Moving into phase two

by Arturo Galansino, Ludovica Sebregondi, Riccardo Lami and Matthias Favarato

Eighty-four days separate Sunday 8 March, Palazzo Strozzi’s first lockdown day, from Monday 1 June, the day the Tomás Saraceno. Aria exhibition reopens. “Phase Two” in the era of COVID-19 is beginning for Palazzo Strozzi too, as we reassess and rethink our IN TOUCH online project to bring it into line with this new development.

IN TOUCH was an immediate, spontaneous response with a strong sense of urgency at a time of total uncertainty as to what was going to happen in ensuing weeks. We were determined from the outset to react to this crisis with a clear goal, which was to stay in touch with our visitors – to protect our bond of proximity at a time of deep insecurity for all of us, as our normal bearings came under severe strain in this new and utterly unprecedented situation. The Tomás Saraceno’s exhibition offered us the perfect starting point; in fact it was almost prophetic in its reflection on the fragility of our world. Comparison with a spider’s web to illustrate the environment we live in, a concept that plays a major role in Saraceno’s art, is well suited to define the network of relations that have kept us united at this time – a network linked to the online world on which all our daily activities, including our thirst for culture and beauty, have had of necessity to pivot during lockdown.

The video message by Tomás Saraceno

Our choice for the IN TOUCH project was to merge our website and social channels by creating new and original content taking a fresh look at certain moments in Palazzo Strozzi’s history, rather than simply taking a stroll down memory lane, in an effort to discover new values in them in the light of our present circumstances. This led us to address such eminently topical issues as interconnection, isolation, the sense of nationhood and community, the family and inclusiveness. To address as broad an audience as possible we hosted different viewpoints, as you can see from the authors of the essays (from both within and outside the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi), with whom we were eager not to look backwards into the past but always forwards at the present and into the future. A crucial role was played by the video messages sent in by artists wishing to testify their closeness with Palazzo Strozzi in consideration of their strong bond with us and with Italy as a whole. Marina Abramović, Ai Weiwei, Jeff Koons and Tomás Saraceno all aired their support for us and their contributions proved hugely popular, with Marina’s message in particular attracting almost 1 million hits.

The video message by Marina Abramović

But there are other figures that can help us tell the story of this project too. On our IN TOUCH platform we published 24 essays read by almost 60,000 single users. On Facebook and Instagram we published over 100 posts, reaching over 1.5 million people and causing our online community to grow by 10% in a mere two months. In addition to which, the fact that our visitors spent longer than average on the pages of IN TOUCH is another extremely interesting development because it shows that people preferred to focus on exploring the content in depth rather than simply skimming over it; and this, despite the moment of frenzy everyone was experiencing in the consumption of online content. The top five most avidly read articles were We’re All in the Same Boat; The Shattered Embrace; Dining with Pontormo; Men, Apricots and Cows; and Heaven in a Room. Far from being a mere hit parade, however, this list perfectly mirrors the multi-faceted nature of our approach and the variety of our readers’ interests. A project that deserves a special mention here is the remote-educational project that we christened ART AT HOME for families with children and teens on their hands. The project was visited by almost 6,000 users, many of whom then sent us in the results of their various activities. And we also very much appreciated the affection and esteem displayed by those who have been following our initiatives for a long time, given that the newsletter was the tool most widely used for accessing IN TOUCH, thus highlighting our audience’s closeness even at a time of physical distancing.

A selection of articles of IN TOUCH from our website blog.

And now, as the exhibition gets set to reopen on 1 June, we are about to launch a new phase for IN TOUCH too, turning it into a fortnightly column. Like every cultural institution eager to talk about its own era, Palazzo Strozzi is committed to addressing the most relevant and topical issues of our time, so that every exhibition and activity we produce provides us with an opportunity to explore the world we live in an increasingly contemporary vein. Over the next few weeks we will be pursuing our IN TOUCH project by seeking inspiration in what Tomás Saraceno has called “visions of the future and of reality.” We will be discussing the exhibitions, activities and daily life of Palazzo Strozzi in an effort to keep open a space for parallel debate, a place for cross-contaminating and sharing different points of view.

The courtyard of wonders: performances, staircases and slides

by Ludovica Sebregondi

Palazzo Strozzi, a milestone in the development of Italian Renaissance architecture, is one of the most elegant and best-known examples of these prestigious buildings that began to be erected in the 15th century with their large courtyards surrounded by columns acting as the focal point around which the entrances and staircases converged. The courtyard was unquestionably a showpiece, but it also made life in the palazzo far more pleasant thanks to the cool shade offered by the portico on the ground floor, the two airy loggias on the first floor and the loggia on the attic floor, which was a veritable suntrap in winter.

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Alfonso Parigi, Public assembly of the members of the Accademia della Crusca, held in the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi in June 1651
Romanian Academy Library, Bucharest.

We owe the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi to Simone del Pollaiolo, known as Il Cronaca, who was the palazzo’s supervisor and executive architect from 1490, shortly after construction began, until 1504. A perfect setting, it has also been used as a theatre and auditorium, for instance for assemblies held by the Accademia della Crusca in the 17th century such as the assembly held in the presence of Grand Duke Ferdinando II de’ Medici, illustrated in a pen drawing by Alfonso Parigi and described by Francesco Settimanni in his Diario:

On June 10th 1651. The Accademia della Crusca of Florence gathered in the Courtyard of Messrs. Strozzi’s Palazzo by the Canto a’ Tornaquinci, where the Signor Cavaliere Rucellai delivered a very fine Oration in praise of St. Zenobius, Bishop of Florence, who was chosen as the Patron of said Accademia; and many splendid Compositions were recited, and all the Most Serene Princes were in attendance with much of the nobility.

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Prince Piero Strozzi in his Panhard-Levassor in the courtyard of the Palazzo, 1900
Photograph from the panels in the Museino di Palazzo Strozzi.

But the centuries went by, ushering in the modern age, and by the early 20th century the courtyard was being used as a “carport” for Piero Strozzi’s motor car, the first ever seen in Florence: a 6HP Panhard-Levassor, which was the model that won the 1897 Paris-Dieppe race. The palazzo remained in the family until 1937, when it was sold to the Istituto Nazionale delle Assicurazioni which made it over to municipality. Restoration work began in that same year and was completed by 1940, when the building’s new role was inaugurated in the presence of King Victor Emmanuel III with a major Exhibition of the Tuscan Cinquecento in Palazzo Strozzi. The Palestrina Pietà, thought at the time to be by Michelangelo and recently acquired by the Galleria dell’Accademia, was placed in the courtyard and chosen as the logo for the event.

