Texts by Laura Cherubini, Bruno Racine, Dider Repellin and Hervé Brunon for Via D’Ombra, La ville/Le jardin/La mémoire, Villa Medici, 2000.
The Grass Room – Interrupted Gardens
“Gardens should be understood as paintings”
“… the grass and all kinds of flowers, as in a room with an artificially realised carpet, must adorn the ground with symmetrical shapes and a variety of colours. The reservoirs of clean still water are the mirrors of these gardens, like open-air salons…”
A August Wilhelm von Schlegel
Since the Middle Ages to the Renaissance up until our times the figure of the secret garden has been a recurring figure: a garden within a garden, we find them in Villa Lante in Bagnaia, in Palazzo Farnese in Caprarola. Gabrille van Zulyen calls them ‘green rooms’; but after all, all gardens are green rooms because all gardens have the vocation of the home. Rosario Assunto, writing about Schlegel’s distinction between pictorial gardens (English-style) and architectural garden (French or Italian), observes that the latter “should be seen as a totality of corridors and inhabitable halls, its pleasantness residing in its straight, orderly avenues, for its well-kept hedges, for its terraced levels”. And in effect these gardens configure themselves as homes: the hedges are ‘living walls’, the lawns are floors, the trees are furniture and the sky acts as ceiling. The idea of the house, of the room, of the garden have always been related to one another, have always lived in an exchange. A lonely and sick Rainer Maria Rilke began a correspondence with the young Geneva-born instructor Antoinette de Bonstetten (the first letter is dated 7th March 1924, the last 27th October 1926) which is centred, almost wholly, on the garden of Muzot, which Rilke wants to restore with her help, having learned of her knowledge of horticulture. But there’s work to do in the house, wallpaper to choose for the walls of the study: “I would have liked to invoke your advice, so crucial for the ‘grass room’ and also for this room, which has always been green”, the poet writes. Rilke hence defines the garden as grass room. The garden has a secret aspiration to become a dwelling.
In a way, Alfredo Pirri’s work on the exhibition La ville/Le jardin/La mémoire can be seen as close to this tradition of the architectural garden, but in a sense the garden he has designed aims to substitute itself to architecture. Although he is well aware of his generation’s dialogue between art and architecture, Pirri now declares that he no longer believes in this relationship because ‘architecture is more and more often the privileged expression of power’. This space, then, opposes itself to the ‘monumental’ aspects of architecture and although it is an autonomous structure in itself is has a coefficient of permeability: it is vulnerable to the weather, for example, which allows its ‘disappearance’ in a sort of transparency. As the artist himself asserts, it is a kind of chromatic tale, ‘where people can meet one another while still staying alone’.
Via D’Ombra is, as Hans Ulrich Obrist observed as Pirri presented the project, ‘a false hortus conclusus’. The space he has chosen is, indeed, one of the ‘rooms’ of Villa Medici separated from its environment like a room in a house, but it is a carré taken up by a small forest of bamboo, a rare occurrence in Rome. Bamboo is an almost musical plant. It is said that the Chinese used to plant bamboo in front of their windows so that the wind, blowing through it, would provoke a resonance. A forest of bamboo is an organism in itself: if one plant is diseased, it puts at risk the entire community; at the same time, it is an organism that goes deep, because it expands exponentially. Here amongst the thick intrigue of the vegetation – reminiscent of Rousseau le douanier, of Botticelli’s luscious backdrops, of the rich entwinement of arabesques until the eye can see – Pirri, who is interested in the perceptive-abstract quality of bamboo, has created a sort of corridor, a pathway made up of broken lines drawn out, as in in an apartment, in coloured concrete, operating a fissure between internal and external space.
It is not the first time Pirri guides us through a pathway. In his Volume! in Via San Francesco di Sales in Rome, where artists’ were called to weave their work into the building site and and across the works of Jannis Kounellis and Bernard Rüdiger, Pirri had created a sort of pathway of initiation by amplifying to the whole environment the experience of his Squadre Plastiche, structure which reverberate colour by reflection; he had realised a kind of descent to hell, delivered by the hissing of trumpets (old megaphones used for Mussolini’s speeches in Piazza Venezia and for the Trio Lescano’s performances), which resolved itself in a return to the light via a boardwalk suspended on the foundations of the building, brushed on both sides by subterranean waters. ‘The presence of the river gave me a limit, a border, but at the same time it was a gift: it gave the work the feeling of finding oneself on an island, a feeling of solitude but also a feeling of suspension, of floating’, the artist writes. The environment is already conceived of as a ‘landscape’ and the walk we need to take to traverse it is ‘a light, white band, seventy centimeters wide and eight meters long, only two centimeters thick, which didn’t touch the room on its long sides and merely brushed against it on its short sides… Walking along this route gave the sense of walking on chromatic energy, an energy based solely on colour’. This boardwalk seems to anticipate the corridor suspended amongst the thick weave of the bamboo. As the Chinese say, ‘the garden is the home’.
