by Roderick Conway Morris

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An Italian Valley Where Nature Meets Art

By Roderick Conway Morris
BORGO VALSUGANA, Italy 7 August 2010
Aldo Fedele
'Cattedrale Vegetale' by Giuliano Mauri, Italy, 2001.



A remote valley in the Italian Alps is now rather less remote, thanks to a decision made in Samarkand, the ancient capital of the empire of Tamerlane, the 14th-century Mongol conqueror.

In 1986, two friends from Borgo Valsugana, a small town in the Trento region, were in Samarkand, in present-day Uzbekistan, contemplating Tamerlane's tomb. Carlotta Strobele, a philosophy graduate from Vienna whose family connections with Valsugana go back to the days of Habsburgs, and Emanuele Montibeller, a local market trader in fabrics, in an epiphanic moment resolved to do something horizon-expanding in the arts in their own part of the world. When they returned home they recruited Enrico Ferrara, an architect, who shared their keen interest in developments in contemporary art.

Nearly 25 years on, the Arte Sella sculpture park, set in a valley high above Borgo Valsugana, attracts 70,000 to 80,000 visitors a year. Over 200 artists from all over Europe and countries as distant as Azerbaijan, South Africa, Israel, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan have created artworks in the park, which can be visited in the course of a walk lasting about two hours.

Even in a land of lovely Alpine landscapes, Val di Sella with its forests, woodland glades and summer pastures has a special aura. The valley is around 900 meters, or 3,000 feet, above sea-level and surrounded by mountains, which on the southern side rise almost sheer to a series of a dozen peaks over 2,000 meters high.

The aims of Arte Sella, Mr. Montibeller said, were originally not very clearly defined. This, he said, has proved an advantage in the long run, allowing the sculpture park to grow organically, with the diverse input of a large number of local volunteers and visiting artists.

However, the overriding concern from the start, he added, was respect for nature and the preservation of the valley's landscape. Most of the scores of works now scattered across the woods, clearings and meadows are only visible when you come upon them following the various 'art-nature' trails. All the works are created for the particular site they occupy, which are chosen by the artists.

More unusual is that all the works, the vast majority of which are of natural materials, such as wood, vegetation and stone, are capable of being absorbed back into the environment.

In the words of an early manifesto for the sculpture park: 'The works come out of the landscape, they inhabit it and, according to nature's time scale, they return to it again.'

Most grandiose in proportions is 'Cattedrale Vegetale,' by the Italian artist Giuliano Mauri. The work consists of 80, 8-meter-high timber tree frame 'columns.' Each column is planted with a hornbeam sapling, which grows about half a meter a year, the overarching top branches curving toward one another to create three Gothic naves, now around 12 meters high, covering over 1,200 square meters, or about 12,900 square foot, of meadow.

The 'Cathedral' has become Arte Sella's principal attraction, for some almost a place of pilgrimage. It has been such a success, Mr. Montibeller said, that it has sometimes drawn larger crowds than is desirable for the eco-balance of the valley.

Nonetheless, nature will eventually be allowed to take its course and the work will be absorbed into the surrounding forest, only the ghostly pattern of its man-made, symmetrical lines of trees remaining.

Given the avant-garde thinking of the founders, it is hardly surprising that Borgo Valsugana's small-town and rural population initially greeted the project with a certain skepticism, if not downright hostility; 'Arte Sella' became a byword in these parts for any eccentric, outlandish absurdity.

But the park - and the musical, theatrical and dance events Arte Sella also organizes here - are now a source of local pride. A key to this is the vital contribution made by dozens of volunteers from the area, without whose skills and muscle many of the works would have been impossible to realize.

Mariano Tomio, for example, a native of the town, returned after many years as a migrant factory worker in Switzerland. Although at first among the skeptics, he went on to apply his intimate knowledge of Val di Sella's topography and materials to bring to fruition a series of installations.

For the charming 'Nidi d'acqua' or 'Water Nests' by the Italian artist Giuliano Orsingher, Mr. Tomio located triple-branched hazel trees to cradle the artist's rainwater-fed bowls, hollowed out from smooth rocks from the beds of mountain torrents; he made it possible for the German artist Jeanette Zippel to drag an old boat from a lake some distance away up to the valley, to establish a hive for wild bees; and he taught Matilde Grau of Spain how to handle a chain saw to fashion 138 blocks of timber for her cubic 'Intersticio' sculpture.

Given the inevitable disappearance of most of the works over time, a photographic record has been of prime documentary importance. And happily, early on in the project, Arte Sella found that in the local baker, Aldo Fedele, they had a talented photographer in their midst.

But not all the works are of natural 'found' materials. The intriguing, serpentine 'Bridge II' by the American artist Steven Siegel spans a gully and a stream. Its parapets, mossy and leaf-covered, lend it the appearance of a beautiful old dry stone bridge. On very close inspection it turns out to be built of skillfully stacked newspapers - defective copies amassed for Arte Sella by a local printer. Nearby is a wire cage, crammed with hundreds of seemingly plastic containers, a strange, disturbing intrusion in this super-green environment. However, they are composed of an experimental corn starch material which, if the Italian research division of Tetra Pak in Modena (that donated the packs to Mr. Siegel) is right, should biodegrade and be absorbed back into the earth within three to four years.

The English land artist Chris Drury, who built a work here in 1994, was invited to return this summer. On another site, with the assistance of Reno Zurlo, a local mason and dry stone waller, and three other helpers, Mr. Drury took a month to construct 'Sky Mountain Chamber.' This corbeled beehive dome with an aperture facing south acts as a camera obscura, throwing onto the whitewashed interior an image of forest, clouds and mountain peaks.

Mr. Drury's 'Chamber' is something of a challenge to Arte Sella's philosophy in that such structures, using one of the most ancient architectural methods known to humanity, can last for hundreds of years. 'Unless,' said Mr. Drury, 'the ground subsides' (the structure weighs about 150 tons). 'Or a tree falls on it.'

Or, indeed, if there is a nuclear holocaust of the kind evoked by Mr. Drury's other new work here, 'Mushroom Cloud,' composed of about 3,000 dried mushrooms strung on fishing line and upward lit to magical effect, on show in an indoor space for temporary exhibitions in a an old cattle barn at Malga Costa, the former summer pasture where, since 1998, Arte Sella has had its headquarters in the valley.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023