by Roderick Conway Morris

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Contemporary Italian Sculpture in a Tuscan Hilltop Town

By Roderick Conway Morris
SAN GIMIGNANO 13 August 1994
Valdelsa Valdicenina, Tuscany
Untitled by Jannis Kounellis, 1994, at the San Jacopo Church, San Gimignano



'This place is miserably poor,' observed a turn-of-the-century English traveler, a situation radically reversed in our times by the revival of the local Vernaccia white wine and a thriving tourist industry, thanks to the unique state of preservation of this Tuscan hilltop town's cluster of soaring medieval towers that can be seen from miles away. Though making a comfortable living from its past, San Gimignano has now launched itself into the unknown with 'Affinities', a project offering five modern sculptors carte blanche to chose a site anywhere in the town, and install a new work there permanently.

San Gimignano was for centuries politically closer to Florence than Siena - but artistically, as its frescoes still bear witness, it was Siena that held sway. So, appropriately enough, it is the 500-year-old Sienese bank, Monte dei Paschi, that has financed the whole operation.

'The bank commissioned its first work, a fresco of the Madonna, in 1481,' said Donatella Capresi, the curator of the Monte dei Paschi's art collection. 'In recent years the bank has concentrated on buying back works by Renaissance and later Sienese artists that left the city for various reasons. But we think it's very important to revive the idea of commissioning public art works, something that has unfortunately become rare in Italy.'

To select the artists the bank called in the art historian and critic Giuliano Briganti, a well-known expert on Mannerism, but who later in his career took an intense interest in contemporary art. The five artists finally chosen - Fabro, Kounellis, Mattiacci, Nunzio and Paolini - were given a completely free hand in the location and type of work executed, a considerable act of faith by the town's authorities, given that none of the artists produces 'traditional' sculptures.

The resulting works nearly all show that their modernist makers did indeed go in search of affinities with the past, and approached San Gimignano's existing charms with respect. Interestingly, all but one of them chose sites in relatively unfrequented, out-of-the-way, corners - a commendable strategy, since by going in search of them the visitor is introduced to rougher, less polished facets of the town and oases of calm beyond the well-trodden paths.

The youngest of the artists, the 40-year-old Nunzio (all the others are in their fifties), usually works in stark materials, such as stone, burnt wood and base metals, but in San Gimignano he found Vicolo del Bongi, a high, narrow, medieval vaulted passageway off the main street, and lined a series of its arches with metal laminated with gold. The beautiful, changing light effects, inescapably recall those of the sumptuous gold backgrounds of the 13th- and 14th-century Sienese masters, and when Nunzio explains in his notes that his intention was 'to find a relationship of continuity…so as to annul the historical distance that separates the place from the modern world', he could be said to be articulating what most of his fellow artists seem to have been trying to achieve in their different fashions.

Jannis Kounellis, Greek by birth, but long-settled in Italy, responded to the challenge by building an arresting work in the hushed, almost forgotten courtyard in front of the 11th-century San Jacopo church just within the city walls. The ringer of the bell atop his tall, deceptively simple tower is firmly anchored to the ground by a sloping girder. As Kounellis comments: 'this work resembles a bell-tower, with the difference that it has a bewitched bell that cannot move, and can be seen not to be able to move.' The tower echoes the style of the belfry of the church, but is placed so as not to interfere with the view of it. But in the afternoon it casts on its facade a mysterious silhouettte in the shape of a roadside calvary - a nice paradox of the present casting its shade upon the past.

Giulio Paolini, meanwhile, has filled a space left blank by a long-gone sundial on the side of the Sant'Agostino church, with an engaging replacement in fresco in which the design of intertwined planetary trajectories is heightened by the shadows of lines scored into the wet plaster, and the traditional gnomon takes the form of an elegant bronze pencil, projecting like an arrow from a target.

Eliseo Mattiacci, on the other hand, has ascended the Rocca, the remains of the ancient fortress at the summit of the town, which commands a wonderful view of the the rolling, cypress-dotted Tuscan countryside. At the end of a buttress that runs out into the void, Mattiacci has fixed a long girder, balanced on a great steel ball - which he has dubbed 'Equilibrio compresso' (full/contained/understood equilibrium).

This is potentially the most intrusively-placed installation in terms of the town's historic ambience. Yet the piece's harsh military undertones, its suggestions of war and peace, and the sheer bravado of its unexpected, almost alarming precariousness, make it striking and thought-provoking. It is, moreover, placed in such a way just below the castle keep, that it can either be looked at and enjoyed, or overlooked.

The final work, by Luciano Fabro, a flat, red steel sculpture composed of superimposed, fragmented outline maps of Italy, attached to a bar projecting over a sloping street just of Piazza Duomo, seems the least related to its setting, or to San Gimignano as a whole, though its resemblance from a distance to a ragged banner or inn sign save it from being utterly out of place. All in all, the San Gimignano experiment is a considerable success - and an unusual, but fitting, monument to Giuliano Briganti, who sadly died before he could see it completed.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024