Genesis and the history of the “Cretto” by
At a meeting of Gibellina City
Council on the 25 of September 1979 it was resolved, following
the advice of Mayor Ludovico Corrao,
to issue an official invitation to Alberto Burri. The resolution
read as follows: “The merit and
significance of your artistic message is considered to be human
and poetically inspiring more than any other it is
able to translate for the present generation and for future generations
the tragedy, the struggle, the hope and the faith in the
land of the people of Gibellina”. They asked Burri
to add one of his works to the many artists’ contributions
already scattered in the new town. As Burri did not react, the
Mayor went to visit him at his home in Città di Castello
and issued him a personal invitation to be a guest at his home.
In a newspaper article of April 2006 calling
for the completion of the monuments, known as the Cretto, the now
Senatore Ludovico Corrao recalls Burri’s first visit and the genesis of the Cretto as a monument. A few days after the personal invitation was issued,
Burri had relented and arrived in Sicily. He wanted to meet with
the locals and was taken through the elaborate, newly erected
welcome gate, Stella, a sculpture by Pietro Consagra, into the now
mostly completed new city. Corrao does not elaborate on the visit
to this location. We known that Burri thought that “in
this place for sure there is nothing for me to contribute as the
place has plenty works of art.” Alberto Zanmatti, the
architect involved in the project, in his comment on this said that
knowing Burri, he would have never agreed to be one of many.
At Burri’s request, Corrao took him to the site of the
destroyed old city. The sight of the devastation and ruins brought
Burri close to tears, but Burri remained silent. They continued
and drove to Segesta to the ruins of an old Greek amphitheatre that
Burri wanted to photograph at dusk. There he told Corrao, “I
have the project in mind” but did not elaborate.
The archaeology of the future.
Later that evening Burri told Corrao that while they were walking
in Segesta and he saw how the shadows on the steps of the amphitheatre
changed the appearance of the architecture from one minute to the
other, giving it both life and immortality, he decided to create
a large Cretto over the ruins of the destroyed city. “Above
all” he said, “strength like history had to
emerge from the comparison of the great civilizations of Segesta,
Selinunte, Motia and the ruined world of the poor and the dead.” He
defined his work as “the archaeology of the future” which
would be a testimony to the continued presence of great civilizations
in this land.
A Cretto resembles a dried up clay lake bed.
Burri started incorporating craked surfaces into his work with
other materials as early as 1951, turning the Cretto into a painting
in the 70s. On the genesis of the Cretto, Burri says: “when
I was in California, I often visited Death Valley. The idea came
from there, but then in the painting it became something else.
I only wanted to demonstrate the energy of the surface.” The Cretto design had also been used
by Burri in sculptures. In 1976 and 77 he created two ceramic sculpture
walls (5 x 15m), one for the Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden
in UCLA, Los Angles, and the other is located at the Capodimonte
Museum in Naples. Another sculpture based on the Cretto design is
a metal Grande Ferro of 1980 (5.18 x 0.61m) located in Palazzo Albizzini,
Collezione Burri, in Città di Castello.
Burri produced his Cretto paintings in collaboration with the forces
of nature, in this case, a chemical reaction that causes the surface
of the material, when it dries up, to crack. It is a process of destruction/construction
that also involves time. The eventual destruction of the surface
becomes the construction of the work. The material he used to produce
the Cretto was a mixture of wet kaolin, resin, pigment and polyvinyl
acetate that was applied as a smooth layer on to a horizontal surface.
By changing the composition of the chemicals, the concentration of
the catalysts and the depth of the layers the artist was able to
control the density of the cracking, but not the exact location of
The enormity of the Gibellina project did
not become apparent until 1981 when Burri presented the city with
a model of the monument. In the model, Burri had recreated in plastic,
an aerial view of the topography of Old Gibellina and its surroundings
on which he had superimposed a Cretto that covered the side of
the destroyed old city. The footprint of Old Gibellina’s
main street and one other thoroughfare were incised into the work,
while the rest of the Cretto cracks has been allowed to form spontaneously.
