Serena Riglietti’s answer to J.K. Rowling and the fans: “The Italian Harry Potter Cover Explained” – Exclusive
I’ve always loved that cover because it’s so odd. Why the rat head? Why the giant rat in the headscarf? I never met the illustrator, so I still don’t know – J.K. Rowling
With extreme joy – and a little bit of pride – Portus can exclusively answer to some questions that not even J.K. Rowling herself could answer to (for once!). We’ve had the privilege, the honour and the luck to talk to Serena Riglietti, the original illustrator of the Italian editions of the Harry Potter books.
Serena has immediately proved to be a very kind and helpful person, virtually opening the doors of her office, guiding us through the labyrinth of her head.
We’ve asked seven questions, and she’s given us seven answers. After all, isn’t seven the most powerful magical number in Arithmancy? We’ve talked about her relationship with Harry Potter, creativity and – obviously – what J.K. Rowling was wondering about on Twitter!
Hi Serena, thank you for accepting our invitation! Without taking up too much of your time, I would immediately ask you a personal question, so as to break the ice. Which of the seven covers are you most fond of and why?
The cover I’m most fond of is The Order of the Phoenix because I finished it on the day my son Francesco was born. Since we decided to have this interview, I like the idea of telling something about my world, which totally influences my work.
It was September 2nd, 2003, the hottest summer of the century until then; actually, the temperature had been around 40 degrees for months, and I was carrying my first baby. The night before the life-guards where I go to the sea had organized a fish dinner on the beach, to end the season and say goodbye; the air was yellow as were the wind, the sun-umbrellas, and people. I felt like I was living in a yellow-toned photograph. While waiting to sit at the table I went to the shore to put my feet in the water. At some point, something touched my feet, and the retiring wave left a very small plastic child on the sand in front of me. It was one of those figurines that are used at Christmas to represent the baby Jesus in the crib. I showed it to everyone, and we decided it was a sign: my baby would be born soon. The next morning I went to the studio, I had to finish the cover of an important book . The work was almost ready, and while I was deciding where to put the red, the punctum that marks the end of all my drawings, I was pondering on the fact that, in the end, the Arabian Phoenix does not have the exclusivity of its destiny; maybe it somehow affects everyone . I was pondering that the birth of a child coincides with the rebirth of a person, who becomes a parent from that day. Therefore, I decided to add the sentence that flows behind Harry ‘Refecta mea vivo mortis’: Regenerated, I live my own death. I changed the sentence, removed the initial ‘r’, the ‘v’, and the last ‘is’ are hidden.
I wanted the sentence on the cover to find its extension even outside the book and I immediately imagined the reactions of the readers, which promptly took place. The cover was finished … just in time to realize that everything was about to happen; I packed it up and made a phone call to be escorted to the hospital, I also called the courier and told him to come and pick it up in the maternity ward.
You are the mother (and this time it really is the case to say so) not only of all the seven covers of the novels, but also of many illustrations in the first four volumes. Which moment of the story did you like most to reproduce?
For sure, the book that I liked most of all to illustrate was the first one: I was more free to imagine what I would have drawn and I definitely had much more time available to do it.
It is precisely for a matter of of time that we decided to stop with the internal illustrations in the fifth, sixth, and seventh books, not only because the readers had been growing in the meantime.
I remember that I was forced to draw the illustrations at the top of each chapter of The Goblet of Fire without reading the manuscript, that was being translated in the meantime. The publishing house sent me a few lines of synopsis and that was my basis to draw what I was asked for.
However, going back to your question, I tell you that one of my favorite moments in The Philosopher’s Stone is when Harry first sees his family in the Mirror of Erised, I found it very moving.
Instead, the illustration of that book that I love most is the first, the meeting between Dumbledore and McGonagall at Privet Drive, it was the beginning of everything, and perhaps this is the reason. Then Dudley with the pig tail … Fluffy … but really, I liked to draw everything in the first book: I worked with my usual method, without anxiety and with a lot of creative freedom.
Speaking of the internal illustrations, what do you think of the fact that in the twentieth anniversary reprint of the Italian publication they were removed despite the choice to re-propose your covers?
Well … I received the pack of books that currently is on the top of my book-case … still closed, do you believe it? If you hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have known. Think how attentive I am to these things! In these twenty years I have ‘turned the world upside down’ , in my way, you don’t know how many times! I have had so many professional satisfactions (going beyond having drawn the most famous saga in the world) that I honestly don’t think I want to worry about the publishing house’s choice.
We are talking about twenty years after the first release (I remember that the Potter saga also corresponds to your beginnings as an illustrator of children’s books) how has your approach to being an illustrator changed during all these years?
I have published about 80 books with publishers from all over the world, I worked on a very famous series for Usborne, with Simon & Schuster of New York, with Grimm Press … in short, always for things I deemed important, and for a long time I thought that would have been the case for a lifetime. But then I said to myself: ‘But if you drew (for Italy) the most famous book in the world, what are you still doing here?’ To me, life is one with my job, and life is too short to do just one thing! Now I am a publisher of tourist guides dedicated to children, I teach at the Academy of Fine Arts in Urbino with great satisfaction, I accept works as an illustrator when I like the project very much, I make exhibitions (the last one in Italy a few months ago and before that in Washinton DC where I was selected to represent Italy) I’m preparing one for Köln in September. I worked on a series about angels, now I make oil works on Franco Arminio’s poems …. in short, I don’t introduce myself as the ‘Italian Harry Potter illustrator’, I introduce myself as Serena Riglietti, and every time I get involved as if were the first time, this makes sense to me.
