Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana soars up high with greatness and fortitude, glorified by its fascist architecture. Located in the Roman district of EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma), the Fascist landmark was erected during the 1930s as the site for the 1942 world’s fair that Benito Mussolini had planned would celebrate 20 years of Fascism. Situated outside is a delicate fir tree—its thin, bare branches stretch out to either side as if determined to stand up to the might of its architectural counterpart. Made in stainless steel and bronze, Giuseppe Penone’s Abete (2013) offers a likely aesthetic reference to the biblical story of David and Goliath. The sculpture, by one of the principal protagonists of Arte Povera, the avant-garde Italian movement of the late 1960s that was dedicated to the use of humble materials to generate “poor art”, is part of Matrice, a quasi-retrospective showing of nearly 15 works by Penone dating from the 1970s to the present at the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, Fendi’s new headquarters.
The exhibition, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of New York’s New Museum and curator of the 55th Venice Biennale, worked with Penone to best situate the artworks. The show takes its name from a 2015 work on the ground floor displaying a long, hollowed tree trunk made from fir wood and bronze with its branches balanced on top, symbolizes the delicate relationship between art and nature. “Trees appear as solid beings, but if we observe them through time, in their growth they become a fluid, malleable matter,” said the 70-year-old Penone. “A tree is a being that memorizes its own shape and this shape is necessary to its life. Therefore, it is a perfect sculptural structure, because it carries the necessity of existence.” The trees exhibited in Matrice offer the perfect emblem for the artist’s work: one that has continually challenged the assumptions of traditional aesthetics.
Giuseppe Penone. Abete. 2013. Stainless steel and bronze. 22.40 meters high
Rome has always struggled to embrace modernity—a fact perhaps to be expected from a city of such ancient power. Two years ago, Italian luxury brand Fendi moved its headquarters into the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana and has since used its ground floor for a variety of art exhibitions, many of which have drawn more than 100,000 visitors. Over the last few years the fashion house has been on an art and culture spree, donating funds to a variety of initiatives to support Italian heritage. This, it seems to be doing, also as a way to reverse the onslaught of recent news regarding Rome’s dirtiness and constant chaos. Fendi is overturning the ugliness of the present with beauty—an ugliness largely unexpected to be associated with Rome. The fashion house restored several fountains in city, including a 2.2 million euro restoration of the Trevi Fountain. It is also the main sponsor of the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year. At the end of May, Fendi also contributed to the city’s Istituto Superiore per la Conservazione ed il Restauro (Institute for the Conservation and Restoration) by inaugurating a technological room and donating to the space appliances and machines to be used in aero-spatial research, science and medicine.
Penone’s Foglie di Pietre (Leaves of Stone) is Fendi’s latest art commission and gift to the city of Rome. A site-specific artwork to be permanently situated outside the maison’s flagship boutique on Largo Goldoni, it is made of two bronze trees at 18 and nine metres tall respectively, with interlacing branches that lift up a sculpted marble block with carved reliefs, weighing in 11 tonnes. The work recalls the various phases of the Eternal City from fragmented ruins of the Classical era to the bronze and marble of Baroque Rome and so forth. As the first contemporary artwork to be permanently installed in Rome, it also celebrates the city’s present and future. “Foglie di Pietra embodies once again how much tied we are with this city and the importance it carries in the history of FENDI,” said CEO of Fendi Pietro Beccaria.
Foglie di Pietre and the works in Matrice also emphasise the relationship between nature and the city of Rome. “The culture of ancient Rome was based on the idea of an animated nature so the present was always in relationship with elements that had a soul—that were animated,” explains Penone while seated next to one of his tree sculptures in the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. “Such objects were seen as gods—there was a soul in them. Each element of nature had its own dignity and in this way it was made divine.” Yet as the artist states, “modern Rome has changed.” Still existing in the background is this “presence” he notes. “Above all, if one works as a sculptor and with natural material then they must respect it in some way. If you work with matter you must respect it – you must respect the spirit that is inside it. There’s always a spirit in the material.”
Giuseppe Penone, Spine d’acacia – Contatto, 2006, 300×480 cm.
Such juxtapositions between nature, history, and beauty, and importantly, the contemporary present and the glory of ancient Rome are revealed through subtle visual interplay, not just through Penone’s artworks themselves but through their placement in a building such as the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. The architecture of the fascist landmark once strove to create a visual and rhetorical link between a glorified Rome and the importance of national unity. Penone’s Arte Povera sculptures are in stark contrast to any type of imperial glory; his work instead evokes a desire for a spiritual link between nature, art, man and the present.
A walk through Matrice and the viewer will see how Penone constantly synthesizes nature and art in his work. In Essere Fiume (To Be A River) (2010) the artist has painstakingly replicated the shape of a river stone in a carved marble block. “This piece originated from my experience while working with stones,” explains the artist. “I had this idea that my heating and my touching the stone was very similar to what the river was doing to the stones.” Penone thus strove to repeat the same process that the river did to the stones on his own. “The idea was that I was creating the perfect sculpture in terms of matter and in terms of working process.” In Spine d’Acacia (2006) thousands of thorns are used to delineate an image of a human face. Nearby, in Soffio di Foglie (1979), is a large pile of leaves where the artist has left an imprint of his body. “You have the absence of the body and the absence of the tree,” says Penone.
“Man is an element of nature and hence he is in dialogue with everything else,” says the artist. “Our lifetime is extremely limited in respect to stone. So which is more important: Man or stone? It is a question I always ask.” However, sculpture, states Penone, is also limited. “It has a limited duration because of its form in time, and because of this we use material that is stable and durable which guarantees a duration of time that allows the existence of the form in time.” The present, and its continuation, is thus guaranteed through the erection of sculptural form.
Giuseppe Penone, Ripetere il bosco, 1969-2017
Penone has a surprising humility for an artist whose works now sell for a few hundred thousand euros and at times reach up to seven figures at auction. He has an otherworldly sense of man’s placement within the universe and the fragility of existence. The artist’s decision to remain in Turin where he went to study in 1967 after growing up in the Maritime Alps is testament to this. He’s since had major exhibitions at Versailles, Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the Centre Pompidou, Rome’s MAXXI Museum and is represented by Gagosian Gallery. And even still, he seems to stand apart from the intoxicating madness of the contemporary art world.
Both the exhibition Matrice and Foglie di Pietre artwork offer powerful artistic and cultural significance. However, as the artist notes, there is still an intellectual tension when it comes to exhibiting in the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana.
“It’s also difficult to accept to do a show in a space like this—a space that is based on a cultural rhetoric which is difficult to share,” he says. “But I introduced an element of reality. In a way there is a sort of dialogue between the type of art of the building (the art of rhetoric) and my own.”
Penone’s oeuvre reinstates a fragility of existence—a transience of time and of nature and human life. Perhaps, when placed in dialogue with remnants of the Eternal City and its fascist reconstruction, offers much to ponder in regards to contemporary society’s relationship to its past and its future. Can fragility and glory go hand-in-hand?
Matrice runs until 16 July at the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. For more information, visit www.fendi.com