Paths of classicism


Having been entrusted with the task of writing a genuine epilogue for an exhibition project, finally, feeling satisfied, an idea comes to mind.
The majestic eighteenth century rooms of the National Museum of Oriental Art, with their precious contents, a source of inspiration for the artist. The travertine garden of Pope Paul II Barbo, a perfect setting, like a theatrical wing, for Lucilla Catania’s monumental terracotta work.
However, Palazzo Brancaccio is not a neutral host. It is not a blank museum slate where an exhibition’s pieces can be easily placed and the visitor can follow a set path wandering through its rooms. It is not an edifice designed as an art gallery per se. Something, that can present and show itself off solely for this purpose, like many of the recent examples of contemporary architecture dedicated to the arts of the XXI century. It is a host with a particular style – if eighteenth century eclecticism can be considered as such – not identifying itself with any one traditional style – neo-Renaissance, neo-Baroque, neo-Rococo…
Often, style can be overly considered as a diagnostic instrument to facilitate placing works of art in a space or time so as to define the “collective taste” of an epoch, but according to Meyer Scapiro, it has its own autonomous reality. It is a complete and changing system of forms with meaning, an invisible thread of assonance which motivates the personality of the artist and a group’s vision of the world.
Neo-classicism is Lucilla Catania’s style. Not, however, in the traditional sense of the mid-seventeenth century, when it was more akin to the spirit of the renewed classicism of the new Renaissance man. Instead, here, Lucilla’s classicism is called upon to compare itself, and even vie, with places and contents.
The contents of the National Museum of Oriental Art are ancient – works of art and objects originating from afar, in time and space. A dialogue that is so intense, so daring, with contemporary language, it could appear to be inconceivable – but, is not.
The ancient viridarium of Paul II safeguards another object – the stereotomy of travertine arches, quite different to the happy eclecticism of Palazzo Brancaccio. A rare jewel with its headstone relics – a lapidarium, a source of inspiration for the many students who were instructed here by the first Italian artist of the era, Canova, when, in 1812, an imperial decree led to the setting up of an Accademia di Belle Arti in the rooms of the palace which had survived from their public use under Napoleonic rule.

If the idea of an exhibition project has some kind of logic, then the result is Cartesian – proiectum derives from the verb proicere that can be translated as “to throw forward”, because planning means to project. It is this projecting that we admire today, made of solid materials, of marble and terracotta, and not an eidolon, or empty image.
In observing the sculpture, we are able to understand the artist’s intention. We are able to perceive the perfect consistency between her intention and her stylistic execution. Through the figurative elements we are able to grasp the moral and human significance of the work of art. It comes to us as a desire for action dominated by a likewise decisive will – the eternal struggle between imagination and reason, dominated by a classic conscious will.
Lucilla is able to incorporate movement and stasis in her works, giving an impression of contained energy, balanced and rhythmic. Movement and stasis form the basis of the geometric figures, rhythmic elements that shape the subject. The defining, the circularity of the cone, the circle and the cylinder, all impart a sense of movement and stasis to what is around them, affecting the orthogonal flat surfaces of the floors and walls.
An aesthetic apprehension of the synthesis between form and content – an aniconic classicism. An impression of quadrangular energy deriving from the composition of the figure within a clearly rhythmic form. A happy composed rhythm that results in an immediate resonance of stillness and force.
In the four sculptures from the early 1990s – Lacrima (Tear), Bastone (Stick), Cielo (Sky), Gobba (Hump) – the titles refer to an essential, figurative representation of things that exist between heaven and earth. The physical obviousness of the marble in all its different degrees of density and colour – the black marble of Marquinia, the grey/blue marble of Bardiglio Imperiale, the white marble of Carrara – are subdued by the sleek aniconic classicism.
The cubic shapes of Dadi (Die) hewn out of Bardiglio marble form a vertical counterpoint to the white carved marble of Canna (Rod) and its adamantine splendour, a reminder of the natural matrix of the fount of inspiration.
On the floor we find the wavy forms of Navigante (Mariners) – the flowing black Marquinia marble carries away the elements from the primordial shapes of the Verona red marble. On the walls, two niches hold – like a space protecting an ancient knowledge – the delicate balancing of the Persian yellow travertine pile of
Libri in giallo (Books in Yellow) and the erratic form of Libro in giallo (Book in Yellow). The latter appears to contradict the marble it is sculpted from, it evaporates, it liquefies vertically.
A metaphor for an ancient journey in search of knowledge along the navigable routes of civilization.
The result of this fusion between contemporary language and the poetic inspiration that the ancient art evokes, is a fascinating dialogue between forms reminiscent of different content but in perfect equilibrium. It goes beyond the confines of history thanks to their expressive force.
In the room dedicated to the Near and Middle East, Punzone (Puncheon) dialogues with the pommel of a XV century door originating from a city in Iran. The title recalls the imprimatur of objects made from precious metals, that render them identifiable along the long roads of history.