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Paola Pivi, Untitled Project, 2015, installation for the courtyard of Palazzo Strozzi
Photo Martino Margheri

The same viewpoint that we see in the 17th century drawing was revived in Paola Pivi’s monumental Untitled Project installation in 2015, comprising a colourful inflatable ladder over 20 metres tall that took the contrast between classic and contemporary to new heights. The ladder was an object emptied of all practical use, oversized, unstable and temporary: an evocative kaleidoscope marking a break with tradition in total contrast with the controlled and symmetrical perspective of its Renaissance architectural setting and with the measured hues of the courtyard’s grey pietra serena and white plaster colour scheme. The artist’s aim with this surreal graft was to trigger an emotional shock, smashing the accepted conventions of space to create a new and unexpected meaning.

In some ways it felt as though she was trying to evoke what had been known as “the monstrosity”: “a two-ramp staircase rising from the heart of the Renaissance courtyard right up to the loggia on the third floor,” “brutally” cutting it in two and making it impossible to perceive in its entirety. The “monstrosity” was erected in the summer of 1983 ahead of the 13th Antiques Biennale (17 September–9 October), when it was described in the catalogue as “a huge surprise as well as a novelty.” The massive public outcry against the invasive structure was taken up by figures from the world of culture such as Eugenio Garin and by glossy magazines such as “Casa Vogue.” The fire escape was subsequently dismantled, but for years it was an eyesore defacing a perfect space and Paola Pivi’s work may well have been an allusion to the countless structures that have marked and blighted the silhouette of so many monumental buildings.

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Carsten Höller, The Florence Experiment Slides, 2018, Photo Attilio Maranzano

In 2018 Carsten Höller used another modern material in his Florence Experiment Slides installation to build two monumental helical slides allowing visitors to slide down the 20 metres separating the second-floor loggia from the courtyard in a matter of seconds. The work emphasised the architectural space, accentuating its upward thrust and pursuing the dialogue between old and new with the use of steel and polycarbonate to create a structure with a gradient of 28°. Each slide was approximately 50 metres long, weighed roughly 3,600 kilos, making an overall weight of over 12 tonnes, and was held together by 265 bolts, as many nuts and 522 washers. These cold figures offer a technical description of the structure, yet quite apart from the innovative scientific experiment associated with it (devised in conjunction with plant neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso), the impressive thing about it was the tangle of arms reminiscent of the Laocoön, but that also reminded us of the ongoing practice of causing façades and courtyard to interact with temporary and contemporary structures.

 

Cover: Carsten Höller, The Florence Experiment Slides, 2018, Photo Attilio Maranzano

From the Anthropocene to the Aerocene

Aerocene Flights

by Martino Margheri and Caterina Taurelli Salimbeni

Anthropocene is a word that has been abundantly used in recent years as a title for exhibitions, films and publications, yet when it first appeared in a scientific capacity in the 1980s it failed to arouse a great deal of interest. Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prizewinner for chemistry and a leading student of the earth’s atmosphere, began to use it in his academic work, thus spawning its gradual adoption and dissemination.
Crutzen argued that human behaviour was altering the atmosphere and the earth’s crust to such an extent that man could be considered a geological agent in his own right. An analysis of the phenomenon required a definition capable of identifying this new geological era and so the term Anthropocene was born.
Now an accepted term that figures in the dictionary, Anthropocene means a recent era with a human footprint or, more extensively, it indicates the era characterised by the human species’ devastating impact on the planet. The causes can be traced back to our constant increase in hydrocarbon and carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere and to our unbridled exploitation of the world’s natural resources.
There are various theories regarding the start of the Anthropocene but a majority within the scientific community agrees on the symbolic date of 16 July 1945, the day that saw the first ever atomic test at Alamogordo in New Mexico. From that moment on the air has undergone a growing contamination process whose impact we can see on the life of living beings today.

“We need to change our behaviour and to stop using the planet’s water and atmosphere as though they were a rubbish bin”.
interview with Paul Crutzen (TG2, 12/10/2006)

The Anthropocene is not an inevitability. We have shaped it with our own choices and our own actions. Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibition Tomás Saraceno. Aria takes its cue from an awareness of that fact, from a rethink of our way of acting, from the ability to observe phenomena from a different viewpoint and from the possibility of emerging from the Anthropocene by developing new ways of thinking.
Buckminster Fuller, an American architect and philosopher renowned for his experiments with geodesic structures who influenced Saraceno’s thought and work, argued that it is not possible to change things by fighting against existing reality. To change them, you have to build a new model that consigns that reality to obsolescence.

Tomás Saraceno’s art may be visionary and utopian in nature, but at the same time it is as pragmatic and as practical as Buckminster Fuller’s thought. Emerging from the Anthropocene and rediscovering a sense of harmony with planet Earth is more than just a philosophical aspiration, it is a fully-fledged project that is explicited in numerous ways. One of its most complex developments is the Aerocene: an interdisciplinary artistic community working on new expressions of ecological sensitivity with the aim of triggering ethical collaboration with the atmosphere and the environment for a new age free of fossil fuels.

As Saraceno says (in the interview you can find below):
“no one seems to be able to imagine that the heat provided by the sun could allow us to rise up from the earth and allow us to fly in the air. What could we become with a direct relationship with the Sun and the wind, and what society could we prove capable of developing if we envisage different models of mobility?”

Tomás Saraceno x Aerocene, Aerocene Archive(s), 2020. Video, 1’48” (colour, stereo, HD 1080p, 16:9)
Film by Aerocene Community, produced by Studio Tomás Saraceno in collaboration with Art/Beats, Courtesy the artist and Aerocene Foundation

These questions have found a practical answer in the activities of Aerocene which organises the launch of aerosolar sculptures capable of flying thanks to the heat of the Sun and to the infrared radiations emitted by the Earth’s surface: no engines, no batteries, no fuel, no exploitation of resources, only the planet’s own energy. The community’s commitment has consolidated over the past five years and launches have taken place all over the world, while aerosolar sculptures have been designed with a variety of different features: some can be flown like kites, some can travel freely from one city to another by following the course of the winds, and there is even a version capable of lifting a person to a height of over 200 metres and moving him or her over a distance of almost two kilometres.
Men and women have always dreamed of flying and the Aerocene community is succeeding in that undertaking by resorting to forms of energy that promote environmental awareness and preserve the air that we all breathe.

