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When we asked multimedia artist and painter Hugo Canoilas to contribute in this sector with a historical artwork that has influenced him in an instant he came up with The Triumph of Death in the Regional Gallery of Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo – and perhaps it is worth recalling that next year the city will host the 12th edition of Manifesta, the European biennial of contemporary art. As it always happens with Hugo, his stories and narrations are full of sensations, feelings and explorations proving that sometimes, if not always, the most enlightened experiences derive from profound simplicity.
We reached the Palazzo Abatellis at 1pm. It was Sunday, and the guards informed us that the Museum was supposed to close at 12.45 pm. We explained the reason for our pilgrimage to the guards, who informed us that the room we were interested in was under construction, thus impossible to visit.
My friend Marco then started speaking, in a very eloquent way, about the ‘pani ca meusa’ we had eaten just before. This local delicacy is made with wheat bread flavoured with sesame and filled with lung and spleen from veal, first boiled and then fried in lard. The sandwich is mounted with ‘caciocavallo’ cheese or ricotta and a sprinkle of lemon.
Hardcore for some, the description of our meal had the guards discussing with us with ease. A last comment by Francesco, who had worked before on an exhibition presented in that Museum, unlocked the door for us.
Inside the room and on our left, the walls were occupied by scaffolding covered with a green net. On our right was a long bench and far right was the fresco.
The immanence of Triumph of Death’s light mixed with the natural light of the room kept us silent. It felt as if we were under a spell that would give us the right mindset to understand it. I now see this experience as a voluntary availability towards the work, allowing us to feel the time of the painting.
One fascinating thing about this fresco is the feeling of displacement it evokes. It has nothing to do with its transfer from the façade of a building to the room of this museum. It has to do with its language.
The gothic qualities of Triumph of Death make me think that someone from Central Europe must have made it. My feeling was reinforced by the fact that its theme was well spread in Europe but not particularly in Italy. Maybe it felt foreign to me because of the convergence between the Normand and Arab cultures, which built the most prominent identity of Palermo many years before.
Looking back at the painting, one grasps immediately the well-structured scene depicted. To us, it felt like we were looking at the visualization of a frozen moment. Its theme reveals an unreal image, a promise that will happen in some other way.
This frozen now depicts all the elements of the painting with equal fascination; animals, leaves, grass and people’s grace, embedded in the same imaginary picture.
This is what makes this painting so wonderful, alive and timeless.
One feels a particular harmony and lightness in Triumph of Death, the same kind we find in Death, rising on her/his horse.
(Death depicted by a similar figure played a pivotal role in Picasso’ s Guernica)
The dogs on the top right react at the passage of death, although with delay. This confers to Death a visibility only possible to grasp by those who are dying (us viewers, included). There, a figure with a falcon resting on the hand is looking towards the opposite direction from Death. In this manner, the painter not only opens a tension line superseding the boarders of the painting, but also triggers a secret waiting to be discovered. We can assume it is somehow related to the angel coming for the child on the far right corner of the fresco.
On the left lower corner we notice monks, priests and nuns, being able to sense Death, praying and saving the passage after its passing. Death passes silently and takes the life of others, selected among the crowd by an arrow.
There’s no horror and no pain, as if there was no interruption between life and death but a continuum.