Thursday, April 28, 2016

Triumphs and Laments

Welcome back to FishAndPeaches.  We’ve been away from Italy for four years but are visiting again, and I plan to share a few of my discoveries here.

We arrived in Rome in early April and immediately saw some amazing wall art on the high stone embankment of the River Tiber upstream from the Ponte Sisto.  But this was not the typical ugly spray-painted graffiti.  Instead, huge figures had been revealed/created by selectively blasting the accumulated grime and vegetation off the travertine. 

Above, the Tiber embankment seen from the Ponte Sisto.
Below, Marcus Aurelius looms large

A little research quickly revealed that this was the work called Triumphs and Laments, by the artist William Kentridge, and that on the evening of April 21st, the traditional birthday of the city of Rome (Il Natale di Roma), there would be a live theatrical program along the river walk in front of the wall figures.

I wanted to know how they created the wall designs.  The answer was that they laser-cut giant stencils out of corrugated plastic sheets, suspended these 10-meter-high stencils from a steel bar hung from the parapet railing above, and used high-pressure water to blast away accretions.  (The walls were erected in about 1890 to combat flooding, and perhaps they have never been cleaned since.) 

Above, three stencils are hanging in place with preliminary cleaning around the left-most.
Below, touchup power-washing and a closeup of the junction of cleaned and not.

Here is a link is to a brief Reuters video about the project which shows some of the process.

And this link is a slow scan down much of the wall, showing many of the figures and ending where work was still in progress at the time. (The camera’s wide-angle lens distorts the view, making the wall look curved.)

Next we wanted to know who and what were all the figures on the wall?  They were all supposed to be inspired by Rome’s history and culture, and some we figured out right away.  But oddly we had a hard time finding a key to them all.  There is a show, a mostra, at the modern art museum, MACRO, here in Rome about William Kentridge and how he developed the designs.  We discovered more clues, but there are many obscure references, and I expect some might not be recognizable even to native Romans.  A booklet available for a donation from the major sponsor, Tevereterno, identifies all the wall designs.  Here are some of the figures:

Above, spoils of war from the sack of Jerusalem by Titus, 70 AD.
Below, the rape of Lucretia, 507 BC, after the painting by Titian, right.

Above, Pope Gregory VII is driven out by Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, 1084 AD
Below, Pope Celestine V abdicates, his hat torn off by a wolf, 1294 AD

The Black Death

Anita Garibaldi, left, wife of Giuseppe Garibaldi, military leaders of the Risorgimento—the fight for the unification of Italy.  At right is King Vittorio Emmanuele II modeling for his statue.
Below, statues of Anita on the Janiculum Hill (Gianicolo) (left), 
and the king on the Vittoriana monument in Rome.


Right:  Daphne turning into a laurel tree to escape Apollo, after the famous Bernini sculpture.

Mussolini in a Naples mural, complete with WW II bullet holes and a fascist salute.

The martyrdom of St. Peter, 67 AD

La Dolce Vita  with Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in the Trevi Fountain 
[That's a Bersaglieri soldier from WW II at the right, with feathered helmet.]

Above, The Winged Victory on Trajan's Column collapses.
Below, the original column figure writing the history of the Dacian War on a shield.

Soon we saw preparations for lo spettacolo (the show).  Trucks and crews appeared and set up platforms and tents at each end of the 550-meter-long stretch between the Ponte Sisto and Ponte G. Mazzini (about 1/3 mile).  Cabling was laid out, then arrays of speakers aimed across the river and powerful flood lights aimed toward the figured wall were positioned and connected.  A couple of mobile generator trucks were parked along the street up above (Lungotevere della Farnesina) to power all this equipment.

Trucks and equipment arrived, and eight speaker arrays were installed, aimed across the river.  And a couple of dozen floodlights were set up, illuminating the wall of figures.