Alberto Burri and “The International Land Art Panorama”.
In his speech at a convention titled: Alberto
Burri; nel Panorama della Land Art Internazionale, help in Gibellina in October 1998,
Zanmatti, the architect of the project and a friend of Burri, said,
that Burri, whose original profession was a Doctor, had arrived
in Gibellina with the spirit of Asclepius, the Greek God of Medicine.
As one who had taken the Hippocratic oath, Burri could not refuse
a call for help, but had managed to wriggle his way out of contributing
to the many works that had already been constructed in the new
city, and came up with the idea of the Cretto. It was a project
so immense that even the Pharaohs would have been bewildered by
it. Zanmatti was faced with unstable ruins, a type of construction
never attempted before, no funds, no materials and no organized
labour force. It looks two years to raise sufficient funds, mostly
donated by Italians and material donated by a cement factory
in Palermo, for the experimental construction of the first
irregular shaped block. At the same time a controversy was stirred
by those who wanted the ruins left untouched. In an area filled
with ruins of previous civilizations that are greatly admired and
income-producing, it was a strong argument. Countering this argument,
mayor Corrao likened the ruins to a corpse of a beloved that was
left to rot, “It is unconceivable to allow the debris of
the old city to rot as a testimony to death.” The need “to
obliterate the ruins in order to commemorate them” was accepted.
Each section of the Cretto, averaging 700 sq.m, had to be surrounded
by reinforced concrete, with the rubble piled and compacted into
it to a height of 1.6 m. and the whole covered by a layer of white
cement. The gaps between the sections, the walkways, were paved in
white cement; these gaps form gullies of varying width from 1.5m
to 4m. The army was called in to assist with the clearing of the
ruins. All the debris and everything found on site in the ruined
buildings, included clothing, dolls, wine and olive oil bottles,
farming implements and household items, were piled and buried in
the confined perimeter of each section.
Fondazione Orestiadi, the new beginning.
Further funds were raised through a public lottery, the white cement
continued to be donated and work on the project commenced in August
1985. Lack of funds stopped the work in December 1989. In 1997
a petition calling for the completion of the work was signed by
prominent Italians, from art historian to politicians, authors
and academics. This petition succeeded in raising further fund
from institutions and another nine acres were added to the monument.
As is evident from Senatore Corrao’s call in 2006 for the
completion of the monument, it has yet to be completed. Now that
the ravages of time and weather are evident, its fate is somewhat
reminiscent of that Gaudi’s Sacred Family Church in Barcelona.
The monument is no longer the pristine white it was, moss, weeds
and trees have invaded it, the surrounding weeds are as tall as
the sections themselves, and it is in need not only of completion
but of restoration, a task Corrao, who now heads Fondazione
a Regional Art Institution, is still engaged in.
For the casual visitor guided to the place
by the sign Gibellina Ruderi (Gibellina ruins), after expressing
astonishment at this huge apparition of cracked off white cement
in the middle of a rural setting, questions of – What is it? Why is it here? – come to
mind. It is useless to look for an explanatory sign, as there is
none there. There are a few signs honoring the latest financial donor
that mention the earthquake, but these are incorporated into the
cement walls and are hard to find. However a feeling that an event,
that connects the structure to the site, had occurred there, soon
creeps in. The question of what the event was is answered by
the few ruined structures that are still standing, by the upturned
land, and the abruptly ending roads that abound in the area and the separation
from the cultivated land. The scale of the event is transmitted,
when wandering through the cracks does not transmit a sensation
of desperation such as being lost, on the contrary, it transmits
a sensation of adventure, as at no time, despite the silence within
the structure, in the cultivated land surrounding it is obscured;
it remains visible between the cracks and over the top of the structure,
and completes the integration of the monument with the living landscape
that surrounds it.