The Splendor of Alberto Burri's Grand Cretto of Gibellina
Jul 15, 2019
This year marks the 35th anniversary of the start of construction on the Grand Cretto, by Alberto Burri, a sacred work of land art built on the site of a lost Sicilian town. Nowhere in the history of art is there a more heart-wrenching story than that of the Grand Cretto. The story could begin with Gibellina or Burri. Either way, it is a tale of misery and loss met with healing and hope. As for Gibellina, the town was established in medieval times as an agricultural settlement. It expanded in the late 14th Century when the Sicilian nobleman Manfredi Chiaramonte built a castle nearby. By the mid 20th Century, it was home to around 100,000 residents, mostly poor, working families. Then on 15 January 1968, a massive earthquake struck Sicily and completely destroyed Gibellina. More than 400 people died, and most everyone else was left homeless. Eventually, a new city was built about 20 km away, but construction was hampered for years by mafia corruption and government ineptitude, while the poor and homeless earthquake victims languished. Meanwhile, the ruins of old Gibellina were left littered with broken glass, twisted metal, stone rubble, broken toys, smashed cars, torn books, bloody clothes, and all of the other sad remains one would expect from shattered human lives. Where are those ruins today? That brings us to Burri. The destroyed city of Gibellina, along with all of its heartbreaking debris, is entombed within the concrete walls of his boldest experiment—the Grand Cretto.
Burri was born in Umbria, Italy, in 1915. Though the region was rich with art history, he did not study art in school. Rather, he earned his medical degree from the University of Perugia. In 1940, he was conscripted into the Italian army at the start of World War II. He served for two and a half years as a medic before being captured and sent as a prisoner of war to Hereford, Texas. It was in that prisoner camp that Burri began to paint. After returning to Italy in 1946, Burri began developing a personal aesthetic style seemingly born from his experiences in the war. Using simple materials like tar, sack cloth, sand and pumice, and employing methods such as sewing, ripping and burning, he created works that resemble bandages, blood, scorched earth and decaying flesh. Existing somewhere between painting, sculpture and relief, these strange works have an emotional presence that evokes visceral reactions from viewers. Burri spoke little about the work, but hinted that as time went on, his methods became less about the horrors of war, and more about his fascination with the expressive power of materials and processes.
Alberto Burri - Bianco Cretto, 1973. Galleria dello Scudo. Acrovynil on celotex. 62.0 × 60.0 cm (24.4 × 23.6 in). Basel 2017.
His work hit a turning point in the early 1960s, when he and his wife travelled to Los Angeles for an extended holiday. During their trip, Burri visited Death Valley and saw the way the sun beat down on the parched earth to create massive cracks in the dry ground. The cracks reminded him of cracks he had seen on flesh and on the surfaces of old paintings. The experience inspired him to begin a series of works known as cretto, or cracks. About his revelation Burri wrote, “The idea came from there [Death Valley], but then in the painting it became something else. I only wanted to demonstrate the energy of the surface.” He developed a chemical mixture that he could spread across a surface in varying amounts, which was guaranteed to crack as it dried. He could influence how deep the cracks would become by changing how much material he spread on the surface, but he could not predict where the cracks would end up forming. As with all human interactions with nature, his process was a mixture of accident and control.
Alberto Burri - Nero Cretto, 1975. Galleria Tega. Acrovinyl on cellotex. 100.0 × 70.0 cm (39.4 × 27.6 in). Basel 2019. Galleries | 2.0 | F10.
The Irreducible Presence
By the 1980s, Burri had gained international prominence as one of the most fascinating artists of his generation. Like many other Italian artists, he was invited by the Mayor of the new town of Gibellina, Ludovico Corrao, to come to the new city and add to its growing collection of public art. Corrao believed the arts would save the town from corruption and bring life and hope to the residents. Burri ignored the invitation, but Corrao persisted, paying him a personal visit. After finally touring the new city, Burri said he had no interest in adding one more work of public art to an already crowded field. But then he toured the ruins of the old city, which had not been touched at all in the decade and a half since the earthquake. Burri was visibly shaken. Later that night, after watching the sun set on the nearby ruins of a Greek amphitheater, he had the idea for the Grand Cretto, a land art work that would preserve the entire site of the ruined city of Gibellina.
Alberto Burri - Cretto, 1976. Acrovinyl on cellotex. 55.8 × 76.8 cm (22.0 × 30.2 in). Miami Beach 2017. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art.
To convince residents to agree to his plan, Burri built a model of a giant version of one of his cretto paintings, but made of concrete, with the cracks representing the original street map of the ruined city. After much debate, the citizens acquiesced. Crews gathered up the ruins—the clothing, the cars, the toys, the books, everything—and buried it within the concrete forms of the Cretto, essentially preserving it in a mausoleum. Burri called the work “the archaeology of the future,” a sign that a cultured civilization continued on this spot even after the disaster. Mayor Corrao, meanwhile, offered perhaps the most poetic assessment of the Grand Cretto. He called on the city “to obliterate the ruins in order to commemorate them,” a tacit acknowledgement of the processes Burri used to create his cretto paintings, which call for creative destruction since the cracks are created as the surface slowly destroys itself over time. Construction began on the Grand Cretto in 1984, but the project was not completed until 2016. Today, much of the site is overgrown with weeds, and natural cracks are forming on every surface—a poetic reminder of the inescapable wounds of life, and the strange beauty that is possible when humans collaborate with nature to create art.
Featured image: Alberto Burri - Cretto di Burri - Gibellina. Photo by: Fabio Rinnone
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio