Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Project Dante

Dante Aleghieri,  1265 - 1321

Yes, that Italian poet from the thirteenth century.  The one Bob Dylan sang about.  He was born in Florence, backed the wrong political party, and spent the last decades of his life in exile writing the greatest trilogy ever. (The Florence City Council rescinded Dante's exile sentence in June, 2008).  From hell through purgatory and then to paradise, Dante got back at everybody who ever harmed him, his words having a strength and a resonance that has echoed through the intervening centuries. The fact that he wrote in the vulgar tongue, the language of the 99%, rather than Latin, hasn't hurt his popularity.  I am in awe of the power of his poetry.

What would happen if Dante lived today?  As someone who was cast out by the ruling power structure, would he take his words to the street?  Recently, I have been working on a project that supposes that Dante was a tagger, his lines mixing with other graffiti here in Roma.

Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta piu caramente
(you shall leave everything you hold most dear)
                                             PARADISO XVII / 55

Vieni a veder la tua Roma che piange
(come and see your Rome and how she weeps)
                                             PURGATORIO VI / 112

L'anima tue e da viltade offesa
(your spirit is assailed by cowardice)
                                 INFERNO II / 45

Vengo del loco ove tornare disio
(I come from a place that I wish to return to)
                          INFERNO II / 71

Like a criminal returning to the scene of a crime, I would watch peoples' reactions (or not) to the postings.  The one that got ZERO attention, was the one posted over a political poster near Palazzo Madama, seat of the Italian Senate.  The text posted (I thought appropriately) was "come and look at your Rome and how she weeps"

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Aqua Alta

Most of medieval Rome - meaning the populated district from, say, the 6th century to the 16th century lies within the Campo Marzio.  Definitely a poor choice for habitation, because it's a flood plain embraced by a broad bend of the Tibur.  In imperial times, the campo was a district for major public monuments and theaters - housing was for the most part located elsewhere.  After the shift of the imperial administration to Constantinople in 330, Rome decayed and changed rapidly.  In 398 the imperial government in absentia found it necessary to issue a proclamation prohibiting, under pain of exile, the building of hovels and huts amongst the once grand civic monuments of the Campo Marzio.  In the end the huts and hovels won out as the dwindling population coalesced  in the campo (population estimates calculate over 1,000,000 in the 1st century AD, crashing to less than 30,000 by the 6th century)  There was a price to pay for that decision.  Aqua Alta.  High water.  The Tibur periodically overflowed its banks, and numerous plaques (more than 100 remain) note the inundations, some unbelievably high.  The earliest remaining plaque is from an inundation in 1277; some are fanciful and some are mundane, but they all tell a story of water washing over the habito. 

high water mark of 1422, facade of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

high water mark of 1530, facade of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

high water mark of 1597, facade of Sant' Eustachio

Rising flood waters are on our minds these days.  Oh sure, the North Carolina legislature has tried to make the problem go away by officially banning mention of rising sea levels due to global warming in documents and planning projections funded with state money,  but cities from New York to London to Venezia are preparing for the inevitable.  Wandering the narrow streets of Roma, as I so often do, I began to wonder: If the water rose to such unbelievable heights in the 15th and even 20th centuries (before the protective embankments were built in the 19th century, and upstream dams in the 1950's and 60's), what does the future hold?  Here is a video of an urban intervention I did of a possible scenario: 

Sunday, June 3, 2012


sublime: adj.  impressing the mind with a sense of grandeur or power; inspiring awe, veneration, etc.

That pretty much describes the Pantheon.  No matter how often I walk beneath that portico of 40 foot grey and rose granite columns (grey across the front, rose on the inside, except for 2 on the east side that were replaced in 1660 ) and enter the bronze doors (reputed to be original), my eyes automatically lift above the hordes of tourists snapping photos, upwards,  towards the oculus.  This building is the third iteration of the Pantheon, built by Hadrian in 126 AD, modifying (or even re-positioning, the verdict is still out) the original Pantheon of Agrippa from 27 BC, which had been restored by Domitian after a major fire in 80 AD. 

