Gleanings from the Spigolatrice: the dark side of Italian public cultural management

The “Spigolatrice” of Sapri has caused much discussion. We offer a critical analysis with an intervention by Professor Chiara Savettieri and an interview with the author.

A Mile 0 Ass

Public artwork is selected through a regular competition. In defense of aesthetic criteria and the dynamics between the object, the subject, the observer and the context; a statue boasting local workers is approved at the expense of content, narrative and identity.

Maria Teresa Falce, the councillor for culture in Sapri (Salerno), studied medicine and has no expertise in the arts. So, one wonders what parameters were used to judge the projects proposed by those who responded to the call for proposals. Councillor Falce is responsible for schools, culture, health and healthcare. As if these competences were all part of a single package, as if a doctor could know how artists’ residencies take place or, vice versa, an art critic could know which choices are most appropriate for the regional health authority.

Spigolatrice di Sapri 

I take the liberty of asking the Italian institutions when they will learn to assign tasks by competence to avoid these degrading situations. What in Italy has been downgraded to a polemic of ‘those pain-in-the-ass feminists led by Boldrini’ that ends on social networks (and in which everyone can participate indiscriminately like many little Bonito Olivas), is an embarrassment at a European level.

The sexism that permeates this story has been reported on the BBC and Euronews, from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. Looking over the curricula of councillors and culture councillors in Italy, it is rare to find people who are properly trained for their positions and able to make sensible choices about public artworks (choices are made according to the needs of local politics).

Choices and art theory are discussed in this article with Professor Savettieri – an art historian and researcher at the University of Pisa, who has written an important reflection on the Spigolatrice. Professor Chiara Savettieri is, among other things, a teacher of Methodology of Art-Historical Research and History of Art Criticism.

Let’s start with an assumption: what is the difference between a good craftsman and an artist?

A craftsman is characterised by his technical savoir-faire (‘know-how’): he is interested in the product as a well-made object, he does not necessarily have the problem of expressing something new or original, of playing with a pre-existing code, of creating references to other works, or of inserting something new that can give meaning to the object.

The artist, on the other hand, makes us see the world from a new angle; makes us discover aspects of reality that we did not know. The artist uses the technique not only to make a well-made object, but to express something interesting, useful, profound, and new. He bends the technique to his artistic intention, which becomes the priority aspect.

What do you think that the people who expressed their annoyance with the statue were called, excuse my language, “bigots who are scandalised by an ass”?

The criticism of bigotry stems from the conviction that in 2021 showing a woman’s curves in a work of art is something that is now taken for granted and that can only scandalise those who are prisoners of a retrogressive idea of sex and women. In actual fact, this criticism is based on the idea that putting a sexy version of a woman’s body in a public space poses no problem. In other words, we do not realise that this public space is indelibly marked by an image fixed there for all to see, which conveys no other message than that of the body as an object of desire. Eroticism concerns the private sphere, but not necessarily the public sphere.

Television and the media of the last 30 years have accustomed us to the invasion of a very vulgar eroticism into everyday life, and this makes us mistakenly believe that even a work located in a place accessible to everyone can be sensual and tickle the male desire.  We should not use any moralism when talking about art, but a lot depends on the destination. If the statue had been intended for a private garden, satisfying the taste of the client, there would have been nothing to object to.

Millet spigolatrici

But when we are talking about a public monument that is supposed to express or remind us of the values in which the community recognises itself, such a statue is completely out of place. What values does it propose? Can an entire community, including children, be recognised in this image? In short, urban space cannot be turned into a reality show scenario; if it were to do so, its very civic sense would be lost.

We have seen the contrast between the statue and Millet’s pictorial representation. Indeed, in the history of art, we can observe various representations of the figure of the gleaner, especially in the mid-to-late 19th century (rural theme).

Why can’t such works as Hayez’s Ruth, in which the gleaner is represented bare-breasted, be absorbed into the aesthetics of Emanuele Stifano’s statue?

