Giacinto Di Pietrantonio e Lorenzo Madaro
Lorenzo Madaro: Tell us about the feast of Santa Cesarea, patron saint of your town, Porto Cesareo.
Luigi Presicce: Porto Cesareo is one of those towns where the procession takes place in the sea; all the trawlers get organised for it, and the statue of the saint is carried on the “mother” boat, accompanied by a band with music. After the Mass, an incredible procession begins, which you can also admire from the land, up to a certain point. It’s not something that goes unnoticed, especially if you are a child and have a fisherman father to take you along.
LM: Is this the first performance you attended as a child?
LP: I think so. This and many others, for example the Mysteries.
Giacinto Di Pietrantonio: Is there a particular iconography?
LP: Back home, where my grandmother used to take me, the rituality of these three days of the Passion really counted. The days in which Christ, after the Last Supper, is betrayed and kissed by Judas in the garden of Gethsemane, captured, tried, then whipped and put on the cross. All these things remain well impressed on the mind.
GDP: Can these be considered performances?
LP: There is a story, but we are not really in a performative space. In Porto Cesareo, we use statues that are transported around the village, like at a funeral. It is pure liturgy. The question of narration is the important thing — that is, how events are re-told in the same way year after year.
LM: A persistence that returns…
LP: After all, religion serves to operate a journey through an imaginary that the believer himself creates. Heaven and Hell are narrated scenarios, they are imaginary places constructed by man’s own imaginative mind. So, the narrative is important to having visions, like what happens to Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange when he imagines a sublime flogging of Christ.
GDP: So, you have to imagine things, observing these rituals, right?
LP: Exactly, although there is a classical iconography, millions of frescoes and paintings that recount the Gospels. But a child doesn’t know these things, just as medieval man thinks that they are real, because they have been handed down so long.
GDP: Another thing I wanted to discuss with Lorenzo — like you, from Puglia — concerns the Putignano Carnival, which according to some historical sources was the first popular carnival.
LP: Yes, a very popular one, because it emerged in the countryside when the relics of Saint Stephen arrived in Puglia. The peasants, intent on carrying out their work in the fields, staged songs and dances by waving vine branches. Religion is always somehow involved, though it is then transformed into something else, or vice versa: surreal stories that become the lives of saints.
GDP: Lorenzo was telling me that you also did specific work on this…
LP: Yes, in Putignano, it is a performance entitled Santo Stefano, i coriandoli, le pietre (2015). I worked on a classical iconography, a painting by Ensor, Autoritratto con maschere. I called on actors from a theatre company made up of old people — and they were great!
GDP:Would you like to tell me about your studio? Because it is a very particular studio, always full of things, always accumulating more and more…
LP: Yes, between Baroque and Rococo, I should say! You’ll also remember my studio in Milan, it was even worse…
LM: I only remember that studio from pictures.
LP: It was a decidedly different kind of studio, full of materials, things that had been found, bought, given away, collected … It was a workshop where many things were made, not just an accumulation and conservation of artefacts, perhaps something closer to a mystic’s cavern than to an atelier… Besides, it was there that the whole Maghi series and the first esoteric-type performances were born.
GDP: And the studio in Florence?
LP: I only got it in January 2018, before I left for New York. When I returned at the beginning of summer, I also started painting again with the Simposio di Pittura and I needed a place to regain my daily practice of painting and drawing, which I had lost when I was “the organiser” of my performances
GDP: Luigi, Lorenzo spoke to me earlier about Ezechiele Leandro. What’s your relationship with this artist?
LP: It all started with Brown Magazine, an online magazine I founded, before Brown Project Space (born in 2008, the first project-space in Milan), with Luca Francesconi and Valentina Suma. We began to think of guidelines regarding the principles that had prompted us to undertake this venture: spirituality, folk art, metaphysics and alchemy. It was these four themes that dominated the content, first of the magazine and then of the space. I arrived at Leandro’s home-studio in San Cesario di Lecce and in the garden, the Santuario della Pazienza, when it was still full of works. I had gone to do an interview with Antonio Benegiamo, Leandro’s grandson, and to document his work, since he’d already died back in 1981. The interview was published in one of the first issues of Brown Magazine. We had this idea of one artist interviewing another artist; in this case, it was me interviewing Leandro, though he was dead.
LM: Your other primary reference is Carmelo Bene.
LP: Carmelo Bene is a central figure of the twentieth century, though some take him as an example only because of certain “obscene” acts. The first time that I met him in person something inside me started to waver, to crumble, and I didn’t even know that this man was him. His voice was enough to break my legs. From then on, for me everything remained somehow unapproachable — something I look at, but without the pretence of having the right eyes to do so. I always try to show Carmelo Bene’s Salomè to my students, but it is too much, even today.
GDP: It’s just that it seems to us that you have similar references, for example the visionary nature of the sacred.
