Escher was very fond of the jagged and vertical landscapes he encountered in Abruzzo and Calabria, on the Amalfi coast, on Sicily and on the French island of Corsica. He traversed these areas in a variety of ways for many years. Armed with his sketchpad and wearing knickerbockers, coarse argyle socks and sturdy walking shoes, he climbed the Corsican peaks, descended to the coastline of Amalfi, walked through the rugged mountains in Abruzzo and Calabria and braved the heat of Sicily. But there was one place he kept returning to: Atrani.
Escher visited the distinctive coastal town several times and immortalised it in his work in multiple ways. For instance, he created a lithograph, a woodcut and a colour drawing from a high elevation, and he captured the dilapidated houses in a lithograph. However, his most striking use of the town is the place it occupies in his metamorphoses. In MetamorphosisI it is a destination and in II and III he changes it into a chessboard.
Less familiar is the image he produced in the town’s dark interior. In Covered Alley in Atrani three stepped alleys meet. The viewer is standing on a descending staircase (and thus senses a space behind them), and sees an alley with stairs going up to the left and a staircase on the right going down. To the far right is the starting point of a fourth stairway that also goes up. Escher thus creates four spaces within one work, two descending and two ascending. Or even five, if you also count the nexus in the middle. Because of the viewpoint he uses, he succeeds in combining several perspectives in one image. This is something he achieves in landscape prints such as Castrovalva but also in a more intimate print like this. A direct line can be drawn to the impossible spaces he constructs in prints such as Relativity, Convex and Concave and Waterfall. But whereas those can only exist on paper, Escher sticks to reality here.
Covered Alley in Atrani is one of Escher’s earliest wood engravings, the first being the lion he created for the exhibition at Liernur. He was not yet sufficiently adept with the medium at that point to be able to produce the fine details that are possible in wood engraving. It is a sober, robust print, without people and with large surfaces, giving the stepped alley almost abstract qualities. A black landscape criss-crossed with white lines.
Sources [*] Wim Hazeu, M.C. Escher, Een biografie, Meulenhoff, 1998, p. 148