Breaking with the global sense of aura which general flows freely in the site of the garden, here we have the sense that a breath comes to a halt. The work seems to perform a recovery in the project of ordering and pruning of this little section of garden. A late 19th century floral motif acts as decorative theme guiding the red pathway through the bamboo, never totally visible, always partially hidden in amongst the verdure. At certain points – points either inaccessible or only visible from a distance – the pathway halts to reveal chromatic stations made of vertical elements in crystal fused on copper, in a shape similar to that of the bamboo, a shape pertinent to the plants’ natural growth: it is a gift for the eyes like the appearance of berries in a forest. The light also seems to have a natural disposition, as if it were a creeper. This place is destined to assuming the form of an Eden, where the works of art appear like a heavenly fruit. On the subject of Volume!, Pirri had declared his interest in continuing to ‘treat materials and spaces as if they were pictorial images…’, and this is precisely the kind of work that he seems to be operating here in Villa Medici. Here too the artist has chosen to treat the flexible and tightly-woven material of the bamboo garden as if it were ‘a painting, with lights and shadows to distribute, with surfaces to fill with colour’ (I quote again from Pirri’s words on the Via San Francesco di Sales piece). Also in Volume! the path would halt to reveal glimpses of reverberating rednesses. There, as the visitors entered the space one by one, they would be left alone for a moment in order to feel that solitary conduction conducive to the formation of an ‘interior tale’ which would change and swerve with the movement of the pathway. Here, in this external space inhabited as if it were internal, everything grows and is transformed inside and outside of us, because we are enveloped by an organism which lives and transforms like our own. The room turns to garden in a metamorphosis similar to what Marcello Fagiolo, speaking of outdoor theatres, has fascinatingly defined as ‘the Daphne syndrome’.
Along the pathway, we encounter darkened spaces upon which squares open up and moments of interruption, small walls are erected. The four squares open up in the most shadowy areas of the forest, where ‘portions of flooring of coloured and decorated concrete return us to a condition of domesticity’. And in effect that decorated flooring has an undoubtedly domestic connotation; it is also the same flooring that, while Pirri works on the project, is being installed into Pirri’s new home which is in itself a true work of art (one day it should be written about in a history of artists’ homes, especially those which are works in themselves – it should include Meret Oppenheim’s, Vettor Pisani’s and Pirri’s, and I wouldn’t mind writing it myself). Pirri’s new house is a small villa with a noble past, rescued by the artist from a state of dereliction. Its garden is a strip of earth which extends out into the tight space between the roman aqueduct on side and the railway on the other, in the Pasolinian area of the Mandrione.
The theme of the square introduces the theme of the city. In 1998 in Siena, in the exhibition Atlantide held at Palazzo delle Papesse, the artist had realised an urban landscape made of books: a city and a library at the same time, it could be observed from above, from a small balcony which acted as belvedere looking in onto an interior. The interior was configured as a room/head painted entirely in a pale grey, alluding to the grey matter of our brains. The presence of the poet Mariangela Gualtieri also connoted the environment as poetic, linguistic space; it anticipated the future project of realising a library of poetry about landscapes and gardens in Siena. Behind the analogy between garden and room, then, we find another secret analogy between the head and the brain – the garden in the brain, as Emily Dickinson wrote.
Pirri’s work at Villa Medici is well and truly a dwelling, but one which is scanned by a chromatic grace, incised almost surgically between light and shadow; a liveable, inhabitable area which architecture solidifies. By returning to the analogy between garden and home, by insisting on the concept of the closed space, Pirri doesn’t, however, seek to operate an isolation, a sense of being closed in – rather, this should be seen as a reflection on what a room is and what we mean by it. It is the room which should be considered as transparent, not the garden as enclosed. The strong impression is that of being within an interior in architectural terms; yet this interior is a living forest: “if I knock down the walls, I’ll find myself surrounded by the garden…” (Deng Ming-Dao). Here the walls have already been knocked down, and the botanic walls let some light filter through. One of this work’s most crucial characteristics is the fact that we find ourselves surrounded by light and by air: for the spectator, this operates a perceptual switch. We feel estranged, yet made welcome. Architecture interrupts the garden and viceversa. The forest, in which horizontality and verticality are in constant interaction, has pathways which are always interrupted. Interruptions are the product of time: they are time, spatialised. Gardens are made by people, by people’s gazes. This pathway is made by the very gaze of those who walk its length. A crystallised path of shadows.