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Aerocene Explorer launch. August 7, 2017, Salinas Grandes, Jujuy, Argentina
With the support of CCK Buenos Aires, Courtesy the Aerocene Foundation e CCK Agency, Photography Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2017

To achieve these goals, in 2015 Tomás Saraceno created the Aerocene Foundation which works in close cooperation with an international community of scientists and activists. Prior to that, in 2012, the artist turned to researchers with the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) in an effort to find an answer to one ot his (seemingly utopian) questions: “Is it possible to fly around the world using the sun as one’s sole source of energy?”
That encounter was to spawn the Aerocene Float, a tool that analyses wind currents and maps out flight paths. A new resource recently perfected by the Aerocene community is the Float Predictor App. This application, available for iOS and Android, performs multiple functions: it allows you to simulate aerosolar sculptures’ virtual flight paths without any CO2 emissions, using freely available meteorological data; it allows you to visualise the Aerocene community’s tentacular presence throughout the world; and it allows you to see the various different kinds of aerosolar sculptures, where they have flown over the years and where the largest numbers of them may be found.
The message is clear: we are a numerous community open to cooperation and bent on changing both the way people move and their relationship with the planet, Technology offers us the opportunity to interact with others and to strengthen our projects in perfect DIT (Do it Togehter) spirit.

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Aerocene App (2020) has been developed by Aerocene Foundation in collaboration with Studio Tomás Saraceno.
Courtesy Aerocene Foundation

“Doing it together” was also the driving force behind the cooperation between the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and the Manifattura Tabacchi. The Manifattura has shown its support for the Tomás Saraceno exhibition by hosting a selection of videos, publications, materials and workshops devoted to exploring the Aerocene philosophy in some depth.
Sustainability, the relationship between man and nature and the construction of the community and of alternative forms of living and of interaction are crucial themes to which the Manifattura Tabacchi is not only sensitive but to which it has entrusted the construction of experimental and innovative forms for the production and enjoyment of art. The link with Tomás Saraceno’s work is confirmed not only in these themes but also in its subscription to the process of overcoming barriers, of audience involvement and of the integration of different disciplines both inside and outside the world of art.

The Manifattura Tabacchi is a large factory built in the western suburbs of Florence in the 1930s and decommissioned in 2001, which now lies at the heart of an ambitious urban regeneration scheme aiming to breathe life into a new city neighbourhood enlivened by a centre for contemporary culture and art complementary to the historical city centre, open to the region and connected to the world. The interdisciplinary art project currently comprising residences for artists, independent spaces, festivals and workshops, is the ideal setting for cooperation between the Manifattura Tabacchi and the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi.

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Manifattura Tabacchi aerial view. Photography by Marco Zanta

The chimney courtyard, overlooked by the two buildings converted for temporary use, leads into an area for study, recollection and observation designed and laid out under Tomás Saraceno’s watchful gaze. One’s attention is immediately drawn to the Aerocene Explorer Backpack: a starter kit designed to be worn like a backpack containing everything required for an aerosolar sculpture’s flight experience.

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Aerocene Backpack, 2016-on going. Exhibition view, Manifattura Tabacchi. Photography by Alessandro Fibbi

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Aerocene publications. Exhibition view, Manifattura Tabacchi. Photography by Alessandro Fibbi

The wall hosts a reproduction of the Aerocene Manifesto that attracts “the attention of all those who hold the atmosphere dear”; the text states that it sees “space as a commonly-owned, physical and imaginary area free from the control of large corporations and from government surveillance. Aerocene promotes free access to the atmosphere, unregulated by tight security measures, It is a proposal, a stage in the air, on the air, for the air and with the air”.
The Manifesto, a political and ethical statement, is the starting point for all the community’s projects. The materials on display at the Manifattura Tabacchi include the possibility of consulting a broad range of publications illustrating the myriad different aspects of Aerocene’s projects.
The discovery tour continues in a screening room where you can immerse yourself in a selection of videos and documentaries on the artist and imagine personally living the flight experiences that you have read about in the publications.
Your gaze tracks children, adults, senior citizens and entire communities as they the aerosolar sculptures together in some of the most fascinating places on Earth. These evocative images cannot help but remind us of the wonders of the world we live in and of the beauty involved in taking care not only of nature but also of people.

At 18.30 on 13 May Facebook pages of Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and Manifattura Tabacchi will be hosting a conversation between artist Tomás Saraceno, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi General Director Arturo Galansino (Direttore Generale, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi), LINV International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology Director Stefano Mancuso and Lisa Signorile (biologist and scientific journalist), focusing on art, nature and the collective effort to rethink our way of living and of interacting with the planet.

The Other Spanish Flu

by Ludovica Sebregondi

The “great flu” after World War I that cost millions of people their lives throughout the world in several waves between 1918 and 1920 (the actual number of dead is still a matter for debate, much like the figures for the current pandemic) was known as the “Spanish Flu” because it was first reported in the Spanish press. Spain had been neutral during the war and so its media were subject to less stringent censorship.

Luckily, however, the mutual influence traded between the Iberian peninsula and the rest of the world was not restricted to the flu. In fact, in the art world it played an absolutely crucial role in the birth of modern art. American writer Gertrude Stein, a close friend of Picasso, argued that 20th century art was devised in France… but by Spaniards. The Palazzo Strozzi exhibition entitled Picasso and Spanish Modernity (2014–15), curated by Eugenio Carmona, set out to illustrate this astonishing interweave of mutual influence with eighty-eight works (forty-five of which were original Picassos) by thirty-seven different artists, not only exploring Picasso’s impact on modern art in Spain but also, indeed above all, showcasing the most original and significant innovations that Picasso and his fellow Spaniards brought to the international art scene as a whole.

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Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Dora Maar, 1939, Madrid, Museo Reina Sofía Collection

Working in France in the course of the 20th century, Picasso can be said to have defined the styles through which modern art was to develop. He invented Cubism, he impressed a new meaning on collage and, at the end of World War I, he overturned everything he had done to date by reconciling with classicism, subscribing in many ways to the so-called “return to order.” Yet he was soon to abandon the dialectic between Cubism and classicism, setting off down a new path in the mid-1920s and, like Miró, embracing Surrealism. By the 1930s he was being hailed as a legend of modernity, but with the centre of modern art shifting to New York and the rise of Abstract Art, Picasso ceased to embody “the paradigm,” despite Guernica and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which were on display in New York at the time, having a considerable influence on the Abstract Expressionists.

From the 1950s Picasso became a living legend in his own right, absolute and unquestioned. His work ceased to attract the attention of the new generation of artists and began to be seen as a reflection of the whole of his epic career to date.

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The room of the exhibition Picasso and Spanish Modernity dedicated to Guernica. Works from the Museo Reina Sofía Collection in Madrid

Miró was born in Barcelona in 1893 and, like Picasso, he was soon drawn to the artistic ferment and avant-garde work being done in Paris where he moved in 1920, although he remained profoundly Spanish at heart. Despite his encounter with Picasso, with the Dadaists in 1920 and with the exponents of Surrealism three years later, he never strayed from his own “magical and dynamic” world, becoming over time the most influential of the innovating Spanish artists and a beacon, a creator of focal points, for the younger generation. Dalí, for his part, picked up Picasso’s legacy, yet he developed it in a different vein, with a psychological slant that was soon to draw him into Surrealism.

