‘The Triumph of Death’ – an appropriate icon for Palermo …

12 June, 2010

Sometimes, whatever else they do or were intended to do, works of art take on an iconic significance. That is certainly true of one of the best known works in Sicily’s Regional Gallery, a 15th century fresco, The Triumph of Death.  Perhaps for good reason, this work has become a symbol of Palermo, perhaps of Sicily itself.  It is a huge and dramatic work, measuring 5.9m x 6.4m, beautifully displayed beneath a light-filled dome, on what was presumably the altar wall of a former chapel.  The skeletal figure of Death dominates the scene as he urges his ghost-like, pale and partly skeletal, horse through the population, shooting arrows at all those in his path.

This is not a painting you can readily forget.  And yet, when I first saw it I was bewildered by it; shocked, but at the same time kept at a distance.  I had the feeling I didn’t quite know what I was looking at or how I should respond.   With both art and literature, I have always instinctively sought to see the work primarily as an independent entity, independent of its historic or cultural context.  There can be merit in that: context, unless kept in its proper place, can get in the way.  But used properly, it can illuminate – and with a work like The Triumph of Death it can be essential to a proper understanding and appreciation.  

The Regional Gallery of Sicily is housed in a beautifully restored 15th century Gothic-Catalan palace, Palazzo Abatellis.  The building was bombed during the Second World War and transformed into a gallery in the 1950’s by the famous Venetian architect, or perhaps more accurately ‘architectural designer’, Carlo Scarpa.  When I first visited Palazzo Abatellis I had never heard of Scarpa, but I remember being greatly impressed by the way the collection was displayed.  I often find galleries overwhelming and impersonal, not really conducive to the enjoyment and appreciation of what is there.  Here it is quite the opposite – the manner in which the works are displayed contibutes hugely to one’s enjoyment and appreciation.   

Scarpa chose to place the Triumph of Death on what I assume would have been the altar wall of the former chapel, the second of the gallery’s rooms  – in a sense, everlasting death is replacing everlasting life. The positioning is inspired, showing the work to full advantage.  Light streams down from a series of square and circular openings in the domed ceiling above, and viewers can see the work either close up, from  just a couple of feet away, from further back in the chapel, or from upstairs in a space that I assume would once have been the chapel’s gallery.  There is very little else in the chapel, and nothing to distract attention;  on one of the grey painted walls there is an ornate marble cross, in one corner a sarcophagus, carved by the workshop of the famous 14th century sculptor, Francesco Laurana, with a beautiful image of a young girl, and on another wall some marble carvings of the period.  Like the Palazzo itself, everything in the room is from the 15th century. 

What I didn’t realise when I first looked at this fresco was that the personification of Death, and the theme of the triumph of death, was widespread in the Middle Ages, both during and after the Black Death which devastated the population of Europe in the 14th century.  This work sits squarely within that tradition, but it differs in interesting ways from other works.  It is interesting to compare it, for example, with the well-known ‘triumph of death’ painting of Peter Bruegal the Elder, which was done about 100 years later.  Whereas that painting uses harsh colours and depicts a scene of terrible, relentless, universal devastation, the Palermo work has much of beauty in it and makes extensive use of beautiful pastel pinks and greys.  In some ways, it is as much about life, however deluded, as it is about death. 

I was also under the impression that the work had been commissioned to hang in Palazzo Sclafani, a private palace built in the city in the early 14th century as the home of a noble family of Norman descent.  It seemed to me a very strange choice of decoration for a private palace.  Then I discovered that, by the time The Triumph of Death work was commissioned, Palazzo Scafani was no longer a private palace:  it had become a hospital.  Several other works were  commissioned at the same time, including a representation of Paradise, to decorate the hospital’s entrance hall.  It might be thought to be a slightly strange choice of decoration even for a hospital, but much more suitable for a hospital than a private palace.    

The fresco, created around 1446 by an unknown artist, is generally regarded as a masterpiece of the 15th century.  It is a refined work, full of fascinating detail.  It probably also has a social message, although exactly what that might be is not entirely clear. 

