucifixion, and sabbatic night flights commingle in a dark ecstasy.

The series in Polato’s body of work which embodies this most strongly is called Erbario suggestivo. Translated from Italian, it means Suggestive Herbarium. Erbario is a collection of fourteen works expressing the mythic dimensions of numerous flora. One such flora is the willow.

The 2019 work shown below is entitled Salix L. — the latin botanical name for the weeping tree. Salix L. was created with pen, china ink, and pencil.

Salix L.

Polato offers up an exposition on the themes of the willow. These themes are nested in the context of Celtic mythology and religious belief:

“For the Celts the willow was considered a highly sacred tree. Similarly, in the Celtic tree alphabet (Ogham) it was associated with the number five, connected to the Great Mother. The Druids created woven baskets with willow branches, which would then contain the human sacrifices made at the full moon as a gift to the Goddess. This line between death and life (which unites the willow to other plants such as cypresses and poplars) is fueled by the fact that, in ancient times, there existed a belief of the willow killing its fruits due to the rapidity of their ripening post-bloom. This aura of mystery towards the plant informed many beliefs, such as the medieval — according to which the willow would be the seat of witches’ haunts; reached the foot of the tree to perform their spells. In this regard, writer Robert Graves analyzes the etymology of the English words “witch” and “wicked,” tracing them back to “willow.” We find it widely quoted also in the Old Testament, where it is an allusion to suffering in Egypt; it also seems that it was he, the willow, who supported Christ in a yielding due to the weight of the cross while walking up the slope to Golgotha.”

Polato’s depiction of willow lore highlights a universal quality to the tree. This quality lends itself to the deep syncretic vision emerging from Polato’s media. This depiction also engages the themes that the Willow emphasizes: The tensions of life, death, and myth — as well as the slippery membranes which lie between.

The second piece shown below is much starker. It is a 2019 etching entitled Salice — the Italian word for willow:


A stark duality is emphasized in Salice. The etched branch revels in a juxtaposition which drives this quality. Ever conscious of aspects related to uplift and renewal, Polato remarks, Non sembra poi così triste

“It doesn’t seem all that sad.”

Another of Polato’s most striking images centers on the stately walnut tree. This work, entitled Noce, exudes the witching quality that marks much of Polato’s corpus:

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is noce.jpg

Noce is the Italian word for the Walnut tree. Polato is ever loyal to her expositio of lore, and she asks us what the noce has to do with a caryatid, or Καρυάτις in ancient Greek. A caryatid is a pillar in the shape of a woman’s body used to support temples and other structures. In her own words, Polato provides an answer:

“What do the female statues called caryatids have in common with the walnut tree? The three daughters of the king of Laconia were pardoned by Apollo with the gift of clairvoyance, as long as it was used for good. Dionysus fell in love with one of the three, Caria, who reciprocated him. The jealous and curious sisters used the gift to learn more about their relationship; Needless to say, the god punished them by turning them into rocks…

…Caria died of pain, and Bacchus took pity on her and turned her into a fruitful nut. It is therefore up to Apollo’s sister, Diana, to tell the sad story to the Laconians; they erected in her honor a temple with columns with female features carved in walnut. For this reason, the plant was associated with the Great Pagan Mother. It also holds a strongly dichotomous symbology between death and life. Often these beliefs carry a precise botanical meaning: in fact, around the walnut there is no growth of other plants due to the substance that its roots secrete.”

Polato also contextualizes the piece with localities:

“In Benevento there is a story of a large walnut which attracted witches and demons on the night of St. John for wild parties and magical sessions. A bishop named Barbato in the seventh century tried to have him uprooted but to no avail; legend has it that the walnut grew back and the janare (witches in the Campania dialect) continued to find themselves in that area. The nocino liqueur is famous: on the solstice night only the women had the burden of removing the still green drupes, strictly with wooden tools (never in iron. This liqueur was considered a panacea, I pray of the magic of that night and far from the dismal vision attributed to the plant.”

Noce detail (with shading)

Many artists are endowed with a noble modesty. Others possess an ability to let their work express many languages for itself. Some are true devotees of techne, constantly elevating their craft to the next sphere. Rarely does one find an artist who embodies all of these traits. Immersed in the folkloric traditions of her environs, Polato brilliantly communicates a spirit of time and place.

Marta Polato may be found on instagram at: @__hedera__.

She may also be reached at:

Images via Marta Polato © Reproduction strictly prohibited.

Le Lac des Aulnes: The Entrancing Costume Designs of a French Fairy Opera


The Bibliothèque nationale de France’s BnF Gallica digital collections are a treasure trove. Seemingly endless in their scope, they contain many overlooked gems. One such gem may be found in Charles Bétout’s costume designs for Henri Maréchal’s 1907 opera, Le Lac des Aulnes (The Lake of the Alders/Alder Lake). Gallica BnF describes the work as a “fairy ballet in two acts and five scenes.” The designs are created with with plume, aquarelle, and gouache. The opera itself was featured at the Opéra de Paris-Palais Garnier, 25 September, 1907. Luckily for the curious, the work is in the public domain.