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Room housing, on the right-hand wall, from the back, Siurana, the Path by Joan Miró (1917), Peasant Woman Mask by Julio González (c. 1927–9), Harlequin by Salvador Dalí (1927) and Still-life (1926) by Manuel Ángeles Ortiz, another Spaniard who moved to Paris. Works from thel Museo Reina Sofía Collection in Madrid. Photo Filippo Montaina

While Picasso, Miró and Dalí are the Iberian trio virtually par excellence, we certainly should not overlook the work of Juan Gris (Madrid, 1887 – Boulogne-Billancourt, 1927) who, together with Picasso, was part of the system created by the so-called historic Avant-gardes but who remained loyal to Cubism after the war, marking his distance from Picasso who had embraced a classicising figurative art. Nor should we neglect the work of Julio González (Barcelona, 1876 – Arcueil, 1942), who was in Paris by 1900 in the company of Picasso, Braque, Torres García, Gargallo, Brancusi and Max Jacob and who is held to be the inventor of the modern sculpture in iron that was to have such an impact on the whole of the 20th century.

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Dalí and Picasso in two still from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris di Woody Allen (2011)

Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), with its dreamlike settings and with the ghosts of a glorious past who come back to life at midnight, takes us back to the Roaring Twenties when Paris still lay at the heart of modernity and innovators flocked to it from all over the world. Literature (Hemingway and the two Fitzgeralds) and music (Cole Porter) in the film come from the United States, but the only two figurative artists conjured up in it in the flesh are both Spanish, Dalí and Picasso, while Matisse puts in only a fleeting appearance. And as for the cinema itself, we are given Luis Buñuel! Woody Allen stages a magical era, a “glorious past, now lost” – a recurrent and age-old theme in the human experience if we think of Horace’s “laudator temporis acti” – pointing to the ever fashionable tendency to praise the past by comparing it with a tawdry present. In this case, however, the adjective “fabulous” that is so often attached to the 1920s is justified by the outstanding creativity of a period that owed its renown to the crucial influence of Spain rather than to the lethal pandemic that took its name from that country.

Let us allow the cobweb to guide us

To understand the world of Tomás Saraceno you need to enter the world of spiders and their webs, Thanks to the Arachnomancy App and to individual readings of Archnomancy Cards, we can commune with the non-humans so dear to this artist and thereby interact in a virtual manner with the Tomás Saraceno. Aria exhibition.

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Tomás Saraceno, Webs of At-tent(s)ion (detail), 2020. Installation view of Aria
Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 2020
© Photography by Ela Bialkowska, OKNOstudio

The fascination that arcachnids hold for Tomás Saraceno dates back to his childhood, when he perceived their presence as beings of equal importance in his home in Italy. This awareness that he was inhabting a shared environment prompted the artist to ask himself: “Do these spiders live in my house, or am I the one living in the spiders’ house?” And just like spiders, which emit vibrations through their web to connect with the reality all around them, so Saraceno’s work acts as a tool allowing us to perceive phenomena that lie outside our senses. Thus Saraceno has transformed Palazzo Strozzi into a space for imagination and participation in his determination to overcome our anthropocentric ideology and to extol the values of diversity, cooperation and interconnection. He invites us all to tune in to non-human voices which join with ours through endless networks of connection and disconnection in an exhibition that defies the hierarchical norm of the tree of life, proposing in its stead a network of life that highlights the interaction among different species and different worlds.

The exhibition in Palazzo Strozzi unfolds around a set of thirty-three Arachnomancy Cards designed by the artist as metaphors of the links between everything that exists in nature, whether living or otherwise. Each room in the Palazzo Strozzi exhibition is associated with a card that performs the role of a herald linking the content in each space, creating unexpected connections between seemingly distant elements, while another, smaller room is devoted to the complete series of thirty-three cards.

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Tomás Saraceno, Arachnomancy Cards, 2020. Installation view of Aria
Palazzo Strozzi, Firenze, 2020
© Photography by Studio Tomás Saraceno

In the context of the current ecological crisis known as the Sixth Mass Extinction, invertebrates such as arachnids and insects are fast disappearing, and their disappearance is having a serious impact on the environment and on ecosystems. While invertebrates account for over 95 percent of all animal species, an overwhelming majority of countries have no guidelines or national regulations safeguarding non-human rights. So it is imperative that we tune in to the non-human voices that join with ours in endless networks of connectivity and disconnectivity and that we recognise their vibrating voices.

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Cobwebs in Palazzo Strozzi
© Photography by Ela Bialkowska, OKNOstudio

There are two ways that we can connect with spiders and consult their cobweb oracle. The first tool enabling us to do this is the Arachnomancy App (available for iOS and Android), an application developed by the Studio Tomás Saraceno allowing you to consult the oracle at any time and in any place, joining a mapping initiative against extinction and creating a network interconnecting real cobwebs throughout the world. Once you have downloaed the App, you photograph a cobweb (there are plenty in your house, even though they may not be immediately apparent!) and take part in a collective exercise that has been christened Mapping Against Extinction.

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Studio Tomás Saraceno, Arachnomancy App
© Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2019

If you complete this small mission, you can unlock the individual cards required to consult the spider’s web oracle, devoting your energy to forms of knowledge that echo the methods of divination practised in various parts of the world. For instance, the Mambila people in Cameroon use divining cards made of the stiff leaves or bark of the rafia tree with ideograms cut out for the practice of nggám, the divination of the acts of a spider. A spider that lives in the area is asked questions, the anwers to which are communicated through the movement of these cards. The spider’s powers of divination come from its sensoral universe: its highly developed vibrational senses allow it to enter onto the wavelength of a symphony of biotic and abiotic tremors, a form of knowledge that we humans are incapable of perceiving. This also happens with the vibration of a normal mobile telephone. You can further explore this and other themes that Saraceno and his studio have probed in depth, on the website Arachnophilia.net.

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Divining cards for practising nggám or spider divination

You can also consult the oracle by individually reading the Arachnomancy Cards. Each one of the thirty-three cards comprises a storehouse of meanings, the interpretation of which can open up your vision to your experience of life. Gestalt psychotherapist Dr. Gianmarco Meucci will be holding readings lasting fifteen minutes each using the Zoom videoconferecing app on Thursday 30 April from 18.00 to 20.00 and on Satuday 2 May from 15.00 to 17.00. The sessions, held in Italian only, are free of charge and may be booked on Eventbrite. Only a limited number of places are available, but this is a unique opportunity for you to tune in to our reality and the universe of which we are a part.

Cover illustration: Tomás Saraceno, Arachnomancy Cards, 2019 (detail). 58th International Art Exhibition – The Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy. Courtesy the artist. © Studio Tomás Saraceno, 2019.