At this point one might have expected authorities to close off this section of riverbank and install a phalanx of security guards.  But that would have caused quite a fuss since there is a well-used bicycle and walking path down there along the Tiber, and I also think it would have violated the artist’s philosophy of public inclusion.  So people kept walking and riding and taking pictures of the wall art, and some inconspicuous attendants would politely shoo away anyone who got too close to something they shouldn’t.

Then one afternoon from our Trastevere apartment we heard trombones and other instruments and some strange but intriguing music.  This turned out to be a 20-piece band/orchestra rehearsing down on the river bank.  The walls are about 12 meters high (over 39’), with a slight angle, so the sound was reflected off the opposite wall and projected surprisingly far inland from the river.  By the time of the big night we had heard many of these rehearsals.  We learned later that the composers started with a Renaissance Italian Jewish madrigal and expanded with African slave and battle tunes and Southern Italian folk songs to elicit feelings of triumph and lament.

The musicians gather for a rehearsal early on.  The man at the left has a bass flute (we'd never seen one of those), and, yes, that's a Sousaphone in the background
The Ponte Sisto and the level embankment across the river from the giant figures were filled to overflowing with people by the time the show started just after 8:30pm on April 21st.  No one knew exactly what to expect, despite hints in the press and a few glimpses of rehearsals.  

What happened was that a procession started from each end of the show area, led by live bands and singers, with people carrying stencil-like cut-out figures atop poles.  As they passed in front of the floodlights, huge shadows of the cutouts were cast onto the walls behind, blending with the figures etched on the stone.  One procession had figures associated with triumph, the other with lament, and when they met in the middle they circled around and mingled, symbolizing I guess the realities of life.  Again, the identities of some of the shadow figures are rather obscure.  

Costumed cast members were hardly discernible from across the river, but the shadows created by the cut-outs they carried made a dramatic procession down the embankment.
Shadow figures included symbols emblematic of Roman history and culture such as a Necchi sewing machine  and the bicycle from the 1949 film The Bicycle Thief.

Silhouettes included some ancient (Julius Caesar) and others more recent ( Trilussa, Roman dialect poet; Aldo Moro, prime minister kidnapped and killed by the Red Brigades in 1978; and Giovana Masi, a student accidentally killed during a peaceful demonstration, also  1978).

The musicians and vocalists were mic’d, and their sounds were both projected through the arrays of speakers and heard directly, producing a balanced but strange reverberation.  The sound management was excellent—never a hint of feedback, and somehow the bands walking toward each other from both ends, and the singers, were nicely synchronized.  None of the videos I've found (including my own) do justice to the music, but here's a link to one that will give you a sense of it and the show.

The images on the wall will remain until they slowly disappear, incorporated into new growths and grime.   The artist thinks they may be at their best in a couple of years, depending on how fast the grass grows and how much new graffiti defaces them.  I've already noticed little flowers blooming on Daphne, which seems appropriate.

Finally, here is a quote from the artist, William Kentridge, from Rome’s La Repubblica newspaper:  "The Tiber is a river swollen with glory and pain.  On one side the fortune of the popes, on the other the suffering of the Jewish Ghetto.  Above, a pulsating, splendid city; below, under the bridges, the desperation of the homeless." 


Sunday, June 24, 2012


We went to the small Umbrian hill town of Spello earlier this month to experience the infiorata there—profuse but short-lived art in the form of flower-petal mosaic pictures (quadri) and carpets (tappeti) laid out on most of the piazzas and narrow streets.  It is the culmination of months of planning, from developing designs and growing the flowers needed to create them to gathering teams of infioratori to spend a night on their hands and knees painstakingly “painting” with petals, seeds and leaves.