One afternoon last summer, when I was in the "neighborhood" I stopped by as much to escape the heat of the roman summer as an acknowledgement of the magic that the building exerts on me.  With no agenda, I entered and let my eyes wander......  It was then that I noticed there was something peculiar about the arch above the portal.  It wasn't a true "roman' arch - that ubiquitous perfect half circle.  It was more squashed, bordering on the elliptical.   And it was the only one. Why?

After several more visits,  I began to believe that the slightly elliptical void related somehow to the beam of light that entered through great oculus, or eye in the dome and gently traced an arc across the expanse of dome.  Each day the arc is slightly different, shifting and drifting across the dome in response to the earth's wobble around the sun.  Maybe the two, one fixed and one in motion, would line up on an auspicious day.   I began my watch.  I hypothesized that maybe it would be the spring equinox.  The beam of light approached closer and closer to the void each day as March 21 approached, the lowest point of its daily arc happening about noon.  On March 21 it was close, but no clean alignment.  The next day I believed to be auspicious was April 21, the ancient roman festival of Pales, goddess of shepherds, the day revered to be the date Romulus founded the city of Rome in 753 BC.  Romulus dug the pomerium, or sacred boundary, of his city on the Palatine (one of the 7 hills of Rome).  That hill has since given us the word palace from the immense imperial residences there, and was originally dedicated to Pales, herself.

Almost daily I checked on the progress of the beam and the void, and at the stroke of noon (actually it was 1 pm since the clocks had been moved forward for daylight savings), on April 8, the beam and the void lined up.  I was crushed.  Was this meeting just a coincidence and totally lacking in cosmic significance?  I had to ponder this over a gelato, and the math worked itself out.  The Julian calendar, set in place by the father of the empire himself, Julius Ceasar in 46 BC was hopelessly out of whack by the renaissance.  A new calendar was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, skipping 10 days to bring the calendar into sync with the solar year.  Since then, the Julian calendar has slipped another 3 days behind.

The 13 days I was missing were found.  Heaven and Earth were united for the festival of Pales; the beam of light connected as it has for 2 millennium with the void to illuminate the north facing porch of the temple.  The great gears of the cosmos continue to turn, reminding the ancients of its power, while the hordes of tourists continue to mill about unaware. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mirabilia Urbis Romae


Rome = tourists.  And long before Frommer's or the Guide Blue, there was the Mirabilia Urbis Romae - the Marvels of the City of Rome.  First penned in the 1140's, it  remained an immensely popular guide book well into the 15th century.  With a writing style "unhampered by any accurate knowledge of the historical continuity of the city", it  instead relied on myth, gossip and legend and a considerable amount of inventive fantasy in the description of the monuments of Rome.

I have taken the Mirabilia as a starting point for this exhibition and like some 18th century traveler on the Grand Tour, I have been exploring the monumental, the existential and the ordinary in this Place.  The large scale drawings, collages and installations of the exhibition express a piranesian sense of a past and a present that never was, assembled from fragments slightly out of context..  The post-modern tendency to be referential and ironic is balanced by my sense of observation and (subtle) humor.  And here, as in the Mirabilia Urbis Romea, the works are less of a descriptive cataloging of the marvels and more of an emotional response to this, the Eternal Jumble.

Christopher Pelley  installation view  MIRABILIA URBIS ROMAE

Christopher Pelley  installation view  MIRABILIA URBIS ROMAE

Christopher Pelley  installation view  MIRABILIA URBIS ROMAE

Christopher Pelley  installation view  MIRABILIA URBIS ROMAE

this exhibition was installed at Palazzo Delfini in Roma in April, 2012

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mater Christi

Upon entering the lobby of the parochial grade school that I attended, one was accosted by a large nondescript wall, the middle section of which was paneled with wood strips stained a dark brown in keeping with the taste of the mid sixties.  One spring morning at assembly we were told that a sculpture of the Virgin Mary, the namesake of our school, was being carve in Italy for that blank wall.  An italian sculpture being shipped to Burlington Vermont!  My fertile fifth grade mind went into overdrive.  Would it be like an early Michelangelo, sad and refined with maybe an arm or a foot left unfinished while the rest of the gleaming white carrara marble was polished to perfection, evidence that the sculpture was abruptly taken away from the carver to be transported to our school?  Or maybe it would be Berniniesque with piles of torrid drapery and undulating rapturous folds.  I secretly drew pictures imagining possible permutations. 

