According to the Austrian chancellor, Klemens von Metternich, in 1847, “the word Italy is a geographical expression, a description that is a useful shorthand but has no political significance”. Within two-and-a-half decades, however, the different states of the Italian peninsula would be united as a single nation – and people have been trying to grasp its “political significance” ever since.
The artist most famous for tackling Italy’s identity head-on was Luciano Fabro (1936-2007), who produced 40 sculptures in the boot-like shape of his homeland.
He adopted all manner of materials to create them – from glass and gold to iron wire and deerskin – and displayed them both hanging and lying on the ground.
In the Modern Italian Art sale at Christie’s in London last autumn, Fabro’s Italia dell’emigrante – made from copper bands – sold for an artist-record of £2.7m, proof that his Italia series is still deemed as important as ever.
One of the leading artists of the Arte Povera movement, Fabro made his first Italia in the late Sixties. His last came in 2005 and, though he denied ever having explicitly political aims, the works regularly caused a stir.
For instance, back in 1969 – a year marked by violent workers’ strikes and a neo-Fascist bombing that killed 17 people in Milan’s Piazza Fontana – posters of an Italia sculpture to advertise Fabro’s latest exhibition in the city’s De Neubourg Gallery was considered so inflammatory, in the prevailing political climate, that they were taken down from all walls.
Photo: Luciano Fabro (Turin, 1936 – Milan, 2007), Habitat delle erbe (A), 1980, India ink on canvas paper, 80 x 100 cm, Intesa Sanpaolo collection
As did his array of materials, which have often been interpreted symbolically. Did gold refer to the golden years of economic boom that Italy (with the help of Marshall Aid) experienced in the two decades after the Second World War? And did lead refer to the so-called Years of Lead thereafter, a period of Italian history marked by domestic terrorism and heralded by the Piazza Fontana bombing?
Fabro himself was too canny to pass much comment on the series one way or another. According to some observers, however, there is actually nothing political in the Italia sculptures; they are, in fact, purely aesthetic exercises.
Fabro’s daughter Silvia seemed to support such a thesis when she said: "The form of Italy [did] not contain nationalistic values for my father… It is just a shape that [was] for [him] as familiar as a square or a circle."
The American Jasper Johns – who created a series similar to Fabro’s, with his paintings of US flags – said it helped to use a subject “the mind already knows” because that gave him, as artist, “room to work on other levels” – that is, to focus his attention on the act of making the paintings.
For his part, Fabro revelled in the use of different materials, which in the case of 1972’s De Italia meant Riviera leather. (De Italia is one of several Fabros owned by Intesa Sanpaolo, forming part of its stellar collection of modern and contemporary Italian art, and featuring in 101/900, a new publication cataloguing 101 of the bank’s best works from the last century.)
Fabro also revelled in the tweaks in appearance to which he could subject the Italian peninsula. In one sculpture, he emaciated its landmass by capturing it in shreds of billowing cloth. In another, the islands of Sicily and Sardinia were grafted on to the mainland.
Occasionally he even hung his work upside down by the ‘heel’ — which has variously been read as a suggestion that the country was topsy-turvy and immobilised; as a conceptual imagining of what Italy might be like if revolution struck, and the poor south overthrew and overturned the rich north; and even as a reference to Mussolini’s corpse, strung up by the ankles in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto in 1945.
In short, the outline of Italy gave Fabro a malleable, instantly recognisable shape – or symbol – which makes an instant connection with his viewers. From there it's up to them how they react to each individual artwork and what spin they choose to put on it – depending on their own, probably deep-rooted views of Italy itself.
Luciano Fabro (Torino, 1936 – Milano, 2007)
De Italia, 1972
Riviera leather in natural colour
102 x 96 cm
Intesa Sanpaolo collection
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