The greatest challenge

by Alessio Bertini

22 April is World Earth Day, an event established in 1970 and marking its 50th birthday today. The United Nations celebrates the event in its determination to promote a global effort to achieve the goals of environmental sustainability and the struggle against climate change that account for some of the main points on the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development .

The Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi has likewise committed over the years to promoting a debate on relationship between the development of human society and respect for our natural environment by hosting exhibitions such as its current show of work by Tomás Saraceno or its numerous schemes for schools.

One of those schemes is Educare al presente. Kicking off in 2011, the scheme offers pathways of exploration and workshops held in upper secondary schools throughout Tuscany. Getting off the ground thanks to the support of the Regione Toscana, in recent years the scheme has attracted crucial sponsorship from Publiacqua and the Water Right Foundation. Thanks to this collaboration, and despite the suspension enforced by the current health-related emergency, school year 2019/2020 has seen some 700 students aged 16 to 19 take part in a series of encounters focusing on issues related to sustainable development and the use of such natural resources as water.

The scheme addresses an issue which is crucial for our future but which, at the same time, is complex and rich in differing viewpoints and in potential for interdisciplinary debate. That is why, in conjunction with our partners and making full use of our mutual skills, we have adopted a two-level approach, viewing the issue from both the scientific and the artistic standpoints. Each pathway in class begins with the analysis of a concrete problem such as the conscientious management of resources and of an area’s water consumption conducted by Publiacqua and Water Right and Energy Foundation experts, offering students a succinct yet concrete picture of the issues on the basis of which we wish to trigger the debate involving a discussion of cases close to our local area.

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Plant on the artificial Lake of Bilancino
Source: Publiacqua

This encounter is followed by further events in which the debate changes its perspective, adopting the viewpoint and the language of artists who have always considered nature to be a primary source of inspiration for their work. Artist Elena Mazzi helped us to design a workshop based on the work of such leading artists and architects as Marjetica Potrč and Yona Friedman who, along with the examples of Olafur Eliasson, Superflex and Simon Starling, stimulated the participating students’ views and thoughts on the issue, often calling into question the superficial rhetoric that has grown up around the debate on the environment over the years.

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An encounter at the Istituto Statale Superiore “Ernesto Balducci” in Pontassieve.
Photo: Giulia Del Vento

With the help of these stimuli we asked students to observe, read and revisualise their own schools in order to develop new points of balance between the requirements of school life and those of the natural ecosystem of which it is a part, producing what we call architecture/landscapes or organisational solutions midway between a living organism and an infrastructure. Each class produced different projects based on rethinking the use of water in their school, stimulated by the freedom of imagination and critical approach that is such a feature of the work done by the artists discovered in the course of the activities, and embracing the need to think through creative form and gesture, through exaggeration and paradox.

The loss of a basin became an opportunity to water a flowerbed, tears prompted by an insufficiency could be reused to obtain the salt for the teaching staff’s canteen, or a puddle in the playground after a shower suggested the possibility of planning a swimming pool for use during free time. Ideas flowed, triggering unexpected synergies between the optimisation of water resources dictated by the need to economise, and a poetic outlook that addressed reality with only seeming detachment. All the projects produced by each individual class were brought together in a single large composition redesigning school in the context of a new relationship with nature in which water plays a leading role.

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An encounter at the Istituto Statale Superiore “Ernesto Balducci” in Pontassieve.
Photo: Giulia Del Vento

Originally made from poor waste materials, the compositions have been translated by draughtsman Nicola Giorgio into illustrated animations and plates. Each plate illustrates a proposal for rethinking a school complex in which feasibility is suspended between the possible and the impossible.

An example is the project produced by Class 4°G with the Istituto Benvenuto Cellini in Florence, in which water feeds not only the school basins but also a fountain that both imparts a new look to the school quad and guarantees the more or less controlled growth of plants and bushes capable of taking possession of a toilet bowl or of other accoutrements carelessly left lying about out in the open. Added to the picture we see a structure burning in the background, a disturbing image inspired by suspect black stains that the students discovered on the roof of a structure adjacent to the main school building, identified in the course of the research phase that is part and parcel of the activity programme. We are not told exactly what role water plays in the fire, perhaps it is helping to destroy the building in a different way, or perhaps it is defending the building’s temporary stability by partly extinguishing the flames, but what is certain is that in the students’ eyes that same water, together with particles of charred matter, can make its way back into the atmosphere thanks to the heat generated by the event and then fall back to earth in the form of rain before finally being purged of its impurities and returning to its natural cycle.

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Revisitation by Nicola Giorgio of the project presented by Class 4°G with the Istituto Superiore Bevenuto Cellini in Florence

Rationality and freedom of imagination, planning and chance, the emotional dimension and functional needs accompany the creative debate of those who participated in the pathways of Educare al presente devoted to the relationship between human activity and the natural environment. In the course of the various stages of the encounters, analysis, intuition and planning borrowed the stimuli and the tools of art  to produce unexpected results and transformation scenarios, which is what the future expects of us. We have taken advantage of World Earth Day to tell you about this scheme and to remind your and ourselves that the pandemic isn’t the only challenge we need to face as a global society.

We are currently collating all the reports produced by the classes that have been able to take part in the course of the current academic year. Their reports will be used to produce the illustrated plates of which you can see a small selection here. All the illustrated material will be available for viewing on this page where you can also find further information on the Educare al presente scheme and on the cooperation between the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Publiacqua and the Water Right Foundation.

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Revisitation by Nicola Giorgio of the project presented by Class 5°I with the Liceo Artistico Petrocchi in Pistoia

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Revisitation by Nicola Giorgio of the project presented by Class 3°DL with the Liceo Pascoli in Florence

 

Cover: Olafur Eliasson, Green river (detail), 1998, Moss, Norway, 1998, Source: olafureliasson.net

A “great house”: Palazzo Strozzi

by Ludovica Sebregondi 

It feels bizarre today to consider Palazzo Strozzi – home to the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi which uses the premises to plan and organise art exhibitions, to the Gabinetto Vieusseux, to the Istituto Nazionale di Studi sul Rinascimento and to the Scuola Normale Superiore, along with the Caffè and Bottega Strozzi – as a private home, the symbol of a family, embodying that family’s determination to “make a comeback”. Yet that is exactly what it was for Filippo Strozzi (1428–91), who devoted an enormous amount of energy to devising it and to having it built. Filippo’s father Matteo had been exiled from Florence because the family had taken up a stance against Cosimo de’ Medici, and Filippo himself was exiled to Naples, where he forged a bond of friendship with Ferdinand of Aragon and his son Alfonso. They interceded on his behalf with Cosimo de’ Medici’s son Piero and won him a reprieve, so Filippo was able to return to Florence after twenty-five years. He wrote to his mother on 27 November 1466, annoucing in a joyous tone veined with humour that: “Sunday evening, God willing, you will have me there. Make sure there is something other for dinner than the sausage I hear you are planning to serve.”