The fateful day arrived.  Something stood against that naked wall beneath a sheet, pregnant with expectation.  We were all ushered from our classrooms and silently (for grade schoolers) filed into the lobby to face the sheet.  With prayers and a great flourish, the sheet was yanked away from the wall and with it my heart collapsed as it deflated to the floor.  There, attached to the wall was a wood  carving somewhat painted.  Not so much polychromed so as to have that syrupy verisimilitude of the saints and martyrs gazing down upon me at church, but rather like some paint was applied, then wiped off.  More like a stain.  The much anticipated drapery hung stiffly in lines that I guess were meant to describe folds.  Disappointment reigned supreme in my heart that day, and not the Queen of Heaven.

I had long forgotten this episode, until the other day when I was walking down via dei Cestari, here in Roma, and in a store window for  arte sacra, there she was.  Mater Christi.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Large Scale

Monuments are, well, monumental.  Big.  Sense of scale is everything. As a New Yorker, one would think I am immune to the presence of the large, but counter-intuitively here in Roma I am in a state of perpetual awe.  And my work has responded accordingly to my adopted environment.  Recently in the studio I have been working on a series of large scale drawings which relate to this Eternal jumble of a City, which I then place in the urban environment.  I like the in context / out of context tension that develops.  (and of course I like to watch how people interact with them too)

Christopher Pelley  Large Gesture #1

Christopher Pelley  Large Gesture #1
Christopher Pelley  Large Gesture #1

Christopher Pelley  Large Gesture #1

This drawing (charcoal on paper, 230cm x 144cm) was temporarily installed on a sunny day at the end of March 2012, in Piazza Lovatelli, Roma

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Penises of Rome

OK, admit it.  We all do it.  We check out the crotch on those buff roman male statues.  Whether our interests are prurient or not, we just have to go there.

To combat the possible sense of lust, church fathers set the trend for covering up the offending pudenda with plaster fig leaves.  They are the smallest fig leaves I have ever seen, conforming tightly to the genitals... (speaking of which, have you ever noticed that Venus, the goddess of Love, doesn't have genitals?)  But why fig leaves?  The Bible states simply that Adam and Eve covered up their nakedness; it doesn't say with what.  Back to the origins of christian iconography, Adam is shown with a large fig leaf, not only to cover his sex, but also to hide where the navel should be.  An easy way out from a thorny liturgical question, as important at the time as say, how many angels could dance on the head of a pin?  Or did Christ's divinity come from him or through him?  (a major theological crisis which lead to excommunications, and schism).  So, if Adam was created by God, and not born of a woman, would he have a belly button?  The artistic answer was to hide that part of the body and call it a day.  A fig leaf did the trick.
Hunterian Psalter  English  ca 1170
With time and trends, the fig leaves are falling, sometimes exposing, er, not much.  The penis has fallen off in the intervening couple of thousand years.  (Former) Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was so concerned that the 2nd century AD statue of Mars gracing his office was minus the penis, that he had a restorer fashion a new one.  In keeping with the parameters of restoration and not permanently intruding on ancient material, the new penis is attached with a magnet.

Here are a few hanging around Roma (or not).

Friday, January 13, 2012


Answering the how, the what, the why and other unfathomable questions of the universe has always preoccupied mankind.  Sibyls, Seers and Prophets hold a sacred place in our mythologies.  Of course the answers given are never staight forward and the signs and cryptic words are always open to interpretation.  Over dinner at our favorite chinatown noodle joint the other night, Joyce was playing with her new iphone.  "Ask it a question" she said, handing me the phone over a gently steaming bowl of fishball and hand pulled noodles.  I pushed the button, then asked "How do I become a famous artist?"  After a moment or two Siri's voice in a monotone with only the slightest hint of emotion replied like some modern oracle at Delphi -"here is a list of art supply stores in the area".
I guess that means I should keep painting...
Here are a few new ones:

Christopher Pelley  ITALIAN LESSON #1  oil/canvas   100cm x 115cm 

Christopher Pelley  RECLINING NUDE  oil/canvas  90cm x 120cm

Christopher Pelley  ANTINOO  oil/canvas   75cm x 90cm

Christopher Pelley  SIGN LANGUAGE (ITALIAN)  oil/canvas  60cm x 70cm