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Gian Maria Tosatti: reimagining Naples

21.09.2015. Art & culture

Rome-born contemporary artist Gian Maria Tosatti works on a large canvas. For the past two years, that canvas has been the city of Naples. Working with one of the city’s most forward-thinking art institutions, Fondazione Morra, with support from leading gallerista Lia Rumma, Tosatti has taken over a series of abandoned buildings in the city for his ongoing site-specific project Seven Seasons of the Spirit.

Inspired by Saint Teresa of Avila’s 16th-century devotional work The Interior Castle, in which the human soul is imagined as a castle divided into seven mansions, but also by Dante’s Divine Comedy and by Tosatti’s desire to “understand the limits of good and evil in man”, the project began in September 2013 with the installation ‘The Plague’, hosted inside a city centre church that had been closed since the 1940s.

Currently, the fourth and fifth ‘mansions’ of Tosatti’s long-term project, in which he moves from the Inferno of the first three stages into Purgatory, are on public view in Naples. The fourth, Ritorno a Casa (‘Coming Home’), recreates inside the 17th-century convent of Santissima Trinità delle Monache, closed since the 1980 earthquake, the desolate beach where Dante and Virgil observe the arrival of the souls of those who have been saved but must bide their time in this earthly waystation before being admitted to Paradise.

On 21 September, Tosatti inaugurated the fifth ‘Season of the Spirit’, I Fondamenti della Luce (‘The Foundations of Light’). Housed in another former convent, Santa Maria della Fede, in the ancient, chaotic heart of Naples, this second ‘chapter’ of the artist’s urban Purgatory takes its cue from a letter written in 1917 by a poor 20-year-old Neapolitan girl, Paolina T., who was locked up in a lunatic asylum due to what the doctors termed her “constitutional immorality”. The choice of venue is deliberate: by the 19th century, this 17th-century convent had become a hospital and hospice for ‘fallen women’, then fell into a period of neglect before being occupied by a civic action group in December 2014. Its history, for Tosatti, bridges two themes – the “irrepressible splendour that shines forth from the soul and is the prime mover of our existence even in the darkest places” and “the fact that salvation can only ever be a collective, social process of liberation”.

Both installations run until 15 November. But they are not the only site-specific works by the prolific Tosatti currently on view in Naples. ‘My dreams, they’ll never surrender’ is a permanent installation, a field of wheat housed inside one of the deepest dungeons in the former prison fortress of Castel Sant’Elmo; it’s dedicated to all those, like Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Antonio Gramsci, who have been locked up for their beliefs but who have been able to change the course of history from behind bars. Ordinary Neapolitans have the responsibility for tending and replenishing the field – “to demonstrate that it is possible to keep the field alive as a metaphor for the heritage left to us by the men to whom the work is dedicated”.

Picture: © Gian Maria Tosatti, 1_La peste, 2013. Courtesy of Fondazione Morra.

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