LP: It’s a question of belonging to a territory… St Joseph of Cupertino is a saint of ours, a neighbour to us. The locus makes the difference. I mean, come on, not even Pasolini was born in Arcore!
GDP: Like the beautiful mosaic of Otranto. The tree of life with the biblical stories in the cathedral.
LP: Yes, I have studied it a lot, in the sense that I go there on a repeated basis, I think it is the biggest in the world. Very often I have looked at things that interested me on a narrative level, like the construction of the Tower of Babel. All the figures fascinate me, they are absurd: just think that there is the Devil with the writing “Satan”, the tree of life that “disseminates” stories, Adam and Eve, the zodiac, snakes that vomit other snakes, elephants, tigers, lions, and then a puss in boots. All created by one person, the monk Pantaleon, in the twelfth century.
LM: Leandro was also very fascinated by the structure of the bodies. For him, the mosaic of Otranto was of paramount importance.
LP: Yes, I don’t find that hard to believe, because in the end they are all somewhat crooked, badly drawn figures, like Martin Maloney’s.
LM: I’ve noticed from Instagram that you are now working a lot with painting even on small formats.
LP: The small size is a result I have achieved over the last three years. It is a 30 x 25 cm format, which is quite small as a size, but, as our own Luigi Ontani would say: “big does not mean great”. I try to get to a point where the image within this small rectangle tells everything, like a medieval tile. The painting from a table (from a small easel), you do it sitting down, and you have a different posture from someone painting big things from on their feet. The small painting is meditative, almost amanuensis-like, which is what I ultimately wanted from painting: to rediscover the spiritual side. Think of the Annunciata di Palermo by Antonello da Messina, when you see it in real life you say, “Wow! Is that all?” Yet, it fills an entire museum.
LM: I’ve also seen that your palette has changed a lot over the years.
LP: Many changes began in New York, others are about the idea of the end, the catastrophe, the pandemic. Whereas many human beings have suffered, painters (a category apart) have benefited. In this period, my palette has become more and more enriched with acidic or fluorescent colours.
GDP: You have been in Florence for about ten years now, has this changed anything in your work?
LP: In the beginning, for me the chance of wandering into places and seeing beautiful things, great frescoes, unforgettable works, was very interesting to me. In those early years, my fascination with the Stories of the True Cross was born. I remember walking towards Santa Croce, I saw a line of people entering the cloister ]of the basilica of Santa Croce] and I slipped in like a thief, unaware of where these other were going. You could climb the scaffolding and see the aforementioned cycle by Agnolo Gaddi from up close. From there came the idea of trying my hand at the theme that had been abandoned six hundred years ago. But now I am beginning to suffer from the lack of the sea and a whole series of familiarities that I do not have here.
GDP: So, you would like to return to Porto Cesareo?
LP: If the Lord grants me this grace…
LM: Were you already actively thinking about it?
LP: Yes, for a few years: either the Ionian or the Hudson!
LM: With Francesco Lauretta, you started the Scuola di Santa Rosa.
LP: We invented the Scuola di Santa Rosa so that we could see each other once a week. One Tuesday I called him and asked, “Why don’t we go and draw by the Arno, like the Americans do?” We sat down there drawing and discussing, about films, books, exhibitions, and artists. Once back home, we realised that we had created a truly unique and precious moment, something worth repeating. And since that 17 October 2017, we have now been doing the school every single Tuesday for four and a half years. It is a free drawing school open to everyone, where anyone who wants to can draw, talk, think, drink, smoke, spend different, happy moments in a context that can be a café, a garden, a museum. We put a small ad on social media every Monday stating the time and place, and every time new people come.
GDP: Is there anything you would like to add?
LP: Polka Puttana, a truly extraordinary project done at the height of the pandemic, when Matteo Coluccia and I (later with Chiara Camellina and Gabriele Tosi) came up with the idea of doing travelling exhibitions with a van, even on a Grimaldi ship from Palermo to Livorno!
GDP: And Lu Cafausu and La festa dei vivi?
LP: In 2010, I was invited to join a collective that arose from the ashes of the Oreste group, Lu Cafausu. Lu Cafausu is a kind of eighteenth-century coffee house, which survived the destruction of a large villa and its garden, now located in the middle of a housing estate (an imaginary place that really exists). On 2 November 2010, we came up with La festa dei vivi (che riflettono sulla morte). For the first edition, we organised a sui generis procession through the streets of San Cesario di Lecce (the place where Lu Cafausu is located) in which we pushed a boat through the streets of the town, right where cars usually come and go. We involved a number of friends also from the United States (like And And And) who were called up to push the boat with us. On the way there were stops where we read excerpts from books about death, rebirth, and questions related to the eternal. Lu Cafausu was also invited to documenta 13 in 2012. The last two years’ editions were cancelled due to COVID-19, but every year we replaced the festival of the dead with the festival of the living, always with new popular projects.