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Ai Weiwei, Filippo Strozzi in LEGO, 2017, Florence, Museino di Palazzo Strozzi
Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio

Once he was back in his native city, Filippo said: «I cannot cease thinking and drawing, and if God grants me a long and healthy life I hope to achieve something memorable». His plan was to erect the grandest building in Florence both to display and to testify to the power of his family and its rebirth. The operation was to prove complex and it took Filippo from 1473 to 1489 to acquire the land on which to build his future palazzo in a key area of the city, at the crossroads of what are now Via Tornabuoni and Via Strozzi. He had to demolish the many buildings he bought and to eat into the square in front of the area, thus altering the very fabric of the city. To make sure that his project was a success, he turned to the astrologer Benedetto Biliotti to establish the exact moment for laying the foundation stone. Biliotti advised him that the most propitious moment would be at dawn on 6 August 1489, over 530 years ago. That morning, Filippo wrote in his memoirs: “As the sun rose from behind the hill, in the name of God and of a good beginning for me and all my descendants, I began to found the aforementioned house of mine and I laid the first stone of its foundations”. At the chosen moment “the sign of Leo was rising over the horizon in the eastern sky, which […] means that the building will last for ever and be the home of great and noble men of worthy estate”

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Filippo Strozzi’s register of debtors and creditors, 1484–91, Florence, Archivio di Stato, Carte Strozziane, Quinta serie, 41, fol. 172

We find evidence of the extent to which the Florentines considered the event exceptional in the memoirs of a spicer named Tribaldo de’ Rossi whose shop stood a little way off, across the street from the church of Santa Trinita. He tells us: “On 6 August 1489, at sunrise, the masons began to found said palazzo for Filippo Istrozi.” As Tribaldo was looking down into the trench nine metres deep, Filippo in person came up to him and said: “Take a stone and throw it in, and so I did, and then I put my hands in my pouch in his presence and took out an old coin, a quatrino gigliato, to throw it in, which he did not want me to do, but in memory of the event I threw it in all the same and he was content.” Tribaldo also sent “Tita our servant” to fetch his two sons at home, telling her to dress them up in their Sunday best and bring them to see “said foundations.” He took his eldest, “Ghuarnieri, in my arms and squat down with him and gave him a quatrino gigliato and he threw it in and a bunch of small damask roses that he was holding, I got him to throw them in too, I told him thou shalt remember this.”

The ritual of having the children wear their best clothes to solemnise the event and of having them throw coins and flowers as a spontaneous, unpremeditated act to bring good luck is combined here with the traditional gesture, when laying the foundation stone of a place of worship, of urging those in attendance to throw a stone into the trench – all of them ritual, almost magical gestures thought to bring good luck and to ward off evil.

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Benedetto da Maiano or Giuliano da Sangallo, Model of Palazzo Strozzi, c. 1489
Museino di Palazzo Strozzi, on loan from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Despite the fact that we still have the Libri della Muraglia, or building records, containing daily progress reports and building costs, we do not actually know the name of the architect who designed the palazzo. Giuliano da Sangallo and Benedetto da Maiano each produced a model, but only one model has come down to us and we are not certain which of the two architects made it. Now in the Museino, it is very similar to the palazzo ultimately built, except that the latter is over three and half metres taller. Simone del Pollaiolo, known as “Il Cronaca,” was appointed foreman of the works shortly after work began in 1490, and the palazzo had risen as high as the first floor by the time Filippo died in 1491.

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Corbel in Palazzo Strozzi with the family coat-of-arms and Filippo’s personal “devices”

Filippo wanted the corbels to bear the family coat-of-arms with its three crescent moons, along with his own personal “devices” comprising allegorical phrases accompanied by a figure formulating thoughts or maxims. One device shows a falcon with its wings outspread, tearing its feathers on the trunk of an oak tree and accompanied by the motto “Sic [et] virtus expecto” (I wait, and so does virtue); another shows a lamb with the words “Mitis esto” (Be gentle) – thus an encouragement to display the patience and resilience which allowed Filippo to survive in times of adversity during his long exile and to then succeed in building and in handing down the splendid palazzo that he was so determined to erect, the boast not only of his family but of the entire city and today a world-renowned symbol of the Renaissance.

The shattered embrace: sacred, dramatic, sensual

by Ludovica Sebregondi

One of the things we hear most often in these days of isolation is the hope, reflecting a basic human need, that we can soon embrace our loved ones and friends again physically rather than just virtually. Until only a few months ago we barely gave it a second thought when we shook hands or embraced whenever we met someone, then embracing gradually became rarer and so did shaking hands, even though the gesture was instinctive while holding back demanded rational thought.

Being physically “in touch” was normal, but now we sorely miss those displays of closeness. Our present situation can also prompt us to take a fresh look at those works of art that have sought to convey this physical contact, each one in its own way and each imbued with a different emotional condition, be it sacred, dramatic or sensual.

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Bill Viola, The Greeting, 1995, Courtesy Bill Viola Studio

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Pontormo, Visitation, c. 1528-1529, Carmignano, Pieve di San Michele Arcangelo, Photo Antonio Quattrone

The Bill Viola. Electronic Renaissance exhibition held in 2017 conjured up an astonishing dialogue between the historical and the contemporary by juxtaposing some of the artist’s works with masterpieces by those masters of the past to whom he had turned for his inspiration in the course of his artistic career. In exploring spirituality, experience and perception, Viola probes mankind: people, bodies and faces are the leading characters in his poetic and highly symbolic work. He does not simply emulate the old masters, he revisits them. The women in Pontormo’s Visitation, united in a kind of dancing embrace reminiscent of the Three Graces, also number three: Elisabeth on the right and Mary on the left are shown in profile, while Elisabeth’s alter ego is seen full-face in the centre. The fourth figure on the left, in pink, is set slightly apart and does not appear to be fully involved in the meeting. That was certainly one of Bill Viola’s intuitions, at any rate, and so he cut the number of figures down to three, focusing on the relationship between them and on their different emotions, allowing us to perceive each detail in extremely slow motion and turning each still into a painting in its own right in an allusion to the great tradition of Western art. A scene of a few seconds is drawn out thanks to this extremely slow motion: what the artist is attempting to do here is to capture a specific, simple, daily event – women meeting – in order to highlight the complex inner and social dynamics underlying such a run-of-the-mill occurrence.

There are countless depictions of the Virgin embracing the Christ Child in the most natural of human gestures, a mother holding her small child close, yet they are veined with the melancholy that comes with foreknowledge of the future, and there are an equally large number of images of the Passion, with Mary grieving as she holds the body of the dead Christ.