First of all, it must be said that nudity has always existed since antiquity and that it was basically reserved for the representation of goddesses and mythological figures. But one thing must be said: we are talking about times when there was no public exposure of the female body. Whereas in today’s society, it is overexposed in the media, social networks, and in advertising.

Having said this, it should be emphasised that the nude, as the prerogative of the divinity and inextricably linked to the sublime model of ancient art, has always had an “ennobling” function that gives the represented scene a universal character. In the iconographic tradition, for example, Truth is nude, and so allegorical personifications are often naked or with bare breasts. Liberty, during the French Revolution, had bare breasts (hence the much-cited “Liberty leading the people” by Delacroix, which has nothing to do with the Gleaner precisely because it is part of a precise iconographic and allegorical tradition).

In these cases, nudity has little to do with the body as an erotic object: it is part of a well-established secular code of representation. Then of course, we can also imagine that all the nudes in the history of art constitute a sublimation of male desire, but certainly this alone does not explain the works because art is always something complex if not ambiguous.

When Manet presents the prostitute Olympia in the same position as a Venus, he is working, or rather playing, with the tradition that links the nude to the divinity in order to overturn it and tell us that in modernity, Venuses are real women, the same prostitutes who are much frequented by artists and the upper class.

All this is to say that behind the nudes of great artists there is always an operation of interpretation or deviation from a code. Not to mention the fact that for centuries the depiction of the nude, both male and female, has been the test of artists’ technical and formal expertise. In the Academies, in fact, the study of the nude was fundamental to gaining access to history painting, i.e. the genre of painting considered the highest because it depicted noble mythological and biblical scenes. Depicting a nude is extremely difficult, i.e. the nude is primarily a formal problem for artists to solve.

Another clarification – pornographic art has existed since antiquity and great artists have tried their hand at it, such as Giulio Romano, author of a series of “hot” drawings significantly entitled the “Modes”. But, following the ancient category of decorum, none of them ever thought of exhibiting nudes and sex scenes in public (after all, they would have been forbidden to do so). These were works for private use (or located in brothels) that were part of a genre in their own right. Thus many half-naked women with obvious sexual allusions in the libertine 18th century (think of certain canvases by Boucher to name but one) were placed in private spaces, in so-called boudoirs (places of pleasure).

Let us come to Hayez. Ruth is not just any old woman picker, but one of the biblical female figures that has traditionally also been represented nude. So Hayez fits into a precise code. Stifano’s Gleaner has nothing to do with these traditions. The author does not use a code linked to the nude to modify and transform it as so many artists have done. So much so that he has given importance to the buttocks, which in the Western artistic tradition has never generated allegorical meanings as the breast (an emblem of maternity) has (it is the protagonist only in certain works of ancient art depicting, for example, Venus – the Venus Callipygia – or in the famous sleeping hermaphrodite, so we remain in the sphere of mythology and ancient fables).

The sculptor re-proposes a model that we see every day on TV. It is not even an idealised body according to the ancient model (which would perhaps have made the statue less disturbing and would perhaps have brought out a pale allegorical meaning). It is a copy of a type of hypertrophic and firm body that circulates in the media without the complexity of references and meanings that we look for in real works of art.

What would you say to the administrations that approved this project?

I would say that they should remember that public space cannot be conceived in the same way as television sets, and that the installation of a statue cannot disregard previous aesthetic and civic considerations.

Perhaps it would be useful to get expert help in evaluating proposals for a public monument. A public monument does not necessarily have to be a work of art in the sense I have described above (it would be nice if it were, but it is unrealistic): it can also be a handcrafted object, but in any case it must be designed to satisfy and interest not only a sector of the male population, but the whole community, because it is made for the community.

It does not necessarily have to express high values, but neither does it have to fall into blatant voyeurism. It is better to have a neutral public monument than a representation that reflects a questionable taste designed to tickle the male gaze.

At a time when we are debating the woman’s body as an object, and when there is an overexposure of the female body in the media that other periods of history have not experienced, it is completely inappropriate to propose to us a representation of a woman that embodies the clichés that society must strive to overcome.