How did your approach to Harry Potter illustrations evolve, considering that the unknown book you started working on more than twenty years ago has gradually become a worldwide phenomenon?
Actually, being in itself a phenomenon, I believe that everyone expects to know who knows what can be behind it: many personal things, yes, but the work itself, for me, was a book to illustrate, no more no less. I often found myself reading really surprising comments, but not only for what they said, but for the very fact that someone wanted to make them. I understand that there is a whole generation that has identified with the character, and that they also considers him a bit theirs, but I also think that sometimes someone exaggerated a little. It is normal that, especially after the movie, someone found some big inconsistencies in my drawings, or that the readers’ audience, growing older together with the book, at some point found my drawings inadequate to their imaginary that was evolving; but I have never had a worry about it: it is so obvious that when you do something so visible there will be someone who loves your work and others not, if you think about it, the opposite would be really strange. Let’s say, however, that perhaps all this attention to every little detail (or for someone ‘mistake’) aroused a certain dislike of mine for the whole question more than once, so many things happened that I could write a book about it. Sometimes I received emails, even from the other side of the world, with absurd questions, I don’t even think I answered all of them.
When they asked me to illustrate the first novel, I was on holiday in Sicily.
A month earlier I had been to Milan with my portfolio of drawings, and I had gone to Corso Italia to Salani publishers. So they phoned me to ask me to illustrate a book that would perhaps become famous, and gave me some indications to start a drawing intended for a leaflet, which would announce its imminent release in stores.
At the time, however, they had not finished the translation of the book yet, and since there was not much time, they gave me some fairly brief indications. I knew that Harry was an orphan, who lived with his uncle and aunt, that a giant — with a big beard and nose — would come later with the task of accompanying him to a magic school where he would find his place, redeeming himself from an unhappy childhood.
So I drew a test board featuring this red-haired boy on the shoulders of a giant, without the glasses and scar, his distinctive mark. That was also the drawing that made the publishers decide I would be the illustrator. After some time Luigi Spagnol wrote how it went:
‘When I think of Serena Riglietti, her first drawing that comes to my mind depicts a giant who — as in some German iconography of St. Christopher — carries a child on his shoulders … This specific drawing I am talking about was the first one she made, or at least the first one I saw, to illustrate the Harry Potter saga and, from a strictly philological point of view, it was completely wrong. The illustration was needed for a leaflet like the ones we sometimes prepare for booksellers to anticipate the release of an important book; in the ridiculous lack of time, with which we are too often forced to work in publishing houses, Serena had been given brief and inaccurate indications: the giant (Rowling fans will have already understood it) had to be Hagrid, but he was definitely more giant than in the book; the boy, of course, was Harry Potter, but in that first Italian appearance he did not feature any sign of the famous glasses or of the fateful scar in the shape of a lightning bolt; he also looked like he was seven or eight and Hagrid, as I said, carried him on his shoulders: in the first book, in the only scene of the whole saga in which Harry is transported by Hagrid, he is just over a year old, and is not on his shoulders but (this too is now known by all fans) on a black flying motorcycle.
Yet, that wrong drawing was perfect.
I was told that the author wanted each country to have its own illustrator, and I thought it was a very smart choice, because every illustrator, or artist, or whatever you want to call them, also translates their own culture, or at least , I think they should. I was born in Milan, but I live in Pesaro and I was trained in Urbino, the cradle of the Italian Renaissance. My art school was inside Palazzo Ducale, and the landscape that surrounds us, the Montefeltro, features the colors and atmospheres that are in my drawings. I guess that’s the reason they chose me, if I were born in Los Angeles I might have been out of place.
Even the very first cover, the one in which Harry plays chess with a mouse, featured a Harry without the scar and glasses … and with red hair, and not even the publishers noticed, now that first cover has become a collection one, and who owns it has a small treasure.
Speaking of that cover, the question that still lives in all the forums and that J.K. Rowling asked herself recently: why does Harry Potter play chess with a mouse and why does he wear that hat?
Harry doesn’t play chess with a mouse, Harry plays chess next to a mouse, and the player on this side could be each of us facing the cover. Metaphorically, the chess game is used to tell of someone who is playing their destiny using intelligence, and this was my wish to the author of the book.
This is the cover that I drew without reading the book and knowing only that Harry Potter was a child who would have to face a whole series of tests in the magic school. One of the final tests could have put his life on the line. I was also told that students in this magic school could bring a mouse or owl with them. Nothing else.
So here is the reason for chess and the mouse.
About the mouse hat why … I’m sorry to disappoint, it’s the question I’ve been asked a hundred times, and now that J.K. Rowling has asked it, the whole world wants an answer. Yesterday they wrote me from Brazil, from England … a lot of people would now like a very interesting answer. Except maybe the answer is not, or maybe yes, what I know is that the answer is simple: Harry wears a mouse hat because it is one of the characteristics of my works, I like to put strange hats on the heads of my characters , I do it whenever I get the chance. I myself would like to have crazy hats! And then … in this world it is so difficult to get noticed …!
After all, if after twenty years one still wonders why, it is why it obviously worked!
Once again, we thank Serena Riglietti for her kindness and her insights, hoping we’ve managed to answer to some of your questions too!
To find out more about her work as an illustrator for the Harry Potter stories (and more!) we invite you to buy her catalogue “Harry Potter & Co. – Società di magia a responsabilità illimitata“. In case it’s out of stock, we recommend buying “Harry Potter – La Magia dei Vent’anni” (Felici publishing), a little catalogue made on the occasion of the exhibition in Pisa for the 20th anniversary of Harry Potter.