Although created for the religious festival of Corpus Domini, the infiorata is also a competition among breathtaking floral creations.  The materials must all come from plants—fiori, flowers; petali, petals; folie, leaves; semi, seeds; baccelli, pods—and though most are freshly cut, some pastel shading comes from dried petals.  When we arrived Friday evening we found small groups clustered around open cantina doors and in small piazzas all over town industriously pulling petals from bright yellow ginestra blossoms (Spanish broom), cutting feathery wild finocchietto (fennel) into dark green threadlike snippets, making confetti piles from red garofani (carnations), and plucking margherite (marguerite daisies) of several colors.  Some designs use as many as 70 different shades and textures.  We came upon the group shown below cutting up finocchietto, and they gladly accepted Cinzia’s offer to help. The next morning we passed two women diligently pulling apart azure fiordalisi (cornflowers), and they were only too happy to put us to work doing the same.  Over the next few hours we learned that they had grown these flowers—4000 plants started in February—specifically for the infiorata, and also grew white and fuchsia varieties and that these petals would mostly go into a big design to be  created in a piazza at the top of their little street.
Cinzia cuts finocchio with new friends.

Pails full of fiordalisi petals.
Fiordaliso azzurro or cornflower.

Yellow broom, ginestra.

The pictures and carpets are actually fabricated overnight, beginning about dusk on Saturday and finishing before 8 a.m. Sunday.  During the day on Saturday while some, mostly women and children,  pull petals, others, mostly men, set up big white tents in all the piazzas where large pictures will be done.  The structures not only protect the nascent creations from wind and weather, they include bright lighting for the marathon overnight sessions.  By some magic the tents all disappear by the time judges and visitors arrive Sunday morning.  Most of the big works start with a giant paper template or cartoon glued to the pavement with flour paste, some as large as 16’ x 40’.  They look like enormous paint-by-number canvases, using numbers or some other code to specify which color goes where.  Others sketch the plan out with chalk.

The large pictures are created under protective tents
 which take half a day to erect but miraculously disappear by morning.

Color-coded paper patterns are glued to the pavement.

Some do it the old way, with chalk outlines.

Instead of numbers, this team's template uses abbreviations for the flowers required:
FN = finocchio, FAS = fiordalisi azzurri secchi, CAF = calendula arancio fresca, etc.
Compare pattern and product below.  This design is where our blue petals went.

Some of the pieces were very complicated and involved both skillful shading and intricate details.

The picture above was taken after midnight, but by morning a net full of fish had appeared.

There was a category for "Under 14" kids, too.
Below, they are using a cookie-cutter-like form for repetitive designs.

All of this is quite a spectacle, and throughout the process visitors like us wandered the picturesque streets of Spello gawking and admiring.  The weekend before the infiorata the town holds a contest for the best garden, though most “gardens” are pots on stairways and hung from the walls of the stone buildings.  These were still mostly at their peak, adding considerably to the charm of the place.

Five minutes before midnight, Piazza della Repubblica.

A few of the dozens of lovely "gardens" in Spello. 

The festival of Corpus Domini culminates with an 11 a.m. religious procession through the town, including a band, a choir, many church prelates and finally the bishop and the holy communion host under a baldachin, or canopy.  These last travel right over the flowers laid in the street, which is a shame but really the point of the infiorata, deriving from ancient traditions of strewing flowers in front of emperors and evergreen boughs for early holy processions.  But if one wants to see all the beautiful floral art it’s necessary to make the rounds before the bishop gets there.  Here are some of our favorites, first tappeti (carpets) and then quadri (pictures).

This serpentine tappeto ran for a couple of hundred feet.  Above, it is being sprayed
 with water to keep the petals fresh and weight them down in case of breezes.

This creation celebrates solidarity between Spello and Emilia-Romagna,
 both having suffered from earthquakes, Spello in 1997 and Emilia just a month ago. 

This is the little piazza where we cut up finocchio greens Friday night, now transformed.

More "Under 14" creations.
Love the wheat above and balloons below.

Now for a few of the large compositions.  
First below is a rendering of the pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

If I were awarding prizes this would have been my first place winner.
 I love the wavy hair and the fresh fruit bouquet she's holding.

This is another of our favorites, with the globe on the left and tower of Babel at right.
You may have noticed this one in progress in one of the photos above.

This is the actual first place winner.

Then along came the procession, which left the net full of fish full of footprint shaped holes.

Pax vobiscum.