Before examining the richly detailed designs, some background on the opera itself. Princeton University Library’s Blue Mountain Project Historical Avant-Garde Periodicals for Digital Research holds a digital copy of Revue Musicale, Volume 7 No. 23 from 1 December 1907. The Revue contains a written feature on the opera and its plot. It’s writer is a bit of a tough critic, even going so far as to call the costume design unharmonious. Regardless, it gives us some semblance of the opera’s plot and style. Roughly translated from French, it reads:

“The subject of this ballet is the rivalry of two magicians, one of whom takes the “children” of the first (butterflies, dragonflies, spirits of the air, etc., etc.) to compose his enchantments and his potions. But he has a daughter; his opponent has a son, and you can guess that this one is in love with that one. This love first attenuates, then complicates the hostility of the two wizards, one of whom, reduced to impotence, breaks his wand and rushes into the lake of Alders. Twilight of magic (as Wagner would say) and advent of love, such is the symbolic title that one could give to this poem. The whole thing seemed a little gray to me. In the first act, I noticed that the decor lacks unity; it seems to be made of pieces and pieces: the color is not of a harmonious tone, and, from the orchestra chairs, one can follow the maneuver of the two electricians who, without taking care to conceal their lanterns project somewhat brutal spots of color on certain parts of the scene. The second act, from a decorative point of view, is very superior. These observations could apply exactly to music. M. Maréchal’s score – Grand Prix de Rome in 1870 – is well written, but without original and striking character; it is of a rather slow inspiration, without sufficient romanticism, and which stays halfway, instead of reaching the charm of great fantasy. It makes frequent use of a theme of Schubert (ballad of the King of the Alders) which harmonizes little with the rest. In the second act, there are excellent things, among others a “choreographic episode”; but it was not necessary to announce on the program that this episode is “fugue”‘

Here is a photo of the French-language clipping from Revue:

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As for Henri Maréchal himself, Oxford Music’s Grove Music Online lists his birth on January 22, 1842, and death on May 12th, 1924. He lived and died in Paris. Biographic detail is readily available on Maréchal. Oxford notes that:

“After studying literature, he began his musical training in 1859; later he studied with Massé and Chauvet at the Conservatoire. In 1867 he became chorus master of the Théâtre Lyrique and in 1870 won the Prix de Rome. He gained recognition with his ‘sacred poem’ La nativité in 1875, and the next year established himself in the theatre, where his real ambitions lay, with Les amoureux de Catherine, which reached its 100th performance in 1889 and was still being performed in the 1920s. In 1876 he wrote La taverne des Trabans, which was awarded the Mombinne prize but was not produced until 1881. He wrote six further operas, a ballet and incidental music and works in many other genres.”

Back to Bétout’s costume design. It seems appropriate to move roughly with the narrative described in Revue. First, then, are the designs for the feuding magicians – striking in their portrayal of posture and intensity:

18. Le magicien;
19. Le magicien;

As Revue notes, the first magician takes for his own need the elemental spawn of the second. Their depictions are striking and uniquely rich. Here they are in no particular order beginning with one of Huit papillons, or eight butterflies:

9. Huit papillons. Sujets;

One of the more elemental-style designs features one of Six salamandres, or Six salamanders:

7. Six salamandres, 1er acte. Élèves;

Undines abound as well in a gaggle of Huit, including Coryphées – the lead dancing performers within a ballet corps:

17. Huit ondines. Coryphées;

Sylphs and Undines are not the only magical figures present. Other characters in the opera include two additional Coryphées in the form of two witches – Douze sorcières:

5. Douze sorcières. Coryphées;

Rather androgynous male witches also feature prominently in the opera designs:

Sorcières, hommes. MM. Pausalet ?, Baptiste, Beaucoubart;
3. Sorcières, hommes. MM.
Sorcières, hommes. MM. Richaume, Lewi ?, Huygh;

The earthiest and most vegetal figures are Les filles du roi des Aulnes and Le roi des Aulnes — The daughters of the Alder King, and the King himself, all adorned in flora:

Les filles du roi des Aulnes, Mlles Trouhanova, L. Mante, L. Piron;
 13. Le roi des Aulnes;

Bétout’s designs enrapture the viewer into a kind of pagan operatic trance. Alas, some reviewers of the era did not find the piece to be as vivid in sound and movement. Scholar Caddy Devinia echoes the words of critic Pierre Lalo, who said of the opera’s intelligibility:

“Could we not imagine simpler action, better suited to pantomime, the meaning of which could be more easily perceived? . . . The number of intelligible ballets is extremely small.”

For Lalo, the score was simply there. He continues:

“Is it [the music] bad? No. Is it good? No. It is proper, conscientious, restrained and moderate. It endeavours to follow the action closely, to express its events exactly. It is by a musician who knows his trade . . . and all that would be perfect, if only this music was alive. The misfortune is that the music is not at all alive.”

Do not let the laments of Lalo or the unharmonious critiques of Revue detract from the sheer appreciation that comes from imbibing these images. Like sipping absinthe in turn-of-the-century France, they intoxicate and provoke reverie.

The designs may be viewed in full via Gallica BnF.


• All images via Bibliothèque nationale de France. [Le lac des aulnes : vingt maquettes de costumes / par Charles Bétout]. Bétout, (Charles (1869-1945). Dessinateur). Gallica BnF. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.;4

• Caddy, Devinia. Ballet at the Opéra and La Fête chez Thérèse in The Ballets Russes and Beyond: Music and Dance in Belle-Époque Paris. Cambridge Core. May 2012. pp 22-26. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.

• Princeton University Library. Revue Musicale, La, Volume 7, Number 23, 1 December 1907. Blue Mountain Project Historical Avant-Garde Periodicals for Digital Research. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.

• Trevitt, J. Maréchal, (Charles) Henri (opera). Oxford Music Online – Grove Music Online. Accessed 8 Feb. 2021.