The ancient dignity of women
There are two works in the Uffizi that preserve the tangible memory of the Mafia bombing of 27 March 1993. They are memories left for future visitors to the Gallery with no notion of the tragedy of that night. Indeed, our time is one that tends to forget. And there are no guarantees that this inclination will change in the future. In any case, it is perhaps understandable that the mind instinctively closes itself to the memory of extreme suffering. However, that is what poets are for: elevating crude events (even the most dramatic ones) to the suspended atmosphere of devotion.
Halfway down the stone stairs that lead from the West Corridor to the aerial walkway that Vasari designed to connect the Uffizi to Palazzo Pitti – in the brief stretch where the steps are interrupted – hangs the Adoration of the Shepherds, painted between 1619 and 1620 by Gherardo della Notti for the apse of the Church of Santa Felicità, whose counter-façade can be seen from the Vasari Corridor. The canvas – not lacerated by the exploded glass, but scoured by the violence of the blast – immediately appeared irremediably and entirely damaged in the light of the photocell. The sense of loss did not diminish with the arrival of dawn. On the contrary, the devastation was self-evident and the monumental painting risked being relegated to the museum’s storerooms forever.
However, following months of extensive restoration, the painting attracted new attention: in the darkness of a Caravaggesque sky, which the tissues applied immediately after the bombing seemed to suggest had been totally destroyed, an intact area emerged that continued to expand, allowing a glimmer of hope for its recovery. Consequently, work was commenced, which led to the recovery of almost half the paint. Unfortunately, this half was random, and detracted from the focus of the composition, commencing with the infant on the bed of straw that was originally the source of light that illuminated the faces of the Virgin Mary and the figures summoned by the angels in the darkness.
This surviving fragment still shows the reverberation of that light (just as a star continues to shine for light-years after it has burned out). The poetry is no longer that of a finished text, but it is nonetheless perceptible. Indeed, it is perhaps even more touching: like a mutilated epigram, which the reader’s head and heart piece back together, deeply moved. Consequently, whoever visits the Vasari Corridor is touched by that Adoration, accompanied by the words of Mario Luzi engraved in stone: an indelible memory of the crimes of which man is capable, but also the sign of a desire for liberation.
The same spirit suffuses the gilded bronze by Roberto Barni that was placed on the outer wall of the museum, overlooking the spot where the bomb exploded. A life-sized man walks on a blade plunged into the wall more than 20 metres above the ground. Upon his body walk the five spirits of those who lost their lives – innocent victims of chance. This chance, however, was generated by the despicable minds of those who wished to hit the state (annihilating its heritage), without heeding the deaths that would ensue. The golden man walks with his companions, high above the ground, and the sunlight makes him gleam in the eyes of those who look up. When night falls, a light comes on, drawing a luminous eye on the wall, with the man as its pivot. Throughout the day and night, anyone who stops in the little Via dei Georgofili and is touched by reading the epigraph set in the plaster of an adjoining house, rebuilt after its collapse, can look up and recognize in the bronze sculpture a warning and at the same time a message of hope for those who campaign for peace.
Today, Francesco Francaviglia’s photographs allow us to see the faces of some of those campaigners. Faces of courageous women who, 20 years or so ago, scorned evil (including that which could turn on them in retaliation) and openly made a stand against the ruthless, brutal organized crime that was causing so much bloodshed (and continues to corrupt and bloody today). Faces that the passage of time has furrowed with wrinkles, but nonetheless remain beautiful, infused with an ancient dignity. Their features are inevitably changed, but precisely because of this are able to testify to the fact that the daringness, rebellion and resistance are just the same.
After all, courage and generosity are virtues that flourish in the female soul. The episode that followed Christ’s death comes to mind almost instinctively. Defeat, fear and the futility of everything that had been said and done pervaded the hearts of the men who only shortly before had been with Jesus, bewildering them and causing them to flee. Yet they had heard what they would have to face directly from his mouth. Nonetheless, they were overwhelmed by their inability to fully understand his words and the shock of that scandalous death to which they were unable to resign themselves. Not the women, though: they felt the power of the blow inflicted, but they withstood it.
They did not flee. They accepted what had happened, confident that the promises would be kept. They went to the tomb and found it empty. The angel told them what had happened and, after a moment of inevitable bewilderment, they believed the miraculous news. It was the women who revealed the humanly impossible truth of the Resurrection to the hesitant and fearful men, instilling new hope in their vacillating hearts.
Today I imagine the faces of those women of the Holy Land, weakened by the grief of their unbearable loss, yet driven by unfaltering courage, with the severe countenances of the “women of the fast” that Francaviglia has impressed on his portraits vibrant with lyric poetry.
How many paths does the quest for truth have?
This is the question that immediately comes to mind when looking at Francesco Francaviglia’s work on the women of the fast.
The question relentlessly assails those who, like me, are magistrates in the National Anti-Mafia Prosecutor’s office, established by Giovanni Falcone.
Many years after that terrible 1992 in Palermo and 1993 in Florence, Rome and Milan, the faces of the women of the fast re-emerge, crossed by time but still feverish with civil passion.
There are gestures that mark an entire lifetime and the Palermo women’s fast in Piazza Castelnuovo has left its mark on theirs, sometimes even beyond what they themselves could ever have imagined.
Women of different ages, with different civil and political experience, but sharing the same gesture of blatant rebellion towards the injustice of the existing situation, which would subsequently proceed along different paths – some very close and others irreconcilable, yet all bearing the mark of that fast for the dignity of civil life.
Seeing those faces again today in Francesco Francaviglia’s eloquent photographs means quantifying all the sorrow and horror of what happened and all the enormous lack of truth that still surrounds the massacres today, in spite everything.
