Uncovering Italy’s Superlatives in people, places and things

Il Cretto di Burri, Sicily’s Frozen City


crack, a narrow break or fissure

An artist’s adventure in Sicily

A town covered in a casing of concrete, a landscape tribute to a disappeared city,  a cemetery transformed into a work of art. In 1968, the Bellice earthquake rocked all of Sicily, in the process, decimating several towns including Gibellina, a tiny hillside village. In 1981, artist Alberto Burri, devastated by the disappearance of Gibellina, began to transform its ruins into a frozen sea of whitewashed concrete slabs, immortalising the town while freeing it from time and space.

At 85,000 square meters, Il Cretto di Burri is the largest Land art work ever realised.  About an hour southwest of Palermo in the province of Trapani, Gibellina was completely erased in the blink of an eye and the tremor of the earth. In the early 80s, Burri saw the remaining rubble as an artistic opportunity to create a timeless memorial.

A larger than life Burri masterpiece

Burri conceived of a maze of lunular cement slabs that would cascade down the verdant hillside to mirror the destroyed village’s original layout. From a bird’s eye view, it’s a fractured grey square, in the midst of a burnt umber countryside- an unmistakable and oversized Burri canvas, whose monochromatic works of induced craquelure are usually found hanging on museum walls.  Up close, it’s a somber cement labyrinth.

Blurring the line between sculpture and painting and creation and destruction, a theme prominent in his works, by using industrial materials and techniques, Burri transformed the wreckage by encasing it entirely in concrete. Just like Pompeii, Gibellina’s buildings and home rubble – toys, furniture, decorations, all its urban detritus were fossilised beneath the Cretto.  

Loss and time run deep in Burri’s paintings. The artist, born in 1915, studied medicine and worked as a medic. In 1943, Burri was taken as a prisoner-of-war by the Allies and brought to a camp in Texas, where he found solace teaching himself to paint. This same year, Burri’s brother died in the war. Upon his return to Italy, Burri settled in Rome and devoted himself exclusively to painting.  His artistic style evolved from painting to polymaterialism and matterism, experimenting with unusual materials including concrete, tar, sand, zinc, pumice, and aluminium dust along with the highly unorthodox polyvinyl chloride glue.  His canvases freeze moments of transformation.

Immortalised by Burri, Il Cretto is a colossal memorial landscape and one of the world’s most extensive contemporary works of art.  Though initiated in 1985, Il Cretto was completed and inaugurated in 2015 in honour of Burri’s 100th birthday. Its location in southwest Sicily, midway between archaeological sites Selinunte (38km south) and Segesta (45km north) makes it perfect day trip from Palermo. Visitors can walk through the memorial, and to get a full grasp on the story, they can visit Gibellina Nuova, 18km to its west, aka the relocated city rebuilt a “utopian” art scape, with not as much success. Fondazione Alberto Burri shares more information about Burri and his works.

By Erica Firpo.

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