The bamboo carré: from shadow into light
Even before living here, I had heard about the fireflies of Ville Medici. Reality, however, truly exceeded my expectations. Forever the die-hard city-dweller, I didn’t know the wonderful, ephemeral spectacles of nature. At night, in May and June, they flew in the thousands through the avenues of the park. The intense intermittent flashes the fireflies produce are hardly visible when they occur in open spaces, or if they happen in isolation. They become much brighter in the dark masses of the hedges. But nowhere is their sparkle as intense as it is in the ‘carré of bamboo’. In this particular space, the garden took from the 19th century a slightly exotic touch – a distant but perhaps faithful echo of the encyclopedia passion of the Medicis, who after all didn’t hesitate to introduce ostriches and lions into their Roman villa. Badly maintained, the bamboos had developed into an messy, unkempt mass, edged in by a small concrete border and dominated by the encircling silhouettes of the maritime pines. We access the garden via a small ancient fountain, erected at the foot of one of these disappeared giants, and upon entering the forest we hear its imperceptible music: the ‘heart of darkness’ edges onto the ordered, though imaginative, geometries of the Renaissance garden, and the effect is otherworldly. The carré of bamboos was hardly ever pruned, and for a long time it remained impenetrable. The broken canes lay almost touching the ground, sharp as spears, bringing to mind those traps from the Indochinese jungle which terrified French and American soldiers. This space, so closed, so resistant is the space invested by Alfredo Pirri’s imagination as part of the exhibition “Le Jardin 2000”.
The challenge wasn’t easy to accept. Apart from anything else, it seemed to belong to another time: the confrontation between nature pushed to its defenses, eager to employ all of its energies to oppose the advancing of man. Inhospitable space? Yet the fireflies move around freely. In fact they seemed to have taken the carré as chosen space, fluttering fluidly amongst the canes and the leaves, punctuating the opaque, sinister mass with a thousand rays of light. Eerie? Perhaps, but only in relation to our own ghosts, to the fears of our childhoods, inherited from our past but especially from what we call the mists of time. Weren’t the bamboos suffocating in their states of neglect, in their becoming frightening? Alfredo got them all cut, or at least those which had been dead for a long time. Once it was able to filter through, the light of day flooded the forest as the fireflies had, and the pruning made a sort of pathway across the bamboos which invited the viewer to walk amongst them. Drawn out on the ground, as if facing the sky, a concrete walkway snakes now across the forest. ‘Snakes’ isn’t even the right word: because all the ‘bends’ are actually straight angles – the path of the artist happens through rigour. Some of the paths of this labyrinth don’t lead to an exit, but still they don’t lead ‘nowhere’: all the routes take us either inside or outside, and halt at singular panoramas. They invite us to stop and look at these vertical stems, and at the stems raised by the artist, upon which he has attached plates of colour similar in shape to the bamboo. At the feet of these ‘monuments’ we find an ornate flooring, decorated in floral motifs similar to those which became fashionable during the Art Nouveau era, even for the simplest houses.
The path Alfredo invites us to follow isn’t a traversing, a passing through. It implies stops and pauses, it allows us to come off-track, it halts various times at dead ends: like life, it hurls us back into memory while opening up onto an indefinite future. Pirri’s was able, here, to keep intact the feeling of density while giving the forest a human, humble permeability, respecting the place but still wanting to draw onto it his own itinerary, inviting those who enter to also trace their own.
“Alfredo, the Calabrian”
The region of Calabria has that seductive, fascinating phonetic quality of the South, that rolling of the ‘r’: the irradiation of reality! This ability the South has to make the real sparkle has become famous thanks to some illustrious characters like San Francesco da Paola: in the 1400s he left his native Calabria and crossed the Messina Strait, supernaturally floating on his cloak, in his quest to evangelise Italy. Having recognized his saintliness, France gave his name to king Francis I, and his name is the name of all the Francis that followed. The king kept the saint in France as a permanent font of messages up until his death in 1508 and his canonisation, eleven years later. The real is, first of all, marked by the right tone of the intervention: avoiding pretentious acts or spectacular miracles, San Francesco da Paola had founded the order of the Minims, an order whose only mission is the transmission of the precious: the heart, the spirit, the soul!
It isn’t easy in our time to find a transposition, an objectivation, a concrete form of such a mission – these days we have much less scope for individual projects on a massive scale; still we should be able to keep that élan, although our results will be more modest. All artists face the challenge of being able to communicate with tradition and of taking something of its richness without alienating themselves. Calabria has been able to generate San Francesco da Paola but also Alfredo Pirri and many others – each with their own measure, their own scope, their own mission. Alfredo the Calabrian adds his personal touch to Villa Medici – he doesn’t superimpose anything. He choses to take on this pre-existing bamboo plantation, which he respects like a careful gardener, which he understands because he knows its concept, its origin. He irradiates the real by offering the visitor a pathway through the bamboo – he ‘tames’ it by making it familiar; he gifts the visitor the privilege of inspiration, there for the taking, never imposed. Freely oscillating between the inside and the outside of the cluster of bamboos, the visitor is also brought closer to the artist who makes visible a space of meditation: a shared serenity, taken only if desired.
