"SOUVENIR D'ITALIE / BENITO and CLARETTA"
oil on linen, cm. 200x130
(from Christian Schiefer's photo)
April 29, 1945, the bodies of Benito Mussolini and Claretta Petacci are hung
upside down to the shelter of a gas station in Piazzale Loreto, Milan.
This, for me, is one of the most impressive images of the History of the
Twentieth Century and the corpse of the Italian dictator deformed and
bloodstained is one of my obsessions of horror and ecstasy (recalling
the memorable pages of George Bataille: "The Tears of Eros"). I turned
the Imagine creating an alienating effect, a short circuit visual and
mental. Perhaps it seems offensive to some people, but the image
that came to mind when I painted "Souvenir d'Italie" was that of a
famous photo of the great Russian dancer Nijinsky locked in an asylum
who jumps up. Mussolini and Petacci seem do the same dance in the sky.
Each viewer is free interpretation, apparently.
There is a kind of heroism that is the most heroic of all even if we do not speak about it and we do not make monuments to heroes: it is the heroism of the woman who becomes the faithful companion of a man and then accompanies him to death. When I was a boy I read, and I was impressed, that in India this is called sati, and it is an old funeral practice, in which a widowed woman would either voluntarily or by use of force and coercion immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. The rite was perceived as a hypocritical act of devotion to her husband and only the virtuous women were able to accomplish it. Actually Indian men considered their wives as their prosthesis, like wooden legs, so in case of man's death, the woman became a useless burden to society, sexually worn and used so the suicide was the only logic solution. According to the reports by the British East India Company, between 1813 and 1828, almost 600 cases of sati occured every year but the extent of the phenomenon diminished in the subsequent decades. However, about 40 cremations have still happened from 1947 till today .
Even in Europe there is the social tradition of sati but it is different. Years ago I did a historic search which focused mainly on the images - I repeat, on the images – of the most important cases, and I published the results in my essay Dying Young. Basically, I wrote: becoming the faithful companion of a famous man is like taking a cancer that leads to a common death, in Europe, not for a hypocritical voluntary act as in India, but for a conviction, that is a public and social murder in a democratic sense. I mean, in Europe it is the people, unfortunately not only men, who can not stand the famous widow, and a case that appears in millions of images is that one of the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette who, according to historians, once replied to the statement "the people lack bread," with "let them eat brioche”. Of course it is a lie. She was also tried for several repugnant blames but in particular she was prosecuted for incest with her eight-year-son, to whom she would have practiced fellatio, together with her lesbian lover, just to laugh and to make him sleep: please notice that I quote from the original documents. Robespierre also reproached the judge for having gone too far. Marie was executed on the stake as a great queen even if she was not considered like this during her life. It was 16th October 1893, she arrived on the fatal cart in Place de la Revolution and quickly climbed the steps to the scaffold when she accidentally stepped on the executioner's foot she said: "Pardon me Sir, I meant not to do it". At 12.15 the guillotine fell on his neck. The executioner took his bleeding head and showed it to the Parisian people who shouted "Long life to the Republic." Thus began that glorious period of history known as Enlightenment.
I recalled the images - and I stress again, the images - of Marie Antoinette, because thanks to them, for those who can read, we can know her end which is hidden in words. She is visible in Google images and it sounds like a fable, fifteen thousand figures, including dozens of famous masterpiece paintings preserved in museums. This immense artefact catches up with a single painting by Luca Del Baldo taken from a photograph, of an ordinary bourgeois who also died of a couple to have been the faithful companion of an important man, Benito Mussolini, the woman was Claretta Petacci. Then in the modern history of Europe there was another contemporaneous of the great sati, Eva Braun, Hitler's companion, but first of all I want to talk about Claretta and I repeat another time, of her only work of art, painted thought and created by Luca the artist sitting in front of the reality reflected in the mirror of a photograph. And this is exactly what makes this image more valuable than fifteen.
