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." 


1 comment:

  1. I made a few edits to correct some figures misidentified earlier, to change one photo, and to add a link to the project sponsor Tevereterno.