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When Alberto Burri Went to Gibellina

“Here, here I feel that I could do something”

In the night between the 14th and 15th of January 1968, a powerful earthquake sequence struck western Sicily, razing several towns in the area and damaging many others. 

The majority of the buildings, mainly houses made of tuff, crumbled under the power of the seismic shock, exposing the dramatic underdevelopment of the region. 

Rescue was difficult and not always well-coordinated. The ability to move between towns had been severely interrupted with entire roads swallowed by the earth. Vehicles and trucks kept getting stuck in the mud caused by heavy rains. The cold was bitter. One of the pilots engaged in reconnaissance activities said he had witnessed what he thought was “an atomic-bomb scene”. 

Reconstruction, which has often been criticized, took decades. Some villages were simply abandoned by the many who emigrated, while some towns were eventually rebuilt in new locations, like Gibellina.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Ludovico Corrao, then mayor of Gibellina, asked some of the most renowned Italian architects and artists to help rebuild the town. Carla Accardi and Pietro Consagra, both Sicilian, responded immediately. Many others gathered around them throughout the years: Mario Schifano, Toti Scialoja, Mimmo Paladino, Alighiero Boetti, and Arnaldo Pomodoro, all made public sculptures or works that are now conserved at Gibellina’s museum of contemporary art. The town became a laboratory for artistic experimentation, where the artists worked in close contact with the local population. 

Amongst those invited to contribute there was Alberto Burri, already internationally well known and recognized. His artworks made in the 1950s by manipulating jute sacks and burning the surfaces of wood and plastic had made him a pioneer of the Arte Povera movement. In the 1970s he had started making a new series titled Cretti, works resembling the cracks in dry, clayey soil.

Burri recalls his first trip to Gibellina: “When I went to visit the place, in Sicily, the new town was almost completed and was full of works. ‘I’m not doing anything for sure here’, I said immediately, ‘let’s go and see where the old town once stood’. It was nearly twenty kilometers away. I was really impressed. I almost felt like crying and the idea came to me immediately: ‘here, here I feel that I could do something’. I would do this: we compact the rubble that is so much a problem for everyone, we arm it well, and we make an immense white crack in concrete, so that it remains a perennial memory of this event”.

The Grande Cretto started in 1984 was interrupted four years later due to lack of funds. It was completed only in 2015, on the occasion of the centenary of the artist’s birth.

Thanks to the intervention of the army, the rubble was collected with bulldozers, compacted and held together by wire mesh. White concrete was poured over the blocks, which followed the original urban layout. 

While some of Gibellina’s public sculptures look imposing and bear little relevance to the area – many critiques have shared this notion – Burri’s work keeps a strong adherence to its surrounding, and to history. 

The work follows the natural inclination of the hill upon which the old Gibellina once stood, so that it looks like it is part of the natural landscape, like it was made of marl, the same white rock that has made the cliffs in the Southern parts of the region so famous. Seen from above, Grande Cretto resembles the geometrical arrangement of saltworks which abound in Sicily.

Walking through the silent maze of its unnamed streets is an experience between visiting the ruins of Pompei and Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial in Berlin: two other places that deal with mourning by crystallizing it.

Contemporary art has often seen in concrete an elected material to erect monuments to the countless horrors of XXI century, the same way wax was used in antiquity to register the resemblance of the human body for sculptures and ex-votos.

Gently monumental, Burri’s work has the ineffable character of an absent body, conserving memories mixed with debris, covering them with a pouring of concrete, like fresh snow protecting new seeds in Winter. 

In a delicate but well-defined manner, the Grande Cretto processes the grief of an entire community, demonstrating once more the healing power of art.