Kalyazin, Plymouth, San Zhi, Sewell, Maunsell Sea Forts, Suakin, Skrunda-1, Nikolaevka, Crotty, Balaklava, Calbi, Bezonvaux, Jonestown, Animas Forks, Boone, Ophit, Kiandra, Scurati, Rhyolite, Shaniko, Vìkar, Toiano, Strond, Stazzano Vecchia, Gwalia, Grafton, Cunard, Old Goa, Pentedattilo, Salecchio, Doel, Belchite, Silverdale, Tifata, Goroumo, Betoota… A look at the long list of cities built and abandoned by man in just the last few centuries leaves us staggered at the sheer scale of the effort, desire and vision, sometimes involuntary, that have governed our history, driving the human race to create works that far exceed its limitations and powers. The Tower of Babel is a myth and a curse that has haunted us from the earliest of times, not only as a warning to man against his crazed desire to be like God but also as the very idea of a limit to the development and exploitation of our abilities and potential. The fact is that we seldom know when we have gone beyond this limit and are already on the downward path of decay and ruin.
Also embedded in this primal drive to build cities and live together, sharing rules, resources and protection, is the constant search for a relationship with science and technology making it possible for mankind to dominate nature and its forces. And the dream of technology that knows no limits is the thread we find running through our urban history from the first villages through the metropolises of antiquity to an entire urbanized world where over half of the population is now permanently resident in cities.
Using the eye and all the other senses to examine the paintings and drawings of ghost towns that Velasco Vitali has been producing for years now brings these considerations to mind first of all and makes us wonder why this artist should have embarked on this experience after a long series of real urban views doggedly sought out all through Italy.
There is no moralizing in his portraits of cities. We find no condemnation of the shortsightedness and arrogance of our species or even of the fact that it still fails to grasp the warning of the Tower of Babel. What appears to transpire is rather bemused wonder at the agonizing beauty of these involuntary monuments to human ambition that are slowly turning back into fragments of a new kind of nature or simply ruins of just some of the many forms of life and civilization that we have passed through in our history. Man vanished long ago and the only one present is the artist intent on observation and representation. The houses, fortresses, engineering structures and great public monuments that once accommodated the lives of thousands of people are captured in a material and chromatic dimension undergoing slow but relentless metamorphosis to become a new form of nature, a fragment of a process in a state of deep and unstable transformation that will turn it into something other than itself.
On first seeing these canvases, I was spontaneously prompted to compare them with the mute wonder of the works of Caspar Friedrich, the Romantic dimension of the sublime that makes every human fragment a detail ready to become part of nature and its religious immensity once again. This feeling, this dimension of the involuntary sublime to which our civilization is inexorably returning, is combined, however, with a physical and sensory component that is not to be found in the canvases of the great German painter. I refer to the different approach, more sensual and corrupt, characterized by thick impasto and dense brushstrokes, to be found in the “minor” details of Goya, Daumier and Turner and then gradually developed in van Gogh and Monet to become an expressive root in Dubuffet, Morlotti, Burri and Vedova, an attempt to describe the primal and primordial dimension of matter crushed by a world undergoing inexorable change.
Vitali’s virtuoso realism is deliberately put to the test and subjected to violent stress in the urban portrait, as today is no longer the time for the reassuring realistic landscapes of the late 19th century. The metropolis and its by-products must be described by a different eye fully aware of what they represent, conscious of the postmodern condition in which we live, and capable of producing new symbols to capture our dramatic and unstable era.
It is no coincidence that one of the most interesting cultural phenomena of recent years should be the study and analysis of contemporary ruins. The initial studies of urban planning and architecture highlighting the waste, violence and breakdowns resulting from an incestuous approach to nature and the environment have slowly given way to the more subtle and less moralistic grey area of the astonishment felt by the new contemporary travellers at what is to be encountered in the most remote reaches of the world. The point is that we know very little about a world that has grown all too quickly and with far too much fragmentation to be understood. In a dimension where the Internet seems to give us control over every element, we find ourselves instead once again like the travellers who set off to discover unknown worlds between the 16th and 19th centuries and brought unimaginable images and tales back to the Old Continent. The sublime was born also out of this dimension and the feeling that the known world was becoming too big for us. Today we find ourselves having similar experiences as we discover countless artefacts and transformations that fill us with fear and astonishment, and seek at the same time instruments to record what is being discovered so that it can be absorbed into our life and become shared knowledge.
The work of Velasco Vitali, which Borges and Italo Calvino would have greatly appreciated, is part and parcel of this desperate attempt to catalogue the new world and the damage that has followed us from the last century. There is love and resignation in these works, both wonder and desperation accompanied by the will to capture on paper and canvas the memories of a world that is changing all too quickly before our eyes and could provide us with no little help in addressing the imminent future.