The Genesis and the history of the “Cretto” by Alberto Burri

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 cracks.

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 Orestiadi, 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.

Text by Judy Rozner, excerpt from: "A comparative study of two large scale commemorative sculptures", an Honour's thesis for the School of Culture and Communication in the University of Melbourne. 2007
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