Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Palazzo and a Puppet Theater in Palermo

Like Tom Sawyer, American Academy Director-Elect Kim Bowes managed to get each of us to take on a piece of the task of running the Sicily expedition most of the fellows went on a few weeks ago. I suggested we go to Palazzo Abatellis, the regional art museum in Palermo, whose exhibition areas were designed by architect Carlo Scarpa.  She said yes, and suddenly I was enlisted in giving an introduction to the museum.  By chance, Dan Hurlin, a puppeteer and professor at Sarah Lawrence, planned for us to visit the puppet theater of Palermo -- Opera dei Pupi -- immediately after.  These appeared to be wonderfully diverse experiences, but utterly unrelated.

As we looked around the workshop of Opera dei Pupi, and received a brief presentation from one of the owners (it remains in one family's hands), I couldn't help but think that these different cultural institutions were bound together.  One of the joys of these puppets -- and everyone was grinning like a happy child at the town fair -- is the craftsmanship of their construction.  We are ready and willing to be transported into another place and time in part because of the love and care with which these miniature sets and figures have been created.  We are prompted to be open and generous not merely by their beauty, but by the obvious hand work and personal touch involved.

At Palazzo Abatellis, which is one of Scarpa's earliest exhibition design works, before his museum work at the Castelvecchio in Verona, I was struck by how Scarpa prepares us to appreciate the works of art by each of his interventions -- pedestals, painted backgrounds, picture frames, and the procession in and out of the building.  We walk in and are immediately aware of a craftsman at work, a craftsman whose focus is on drawing your attention to the works of art, and the building in which it is housed.  We usually place museum designs on a spectrum of intervention, from receding into silence in order to "not get in the away of the art," to intervening too aggressively in order to make a statement of their own.  Scarpa's work is on a different register altogether:  his orientation is toward architectural gestures which inspire respect and even awe.  He does this by pulling you toward the work, around it, re-presenting it to you, asking you, very simply, to pay attention.

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