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Bill Viola, Emergence, 2002, Courtesy Bill Viola Studio

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Masolino da Panicale, Christ the Man of Sorrows, 1424, Empoli, Museo della Collegiata di Sant’Andrea, Photo Antonio Quattrone

In his video entitled Emergence, Bill Viola cites Masolino da Panicale, despite other illustrious sources of inspiration stretching from Roman sarcophagi, via Raphael’s Deposition, to Jacques-Louis David’s Death of Marat, but the artist’s initial inspiration came from a photograph in the papers in which two women were lifting up a dead man’s body. Viola was reminded of Masolino’s work and this spawned a production with actors and stage props, where the shape of a Renaissance tomb merges with that of well and the presence of water brings a symbol of life to the image of death alluding, in a Christian vein, to the Resurrection.

These images, however, are at variance with others of an erotic nature that borders at times on the incestuous. The Cinquecento in Florence. From Michelangelo and Pontormo to Giambologna (2017–18) exhibition highlighted the immense freedom of expression displayed by the same artists in addressing both sacred themes and secular subjects of a sensual nature, casually switching from the devout to the lusty and back again. Thus Alessandro Allori (Florence, 1535–1607), an artist capable of exploring religious themes in intimate depth, shows us, in his Venus and Cupid, a mother and child involved in a tussle for possession of a bow, interpreting the subject in an erotic and sensual vein to convey a moment of intimacy and physical contact between the two figures.

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Alessandro Allori, Venus and Cupid, c. 1575-1580 circa, Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole, Musée Fabre, inv. 887.3.1

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Vincenzo Danti (Perugia 1530-1576), Leda and the Swan, 1570, marble, London, Victoria and Albert Museum. Purchased by the John Webb Trust, A.100-1937

Vincenzo Danti (Perugia 1530–76) goes even further in his rendition of the subject of Leda embracing Zeus in the shape of a swan, an embrace heralding their lovemaking. Florentine art in the latter half of the 16th century explored the mythological and allegorical repertoire in conflicting ways, presenting figures – arranged in elegant and complex compositions with their often contrasting poses – in which erudite reference sits cheek by jowl with unashamed sensuality.

Chagall, Millet, Vedova: the art of the sacred in modernity

The Easter celebrations call to mind images of artworks from the exhibition Divine Beauty, from Van Gogh to Chagall and Fontana held at Palazzo Strozzi between 2015 and 2016 and curated by Lucia Mannini, Anna Mazzanti, Ludovica Sebregondi and Carlo Sisi. The exhibition, which hosted work by Italian and international artists, provided an original take on the theme of the sacred in modern art, highlighting the dialogue, the relations and occasionally even the clashes, thanks in particular to the enduring strength and modernity of traditional iconographical images revisited by artists who were often either non-Christian or non-believers.

The pivotal work of this theme is the White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall (Moishe Segal; Vitebsk, 1887 – Saint-Paul-de-Vence, 1985). Transcending traditional iconography, the artist speaks to us of pain, of carnage, of religious persecution and of migration, all of them extremely unambiguous historical allusions when the picture was painted in 1938, the year of the Kristallnacht or Night of the Broken Glass, an antisemitic pogram that marked the official start of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.

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Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion, 1938, Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, gift Alfred S. Alschuler. © Chagall ®, by SIAE 2020

Chagall turned the subject matter of the Crucifixion into a lyrical testimony to the status of the Jews, presenting Jesus as the “archetypal Jewish martyr of all time,” a symbol of the suffering of his people. His traditional loincloth is replaced by a tallit or prayer shawl and his crown of thorns by a linen kerchief. A menorah takes centre stage. Beneath the Cross and to the side, destruction is rife. On the right, a Nazi is setting fire to the veil in a burning synagogue, the Ark of the Covenant is broken, chairs and prayer books lie scattered all over the street, a scroll of the Torah is burning and an old man is fleeing, while a mother endeavours to comfort her child.

The artist returned to dwell on the relationship between Jew and Christian on several other occasions in the course of his career, and the profound interfaith principle with which the picture is imbued may well explain why it is one of Pope Francis’s favourite works, as he himself admitted. To tie in with the National Church Convention in Florence on 9 November 2015, the painting was moved from Palazzo Strozzi to the Baptistry in Florence, where it interacted with the 13th century mosaics in an outstanding display of unity between ancient and contemporary art in the context of the debate on transcendence.

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Pope Francis and Cardinal Giuseppe Betori, Archbishop of Florence, before Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion, with Arturo Galansino (General Director of Palazzo Strozzi) and Douglas Druick (ex director of the Art Institute of Chicago) on 9 November 2015

The Italian artist Emilio Vedova (Venice, 1919–2006) also addressed the crucifixion theme on more than one occasion, without any particular religious connotation but on the strength of its dramatic power, seeking his inspiration in Tintoretto’s paintings of Christ’s Passion in the churches of Venice. His Contemporary Crucifixion, painted in 1953, testifies to Vedova’s mature absorption of the informal style, but at the same time, according to Palma Bucarelli, a renowned former Director of the GNAM in Rome, the painting is “one of the most successful expressions of the artist’s dramatically intense and human art.”

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Emilio Vedova, Contemporary Crucifixion – Cycle of Protest No. 4, 1953, Rome, GNAM – Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea. Foto Antonio Idini

The work marks its distance from the artist’s previous versions of the theme. The crucifixion proper has disappeared, leaving behind it only the dramatic power translated by Vedova’s painterly gestures into a deep reflection on suffering, which he saw, in the aftermath of World War II, as an existential condition of mankind. The tumultuous composition based on a strong, dynamic contrast between the black and the white of his brushstrokes, creates a fully-fledged field of action that is at once abstract and theatrical, and that contains another figurative reference to the Cross in the lower central part of the composition: two solid, clear black lines flanked by the only two coloured brushstrokes in the entire picture, the colour of blood, urge us to reflect in depth on the relationship between life and death.

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Jean-François Millet, L’Angelus, 1857-1859, Parigi, Musée d’Orsay, legacy Alfred Chauchard, 1910. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Poetic and profound manifesto about the religious sense in modern art, The Angelus of the French artist Jean-François Millet (Gréville, 1814 – Barbizon, 1875) is one of his best-known masterpieces. The Angelus is the prayer that recalls the Angel’s greeting to Mary at the Annunciation and since the 13th century it invites the faithful to recite the Haily Mary three times in the course of the day: in the morning, at midday and in the evening. The ritual of the bell tolling three short strokes followed by one long one was very much a part of daily life. As Millet himself explained: “The Angelus is a picture which I painted recalling the times I used to work in the fields with my grandmother; every time the bell rang she would make us stop to pray.”

