Text by Stefania Frezzotti for Steps, GNAM, Rome 2011

Another Reading is Possible:
Steps 2011 and Nineteenth-Century Sculpture

Although little more than a century has elapsed, late nineteenth-century sculpture appears in the collective imagination to belong to a remote, long-finished past, and the prolific output that triumphed in the great exhibitions, and whose patriotic and celebratory expressions still embellish the squares of every Italian city, no longer forms part either of our taste or of our cultural horizons. Who, if not a specialist, can really say they know Giacomo Ginotti or Alfonso Balzico? Who has heard of Girolamo Masini or Antonio Allegretti, artists often noted for just one work? How can we appreciate, if not through an art-historic contextualization, Eva dopo il peccato [Eve After the Fall], a naked woman with her head in her hands in an emphatic gesture of remorse; or the Roman freedwoman converted to Christianity, Fabiola, the protagonist of the forgotten novel Fabiola o la chiesa delle catacombe [‘Fabiola or the Church of the Catacombs’]? Alfredo Pirri’s bold, unorthodox and highly singular decision to rescue these sculptures from the invisibility and oblivion of museum storerooms was dictated by a profoundly personal acceptance of the values and culture of which nineteenth-century Italian sculpture is an expression, without making any banal attempt to render it topical once again. For the artist, that sculpture belongs to an early phase in the democratization of art, when, for the first time, in its “living room” versions, it moved beyond the restricted circuit of a prevalently aristocratic or public clientele, finding its way into the domestic and more popular environment of bourgeois homes. What’s more, with its soft naturalism and vital afflatus, it dwelt on new themes: the life of women, the child, motherhood, pain, love, old age… As can be seen in the works Pirri chose from among many others to dialogue with the floor of mirrors,1 in particular those of Alfonso Balzico, they are sculptures endowed with a powerful theatricality, and have an equally intense bond with the literature, opera, melodrama and popular novels from which they draw inspiration. They give expression to the values of a post-Unification Italy (the origins of modern Italians) of which we are no longer conscious, or, as Pirri says, with which we no longer wish to identify, because all our political, cultural and moral history has been shaken and erased by avant-garde experimentalism, while for the artist it is precisely from here, from these roots, that we need to recommence in order to establish a new ethics.2 In fact, a fundamental thread running through Pirri’s work is the importance of memory as a community feeling, and the relationship it forges between past and future, “not as traditionalist and referential forms that immobilize us, but with a desperate and despairing gaze towards the future […]. When memory manages to show me the past as a flux, as a dynamic “ride” of events, it even succeeds in revealing something of what awaits us.”3
Nineteenth-century sculpture is still essentially “genre” sculpture, a term currently used with a negative meaning as a synonym of an academic classification irreversibly superseded by the experimental freedom of the avant-garde movements and by the breakdown of every form of hierarchization. But for Pirri the “genre” is a structure of language, corresponding to which there is a mental path, an expressive and conceptual code that characterizes every art form in its specificity, distinguishing it from all others and constituting its real essence. That is to say, art is expressed through its very own media in a kind of self-referentiality, but, referring to a commonly shared system of ideas, it speaks of the world and of life according to a rigorous and precise linguistic, moral, philosophical and existential attitude.
In the Passi installation at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Rome, conceived to dialogue with Cesare Bazzani’s architecture in a play of reflections and references between high and low, external and internal, real image and virtual image, sculpture is used by Pirri not only to remind us that we are in the entrance of a museum, but, in keeping with his poetics, in its materiality and abstraction, presence and absence at the same time. An example of this is the position on the floor, visible between the light of the mirrors, of Antonio Canova’s funeral mask, a cast of his face made just after the passage from life to death, an “imprint” that preserves all the reality of the physiognomic and expressive features of the living person, but transferred onto a plane of idealization. The image of Canova’s face is “phantasmal”, or, as Roland Barthes would say, “this-has-been”, but which is here now. For Pirri, the funeral mask has the same internal logic as photography, or rather, it is a hologram, an image that has all the appearance of reality and all the insubstantiality of the virtual image, created by the interference between the real object and the luminous reflection of the mirror behind.
The other sculptures are likewise “phantasmal images”, or holograms stemming from the interference of light rays, pure apparitions, albeit materially concrete. By removing the sculptures from their plinths – an element that marks a separation, like a frame for paintings – and resting them directly on the floor mirrors, Pirri extracted the sculptures from a “museified” reading, repositioning them in the same space as viewers, with a physical and optical proximity. He made them almost human, rendered them more real. As the structural and binding tie of the sculpture with the wall is denied, the background is neutral, or rather, it is the sky, it is the whole surrounding environment revolving around it, and the image is pure light in the customary play between presence and absence, reality and its reflection, just that the broken mirror does not restore the image in its entirety. Instead, it comes to us as a fragment, introducing a multiplication of individual sophisticated pieces, extrapolated in a spatial and temporal continuum.

Stefania Frezzotti

1. Maschera funeraria di Antonio Canova [Funeral Mask of Antonio Canova]; Alfonso Balzico (1825–1901): La povera [The Pauper Woman], La perduta [The Lost], La vendicatrice [The Avenger], La Gaiezza (o La civetta) [Gaiety (Or the Flirt)], 1856–60; Girolamo Masini (1840–1885), Fabiola, 1868; Antonio Allegretti (1840–1918), Eva dopo il peccato, 1881; Giacomo Ginotti, Euclide [Euclid], 1883.
2. The installation was designed by Alredo Pirri in the context of celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy.
3. See “Conversazione con l’artista”, in Alfredo Pirri. Bandiera per il Tasso, edited by B. Goretti (Rome, 17 March 2011), Bari 2011, p. 20.