The work is dominated by the skeletal figure of Death, riding a ghostly horse that is also part skeleton.  Both horse and rider reflect pace, movement and action – the horse’s tail and mane stream back in the breeze, its mouth is open, its legs galloping.  Death having just shot an arrow, is urging the horse forward.    Everything else is relatively still.  Death’s arrows have found elaborately robed clergy and richly dressed noble men and women, some of whom seem to accept their fate with equanimity, some with horror or fear.  A group of the poor and the sick have been left behind, untouched, even though they  plead to be taken.  Among them, on the extreme left side of the fresco, two figures look out towards the viewer, one of them holding a paint brush.  These are generally thought to represent the artist and his assistant.  The artist seems to have a knowing, slightly amused, conspiratorial look on his face, as if to say to the viewer:  ‘Well, it obviously wasn’t my turn this time!’, but his less sanguine assistant looks decidedly shaken by the experience of having seen Death ride so closely by.   At the top of the fresco, everything seems idyllic: people play music, hunt with their falcons or talk together, and an elegant young man and his hunting dogs skirt the edge of a dark forest, all apparently quite unaware of the presence of death –  at least as it affects them.  One of the hunting dogs, though, is looking as though the idea of death for others may well have crossed its mind.

The work is a fitting icon for Palermo and Sicily.  It is a major artistic work of historic significance, with a particularly appropriate theme.  An acute awareness of death seems to be part of Sicilian culture.  This awareness can’t be attributed to the activities of the mafia alone, but they certainly help heighten and refine it.   I remember a friend telling me, not long after I moved here, that people in Palermo will often give directions by reference to a mafia killing that occurred at, or near, the place in question  – “You know, via so and so, the street where Judge W was shot” or “where they blew up Y’s car”.   She was right!   

I was contemplating this awareness of death this week at an exhibition of photographs by Letizia Battaglia, a photographer and journalist famous for her documentation of mafia activity.  It was a small exhibition, only about twenty black and white photographs.  Two of them, in particular, have stayed with me.  The first is a photograph of  Cesare Terranova,  an anti-Mafia magistrate and politician who was killed by the mafia in 1979, together with his bodyguard, Lenin Mancuso.  The photograph was taken close up, just after the shooting and shows Terranova, a large man with a calm and benevolent face, slumped in his car, the car windows shattered.  His glasses are still on, exactly where they should be, but his head has slumped onto his chest, and his shirt front is splattered with blood.  The second is a photograph, again close up, of a good looking young man who has just been shot.  He is lying beside a car in a car park, his head and shoulders propped up against a wall, a large stain of blood on his shirt front.  Seeing these graphic images of violent death, one after another, had an effect that I found difficult to identify precisely or describe.  Perhaps, I thought, it provides a glimpse, however faint, of what living with this reality might be.   

 Then, quite unexpectedly, in a book that has nothing whatever to do with Sicily, I came upon something that has, I think, helped me understand a little better.    The book is Amos Oz’s autobiographical work, A Tale of Love and Darkness, set in Israel.  He describes how, as a child, he began to hear adults talking about what was happening to friends and relatives in Germany: “Somehow the fear got into me …. I may have already gathered how easy it is to kill people”.

This may seem to have taken us a long way from The Triumph of Death –  but I don’t think so.  I’m already looking forward to my next visit to Palazza Abatellis, and  I think this time I’ll enjoy the work even more than I did before.

5 Responses to “‘The Triumph of Death’ – an appropriate icon for Palermo …”

  1. Antonio Says:

    I enjoyed this Kate, especially the way you have drawn together a mosaic from various works. I must see “The Triumph of Death” and the Palazza Abatellis. No doubt the work would have been appropriate for a hospital but I am not sure I would have appreciated it had I been a patient. Again, however, very Sicilian, as you suggest.

    • kateludlow Says:

      Perhaps, as a patient, you would have chosen to look at the work of Paradise, rather than at this one! I’m glad you enjoyed the note. Thank you for the comment.

  2. Antonio Says:

    Assuming Paradise is beyond Death, I’m not so sure!!

  3. CateM Says:

    This was very thought provoking. It is some time since I saw this painting in Palazzo Abatellis and I am now keen to revisit it having read your post. The fact that an awareness of death is part of Sicilian culture is very interesting. Other than the Mafia what else do you think has contributed to this? Do you think the Mafia exists in part because of this awareness?

  4. kateludlow Says:

    Perhaps not as thought provoking as your comment! Thank you! It’s a complex subject. When I referred to a Sicilian awareness of death, I was thinking about a darkness that seems to exist in the Sicilian culture – a darkness that stems, I suspect, from a great mixture of things including oppression, exploitation, invasion, poverty, the Church, and, possibly, the ever present threat of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. I suspect that the existence of the mafia, although its history is complex, is also linked to some of these.

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