In this tight, compact composition, we see a basket at the feet of two peasants praying and behind them a wheelbarrow containing two sacks. On the left, a pitchfork has been jammed into the earth by the boy, who has ceased working in order to pray. Behind the figures, the field stretches away as far as the horizon, where we can just make out the hazy shape of a small village with a belfry and a handful of houses. Mindful of Constable’s work, Millet ensures that the sky plays a leading role in his composition, allowing it to take up over one-third of the painted surface. Forcefully constructed in warm shades of brown, the two peasants are depicted against the light, two figures exalted in their humility but, at the same time, also in their solid human dignity.

As Carlo Sisi wrote in the catalogue: “The ‘rustic goodness’ widely depicted in Millet’s works regarded every aspect of rural culture, at times drawing from poetic components (regarding The Angelus, Alfred Sensier wrote of sound suggestiveness referring to the whispering murmur of the countryside and the distant tolling of bells), at times calling into question the persistence of religious traditions in farming populations – and Millet’s painting was a moving testimony to the same. It was not by coincidence that critics lingered over the description of the reflective charm of the scene, augmented by the ever-changing colour of light, but especially concentrated on the moral message entrusted to the two rapt protagonists, both humble and monumental at the same time, who were the silent mediums of a convinced and intense moral message.”

Illustrating the unchanging pace of life in the fields, Millet offers us a reflection on man’s relationship with nature in accordance with a declaration of universal spiritual ethics. The two peasants’ prayer is, in effect, a meditation on life, a manifesto of hope and of confidence in nature.

Men, apricots and cows

by Stefano Mancuso

The director of the Laboratorio Internazionale di Neurobiologia Vegetale (LINV) and a scientist of worldwide prestige, Stefano Mancuso makes his own personal contribution to the IN TOUCH project after cooperating with the artist Carsten Höller on The Florence Experiment project in Palazzo Strozzi in 2018. Renowned for his work on the cognitive capabilities of plant life, Mancuso turns here to discussing such concepts as the intelligence, reproduction and extinction of living beings, in a controversial debate that prompts us to ask ourselves the question: are we really sure that man is superior to other species? “An apricot tree can’t do a great deal to bring about its own extinction, nor indeed can a cow. Mankind, on the other hand, constantly generates new ways of bringing about his own extinction.”

Life is a cognitive process.

It’s impossible to imagine life without cognition. After all, how can anyone imagine a living being incapable of resolving problems, incapable of displaying “intelligence”? In order to survive, even the simplest organism needs to be able to resolve problems at every moment of its existence. Yet flying in the face of this obvious consideration, man has always thought that he was the only intelligent being, or at least one of only a handful and in any case the smartest of the bunch, with little or nothing in common with the rest of life. To corroborate this image, we’ve always imagined that our characteristics are unique too. The chief source of our supposed superiority is, of course, to be sought in our large brain and in its enormous capacity for logic which allows us to do things that other living beings are incapable of doing: we can write, we can paint, we can develop theories and we can compose symphonies. But does this skill really differentiate us from other living beings? And perhaps more importantly, does it make us superior to other living beings?

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Photo Alessandro Moggi

Man has always endeavoured to define such concepts as intelligence, the mind and cognition in such a way as to restrict them to his own species. To do this, he has developed increasingly stringent notions of what intelligence and cognition are.
But he hasn’t always achieved the hoped-for results. Is intelligence the ability to use tools? If it is, then there are plenty of animals who use tools. Does intelligence concern the ability to develop abstract thought? Plenty of primates, and indeed other beings, are capable of developing abstract concepts.
Intelligence must be explored like a fully-fledged biological principle, in a very similar way to the way we consider reproduction. Every living being has the ability to reproduce. Life reproduces itself, life creates itself: reproduction is one of the fundamental principles of life. Who would ever think of arguing that only mankind reproduces? Of course, there are different and very complex ways of doing so. Mankind reproduces on the basis of a fairly complex set of rules, while plants have highly original reproductive systems and funghi, insects and bacteria reproduce in a manner so totally different that the phenomena cannot readily be likened to one another. Yet they all share the same result, which is the reproduction of life. And sure enough, the dictionary definition of reproduction is as broad as it can be: “the ability to multiply.” No mention is made of specificity. Human specificity is of little significance in respect of the way other forms of life reproduce. We should look at intelligence in the same way, considering it to be a fundamental property of life that should be defined in as broad and as inclusive a manner as possible, for example by defining it as the ability to resolve problems and thus a feature shared by all living beings.

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Carsten Höller and Stefano Mancuso, The Florence Experiment, 2018
Photo Alessandro Moggi

So now we need to ask ourselves where we get this notion of superiority. How come we consider ourselves to be in a different and superior category to other human beings? I’m almost certain that every one of us thinks he or she is superior to a cow, an apricot tree, a worm or a bacteria. Anyone disagreeing would be telling a lie. Darwin tells us that evolution is the survival of the fittest, a law we can’t shirk, a law as immutable as the law of universal gravitation. But why didn’t Darwin use the word “best” rather than “fittest”? Well, because in the context of life, the words “better” and “best” are a nonsense. “Better” than what? Being “better” only means something if you have a goal. For example, if the aim is to jump highest, then a person who can jump 2.10 mt is “better” than one who can only jump 2.00 mt. Yet the crucial aspect of life is that the end goal is the ability to survive and to propagate one’s own species. Now that we have a slightly clearer picture, we can ask ourselves whether man, with his special intelligence and his large brain that allows him to develop theories and to compose symphonies, sonnets and so on, is more or less “fit” to survive than other species. If we adopt this far more appropriate viewpoint, we have no choice but to change our minds with regard to the contention that we’re “better,” because it’s been estimated that the average life of a species is about 5 million years. Naturally, there are species that are much longer-lived, for instance conifers, ferns, mosses and even crocodiles: all of them, species that first put in an appearance tens of millions of years ago and that are still around. But never mind them. Let’s just consider the average life of a species, which is 5 million years. Homo sapiens first appeared about 300,000 years ago. We’d have to survive another 4,700,000 years just to hit the average mark, and we’d have to last a lot longer than that to prove in Darwinian terms that our large brain, the organ we’re so proud of, really does give us the evolutionary edge.

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Photo Alessandro Moggi

I should image that once they’ve considered our species’ chances of surviving for another 4,700,000 years, the number of people inclined to feel superior to an apricot tree is likely to drop drastically. Yet that’s the sense of evolution. Neither an apricot tree nor a cow can do a great deal to bring about their own extinction. Both species will become extinct eventually, like many others, but only as a result of such huge changes in the environment that they can no longer survive. Luckily, we’re talking about catastrophic events that do occur, but only every few million years. Mankind, on the other hand, never ceases to generate new ways of bringing about his own extinction; it almost feels as though he were working on an assembly line. But whatever else, if we do become extinct before the next 4,700,000 years have gone by, at least we’ll have proved that having such a highly developed brain wasn’t such an advantage after all. We’ll just have to wait and see.