Moments of erasure

Facing across a busy Palermo street narrow enough to deny its facade any commanding sightlines, the Palazzo Riso-Belmonte is also situated in a city endowed with an embarrassment of Baroque riches. Despite the twin catastrophes of the WWII Allied bombing campaign, and the mafia construction scams of the ‘Sack of Palermo’ from the 1950s to 1980s, this is a building which appears almost commonplace here, and the visitor stumbling across it, as we did on our recent trip to Sicily, will likely need to look twice if they are to note quite how well the effort of looking is rewarded.  Its warm, reddish sandstone is a comfortable place to rest the eyes, and the calm rhythms of its Neoclassical geometry are curiously unassuming, in a part of the world where the term ‘Baroque’ often implies a kind of decorative frenzy. This is however a paradigmatic example of the Late Sicilian Baroque, which resisted the excesses of the Rococo, and in the late eighteenth century took a turn towards the simpler and clearer Palladian motifs that had informed the English Baroque some decades before. Built in 1784, in the midst of the transition to Neoclassicism, the perfectly proportioned facade of Palazzo Riso-Belmonte looks utterly familiar to my London-formed eyes, and yet unmistakably  Sicilian, perhaps because of its prominent balconies, so obviously intended for use in this far more clement climate.

Beyond the facade there is… almost nothing. Or rather, there is almost nothing left of the space and the life which the facade was designed to mediate to the street. Any natural transition to middle-class apartment living, which seems a common fate for Sicily’s palazzi, was savagely interrupted by British and American bombs. On the upper floors an effort has been made to preserve the interior, but it is the brutalised remnant of that interior which is preserved, with some of the painted plasterwork restored in the street-facing first-floor salon. I’m sure that money was an issue, and reconstructing the building exactly as it once was was probably not an option, but to preserve the history of its destruction in this way is something of a masterstroke. Situated in the moment of its erasure is a gallery of contemporary art, inscribed on the stabilised ruin of the palazzo like new ink on the excoriated parchment of a palimpsest.

The work on display at RISO, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea della Sicilia sits comfortably at the juncture of the ruined palazzo and the modern construction materials that make it a functional building, although thinking back on it now I can remember relatively little about the art. There is something about contemporary art, like modernist architecture, that seems to me to make more sense in the unforgiving sunlight and more deeply rooted intellectual traditions of southern Europe, but while it seems to require less justification it also seems somehow less remarkable. I saw some objects into which, no doubt, some artists had poured a great deal of passion, of thought, of creativity, of plain hard work, and… I enjoyed them; I was entertained. I was even moved, by the work that addressed itself to the refugee crisis, in which Sicily is a front line. But none of it made a sufficiently great impression that I could tell you much about it now; it has gone the way of the palazzo’s past magnificence, sucked into the same affective and cognitive hole that aerial bombardment tore through the heart of the building.

The only piece I recall in any detail is outside, in a space to one side of the courtyard, which has been reconstructed in a broad-brush, schematic manner with rows of large, geometric archways punctuating very little. In a casually roped-off area is a circle of rocks, the sort of rocks that seem to litter every patch of open ground in Sicily that has not been deliberately cleared. They are piled higher in two intersecting lines which form a cross. The piece is Circle of Life by Richard Long, and is composed from rocks he collected during a long walk on the island. I wouldn’t like to guess what his intentions are, but he seems to have brought a part of rural Sicily into this very urban, architectural location, as well as a trace of his perambulation; what seems strange to me is how disconnected the piece seems here, fetishised and aestheticised by its proximity to the gallery, even if it is not actually inside it. ‘Land art’, a frequently deployed term for what Long does, would seem to imply something not just ‘taken from’ the land, like a landscape painting, but something that is somehow ‘of it’; that is certainly how I tend to read Long’s oeuvre, when I’m exposed to it. But this piece could hardly seem more disconnected from the sediments that calved these lumps of sandstone, or from Long’s long walk, stuck as it is among all these mediating layers of historical human activity, and bounded by paving slabs. Another moment of interruption and erasure, preserved and displayed.

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