This humanist harmony which respects the elements, and in this case what we could call tradition, and the will to pass on through animation (from animus, soul), is called generosity. One of the feelings that never expires!
The amenity of sweet shadows: the garden and the feeling of silence
Many travelers from grey-skied Europe experienced the revelation of light on their encounter with Italy, incarnated perfectly in Piero della Francecsa’s paintings. Yves Bonnefoy, having discovered the masters of the Italian 1400s, wrote: ‘the sun reached every corner, although it projected gentle shadows it seemed as if light was borne out of the very colour of things, and the terrestrial space, immersed in life, became the morning at the beginning of day’. But there is no light without shadows, and this paradox will bring with it many consequences. This is our condition of sensibility, as Plato wrote in the myth of the cave in the Republic. This is where the mystery of the divine breaking into life begins, the mystery Caravaggio expresses in his Vocation of St. Matthew.
The shadow, trace of material and lack of light, sign that the visible is only an incomplete ephemeral fragment, a promise – and will it be kept? In the West, light almost always carries a metaphysical value. It signals a beginning, or a target to pursue, the place where all is order and beauty. But our walk through life, whether it is hope to resignation, also traverses trials. Our feet tread the ground, remind us of our place. Our eyes gaze up to the sky, half-visible through the branches. Ideas often give in to allegory. Dante’s voyage from darkness into light. We all walk amongst the dark labyrinth of time, and every life is a via d’ombra.
But is it this that Alfredo Pirri’s work expresses? It’s a form of wisdom that leads us to an acceptation of that ‘prison of the body’ which platonics and mistics would have liked to be freed from, and that leads us to see many things in pleasure, not merely a vane escape from the inescapability of death. Epicureanism, with its ethics of desire, was a form of this. Not our contemporary ruthless hedonism which sacrifices itself to the altar of consumerism, in a joyful pilferage which will sooner or later lead to our end. In fact, the planet itself seems to mutely protest – and half of its population carries the weight of it, and survives. The simple act of listening to the world allows us to hear a rustle which quickly turns to noise. A patient attention, a sense of negotiating with time has, if we think about it, always been reflected in the garden. Silence isn’t an absence of sound, but the quality of space in which every sound is audible. It is not the opposite of music, but rather its quintessence: because like music, it leads to a concentration, which is not a form of isolation but a delicate balance in which our interiority tunes into what surrounds us. As the philosopher Rosario Assunto has rightly written, the ‘ontology of the garden’ is a ‘space in which feeling and thought, which appear objectified in the garden, reify the very garden as space; at the same time they subjectivise the space and recognise themselves within it: as such they too are space’.
For the men of letters of the 16th Century such as Petrarch, the garden offered a protected space of meditation. Giovanni Saminiati’s treaty on agriculture, for example, cites amongst the principal trait of country life ‘the amenity of sweet shadows’. Raffaello Borghini celebrates the serene atmosphere of his friend’s country dwelling, destined to ‘repose’: ‘here are amene fruit-bearing plateaus, small woods of cypresses and bay; the depth of their shadows awakens a solitary reverence’; ‘the thick shadows of the fronds of these trees carry within them a solitary silence’. The shadow is sweet; it is tender for those who have to endure the heavy heat of the Italian summer. Like cool water it refreshed the body. Hence the Italian garden is also an art of the shadow.
It is easily forgotten. Even Stendhal was tricked, as he declared in 1829 that ‘in seeing a tree-lined avenue in Italy, we can be sure it’s the perfect work of some Frenchman’. Yet, for centuries the forest has been integral to the gardens such as the roman cardinals’, open to the public: they served the purpose of cutting through the domesticity, an image of nature less ordered, less tamed. The shadow, the trace of mankind and of its contingency, can be light, golden, or more austere; shadows can even sparkle of the tremors of the divine. In ancient Rome, the scared forest or lucus, unviolated pure space still imbued in the italic sentiment of ‘horror’ faced with the force of the supernatural, morphed over time into nemus, modified by the hellenic cult of beauty; the nemus of which Ovid intercepts the disconcerting charm. The shadows of leaves carried a mystery – not the revelatory flash of the untouchable which transcends us, but the intuition of an impalpable, unsayable presence; something which rather than dominating our existence seems to envelop it.
The path of life is only rarely the ascension towards the light we so often dream of. Here the body – heavy, although it sometimes rises to the chimeras of the soul – is offered a space designed to its scale, a space which reconciles the body with the materiality of place. Our path leads nowhere if not within us and outside, if not towards the feeling of silence which, for a second, proves to us that we are in the world.
to see the images of the work click here