In short, deciding to decorate an urban space with a statue is neither obvious nor banal, and it should not be done in an approximate way (we are not in an entertainment programme). It is a political act in the highest sense and therefore implies a strong sense of responsibility and an awareness of the civic role of those who govern. An inappropriate choice inevitably ends up reflecting a reductive, banal and extremely poor way of understanding the ‘res publica’.

The sculptor’s claim: I contacted the author Emanuele Stifano to ask a few questions, which we reproduce with answers below.

What kind of artistic research did you carry out before creating Spigolatrice? Where is it possible to find information on your artistic career? I have not found an official website describing your practice.

I did not expect this wave of controversy, but the criticism that has been made has been an opportunity to clarify my point of view and make my artistic research known. I have read everything from the lightest insinuations to the most explicit accusations. I am a very reserved person and above all respectful of all the people around me, any sexist or erotic intentions are far from my purpose.

This is not the first time that I have decided to “undress” one of my works as much as possible; I did it with Palinuro, which is covered only by a light drape, and I did it with Logos, which is completely nude. It is a stylistic choice on my part, the woman’s body sparks off debate more easily, but for me there is no difference between the sexes.

Before I made the sketch, I researched the work and the clothes through other works of figurative art and historical texts. However, it was not in my interest to create a work that was a faithful representation of a job, of a dress, of a shoe. Art must go further, it must be universal and recognisable; it must allude to an era, an episode, a feeling in a free way, it is not a historical document, but a product of my mind and my hands.

My Gleaner wants to be a proud, self-confident girl who is overwhelmed by the force of the sea behind her and falls in love with a young man and an ideal, so much so that she leaves her work in the fields. In short, she is much more than a tired, worn-out peasant girl as some would have liked, she is an awakening of conscience!

As for my own work, I mainly work in marble, and this is complemented by bronze and terracotta. I take care of each of my works from start to finish, from the choice of the block of marble in the Carrara quarries to the final touches. I am self-taught, I have studied and experimented independently, and for almost 20 years I have dedicated myself to sculpture with passion and dedication. I have also collaborated for some years with a workshop in Carrara.

Have you considered the socio-cultural context of your work? In what sense have you “researched”? How is your research practice carried out?

I have documented myself through sources of the time, of course, texts and works. But only out of pure knowledge, I then moved away from the faithful model of the nineteenth-century peasant woman. Of course, I did it consciously, it’s not just the B-side that peasant women didn’t show: also the bare shoulders, the marked collarbones, the bare feet. But my work was not intended for a museum of peasant civilisation.

I am surprised by these criticisms because many people seem to confuse art with a historical essay. I am not interested in modelling or sculpting a boot to go to the countryside to work. I prefer to show the barefoot in its elegance and harmony. My gleaner didn’t have to show what the work clothes of the time were, she had to show her beauty, her courage, her love! Art is a free product.

As for the socio-cultural context, what can I say, my work was destined for a wonderful waterfront, I took advantage of the proximity of the sea and made sure that the royal breeze was involved in the work. The statue was placed in Italy, a free and democratic country that is full of art, beauty, nudes and forms. Censorship for me is unthinkable.

These answers reveal superficiality and artistic immaturity, which, however, does not mean technical incompetence. Attention to the relationship between object, subject, space and observer is not even taken into consideration and it seems that the author is interested, rather than in the dynamics that should orbit around a work, in the finished and well-made product. This is typical of the craftsman, as we have seen previously.

The generality of the arguments and the lightness with which the author tackles the subject shows once again how belittling the representation of women is in the average Italian context and opens up questions.

I wonder, for example, what would have happened if a competent councillor had entrusted the Spigolatrice to a female artist. Perhaps one with an advanced artistic maturity capable of taking into consideration a theoretical and ethical study and the dynamics it implies; instead of a man who considered it sufficient to “document for knowledge” without asking himself too many other problems or questions and working on the commonplaces that hover over the nature of the artistic practice. And it is always a matter of choices.

Originally published by – Translation by the author
Published by Rock and art