Before you believe that this is a paradox, let me try checking with my degree, that I call the cover of the book of history. Think about one, but there are dozens, that the title says History of the French Revolution, or even better in a single word The Enlightenment, with the subtitle History of its origins. Think about this beautiful book of five hundred pages, where the coloured cover reproduces the image of the executioner, showing the crowd the head truncated slavering blood of a murdered woman. The crowd is happy, mad with joy and yells and screams and laughs in delirium: we are in Paris in Place de la Grève in a year not so far, in 1793. I affirm that this freehand picture would be enough to give meaning to the title, The Enlightenment, which is not that one of the text. Who lives thinking more with pictures than with words, looking at this picture and many others of the same subject, reminds a crowd just alike that one photographed thousands of times on a spring day in 1945 in the city of Milan in Piazzale Loreto. In the snapshots, but there are also some documentary films, the crowd is people mad with joy, shouting and laughing in delirium. The images made by a machine outclass thousand times those by freehand: they reflect, just as in a mirror, a man who climbs the scaffold, a gas station, waving a flag and singing, I think, “Avanti popolo alla riscossa...” ("People come to the Rescue...") or something like that: he feels free and in fact he is free to be what he is, a wild beast. Another one, in front row, facing a pile of bodies, turns to his fellows with a funny face indicating something comic before him on the floor, I'm afraid it is the belly of a dead body. These snapshots made by a machine, among lots of things confirm that the freehand drawings of Place de la Grève, which might look amazing, are not only credible but soften the events. In the pictures the facts are always like candied fruits: they are chestnuts boiled in melted sugar. A great merit of the photography is to show the crowd as it is: a disgusting and obscene giant beast. Always? Always!
Luca Del Baldo's work was painted by nature photography: that is taken, with the materials and ways of painting, from a photograph of the events occured in Piazzale Loreto in a spring day seventy years ago. Among hundreds and thousands of snapshots Luca chose the heaviest, that one of Mussolini and Claretta Petacci couple whose bodies were hung by the feet on the scaffold. Even a picture is hung, but with an act of human compassion the artist straightens the havoc. As in the previous speech, among thousand history books on the Resistance let us choose one of the most authoritative, written by the first member of CNL (Committee of National Liberation???), which is entitled A people in hiding. If we reproduced the work by Luca Del Baldo under this title, we would obtain an effect difficult to define in simple terms, and finding nothing better than, forced to use the barbaric means of the semantic writing, a sentence by Horkheimer and Adorno that we wrest from The Dialectic of Enlightenment, whose first yelps were the screams of the crowd which is painted in Place de la Grève: "The history of the twentieth century transforms the modern cultural progress in its opposite, that is a real step backward. It is the same reason proclaimed by the Enlightenment to undergo a real historical reversal which mainly depends on the transformation of progress in regression”. It rarely happens, but it sometimes happens that a philosopher becomes a kind of kamikaze. In case the metaphor can put the images of the photograph on him as an explosive. Ah the photos, and the painting that comes from photography: they are perhaps a new flood, but we fear this second without ark.
We conclude this second Dying Young "written for the work by Luca Baldo, with a short memory I owe to another innocent heroine, Eva Braun, Hitler's companion, but also with the memory of a wolf and her tender puppy. Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the bunker of the Chancellery in Berlin on 30th April 1945, the war is over. Eva Braun killed herself before her husband and even the Fuhrer's dog, the wolf with her puppy, were poisoned. We do not remember some dogs in the stories of this event and nobody writes that in a pit at the entrance of the bunker were cremated with petrol in four: a man, an innocent woman who was dying of torque, and the wolf with her puppy who as the woman of India was forced to follow her master. I love dogs, I repeat again that I am grateful to Luca Del Baldo for the opportunity he offered me to remember them, perhaps unique, at least once in this forgotten text. Certainly it is barely significant but as one of Sciascia's characters says after being solved of his sins by a defroked priest: better than nothing.
Ponzone (AL), February 2010