In the room of Islamic art and archaeology, Tappeti (Rugs), in firebrick terracotta, are spread out near the marble screens from the palace of Mas’ud III of Ghazni in Afghanistan. They appear to be laid out on the horizontal flat surface, like a contemporary projection onto the vertical plane. The perforated decoration of something that separates, the screen, becomes the fragmented rug, or, paraphrasing Heidegger, the imprints of the shoes of Van Gogh are projected onto the uninterrupted paths of the Earth.
On the ground near the sacred verticality of the XII century funerary marble stones, finely decorated and oriented towards Mecca, we find Scatole e scarpe con maniglie (Boxes and Shoes with Handles), red terracotta shapes that overlap and contort, continually changing, never the same, just like the evolution of humankind on this Earth.
The monumental Escalier is positioned in front of the superb engraved stone slab from the Chinese Han period. Another matrix of verticality, where the formal theme of the diagonal of the ancient works, is reinterpreted as a symbolic ascent, from the Earth to the heavens. Stare e andare…(Remaining and going..)
The terracotta forms of Voluta (Spiral), Occhio (Eye), Delfino (Dolphin), Goccia (Drop) and Atmosferica (Atmosphere) create an aesthetic diaphragm between the natural garden, the geometrically pruned hedges, the citrus trees, the eighteenth century cypresses and the artificially designed garden of the hortus conclusus of the Venetian Pontiff.
This brings to mind an idea of what Berenson called ‘tactile values’. That is, the ability to evoke, through formal means, aesthetic pleasure which has been carried over to the tactile experience of the physical world through atavistic actions.
A strong three dimensional sense of the subject which gives rise to expression, a result of the tactile and visual experience – a magnificent concentration of balanced energies.
Suggestions of fragmented mixtilinear pediments, overturned columns, inversed taperings – all contributing to a new classicism.
The material stasis casts a functional line through the natural marble veins – a chromatic line that permeates, being intrinsic to the subject – a vibrant energy of contours. The porosity of the Vitorchiano peperino, absorbs the air and light. Not a decorative sculptural virtuosity, nor the carving of the tool, but the choice itself of colour on a geographical palette. Thus, the colour of the sculptural abstraction is intensified.
Lucilla’s individuality imbues her works with a moral equilibrium. And this is the characteristic of each piece of classical art. In following the chronological order of the works exhibited, the moral quality of the artist is consistently seen, in the constant repetition of figurative methods which results in a stylistic unity.
If one cannot feel the moral value in the sincerity of these works, one misses their meaning and their forceful suggestion.
A work of art is purer the more it is able to remain faithful to the temperament of the artist who created it. And it is more effective, the more it is able to express itself with more uniform means. That is in being more stylistically consistent, so the artist is not overshadowed by the art market, but is able to annihilate that shadow, dispelling obscurity.

Luca Barreca