In the complete darkness behind the faces and the mute words of the backstage, it is possible to glimpse the shadows of those who have not yet been held to their responsibilities, not only legal.
Alongside familiar identities and stories, are the faces of those who lost their lives, swept away by the fierceness of a well-defined plan of mass murder.
Victims for whom the names of the condemned men of Cosa Nostra are not enough, but who are waiting to know something more.
The faces talk without a sound and the eyes of the women portrayed recount better than a thousand rhetorical speeches what happened in Italy between 1992 and 1994:
23 May, Capaci; 19 July, Via D’Amelio; 14 May ’93, the failed bombing in Via Fauro in Rome; 27 May, Via dei Georgofili in Florence; 27 July, Via Palestro in Milan; 28 July, San Giovanni in Laterano and San Giorgio al Velabroin Rome; and the failed bombing at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on 23 January 1994.
The uninterrupted trail of blood of the Sicilian summer of 1992 ascended the length of Italy, invading the symbolic places of the country’s life to sow terror, perhaps self-interestedly, to change everything without changing anything.
The civil and political lesson of the experience of the women of the fast was deeply innovative.
Gathering in the piazza, involving their own bodies and their own lives with the fast signified offering a message of rebellion and need to revolutionize the existent.
However, only a small part of this message was received, for the will and ability to translate them into a critical presence in the institutions was lacking.
The ideal impetus, flexibly portrayed in the physical, corporeal modes of the protest, required a change in the balance of power that did not occur.
Once the collective anxiety had been overcome, the message of the women of the fast was shelved by the political institutions, masking the cynicism with the need to proceed to the stage of the rational construction of the state’s response.
Laws were emanated that delegated the solution of the Mafia problem to the magistracy, only to reverse them abruptly when the enquiries started to tackle the subject of collusion within the institutions.
Instead, the myth of the military and economic power of the mafias was fuelled, neglecting to consider how everything is closely connected to the frequent connivance with the political and institutional spheres.
The women of the fast were hungry for justice and change, but while they were protesting in the piazza, exponents of the state were constructing smokescreens designed to hide the truth, as the most recent enquiries have revealed.
The anti-mafia of civil society was also rapidly suffocated by rhetoric, as numerous ambiguous figures driven by personal interests insinuated themselves alongside the many people who had generously committed themselves.
However, the symbolic power of that gesture in Piazza Castelnuovo remains, and is fully revived in the work of Francesco Francaviglia.
It is impossible to dissociate the quality of the photographs from the depth of the experience of those portrayed. Indeed, in my opinion, this is a profoundly true artistic testimony, which can be interpreted on several levels, capable of relentlessly conveying the sentiments of the women of the fast and all those who strived to find the answer to their questions.
At the end of the carousel of photographs, the viewer is left with an overwhelming need to know, to go beyond the darkness and the morass in which the faces of the portraits seem to float.
Rome, April 2014
There are many ways of telling an important story that left its mark on an entire community in a tragic and dramatic moment of its collective life. It can be done, as many have, with words. It can be done with gestures: symbolic gestures, even strong ones, which remain in the social imaginary, leaving a permanent mark on a time and on consciences. It can be done with images, and images often refer directly to things, facts and people. The images may simply document a story – no mean feat, as this serves to stop time, to avoid forgetting, to keep the memory alive. Alternatively, they may take an even more fascinating route: making a shared sentiment return to the surface again, restoring life to the soul’s last breath, making the power of a great story heard again; they can revive the emotions of the past through the images of today.
The portraits of women that Francesco Francaviglia has frozen in their current natural state are like the narration of many individual stories that all merge to recount the same tale. You need only glance through the portraits assembled in this exhibition, “The Women of the Fast”, to feel the violent energy of what happened in Palermo during that terrible summer of 1992.
Many years have passed and they have left behind a taxing memory for everyone. Today the faces of these extraordinary witnesses and leading figures of that civil commitment display the wrinkles and the signs of age and time that passes ineluctably and relentlessly, which only the heart-rending tragedy of that period could have evoked with such force and urgency. What is the most striking thing about these portraits? There are many, but above it is the eyes, the gazes. More so even than a certain lingering melancholy in the hints of smiles that recount a grief and involvement that are still very much alive.
Indeed, the urgency of those years lies in the marks that time has left on those women’s faces, stunningly beautiful and worn, sorrowful and deep. And in their eyes, which are proud and tender, aggressive and very gentle, but above all confident that they have done the right thing – at least in that case.
The women of the fast are a beautiful and important chapter in the huge, extraordinary response of the people of Palermo to the season of the great Mafia massacres. They all felt the need to respond in the way they considered most congenial to their personal stories, while nonetheless giving a sign of rebellion, redemption, hope, commitment and civil tension: the sheets devised by Giuliana Saladino (another extraordinary leading figure of the time); the magazines like Casba; the hands held to form many human chains that crossed Palermo and also the rest of the country, uniting it in the commotion and outrage; and of course the fast of these great Palermitan women. It is this that today Francesco Francaviglia has felt the need to recount in his own way, digging deep to follow the thread of a story that he did not experience himself, due to his youth, but that evidently caught up with him in the end, forcing him too to reckon with the tragedies that marked Palermo during the years of the Mafia massacres.
This is why this exhibition is important, for Palermo and for Italy, wounded in many of its cities, from Florence to Rome, but above all wounded in its deepest collective sentiment. Because it takes us all back to a time of commitment, involvement and responsibility, when everyone felt called upon to be present, and not to hide, to speak out and to take a stand: to say no.
The years have passed and today the sensation is that, although the Mafia has stopped killing, there is still a great need for women like these, who, with the power of their fasting alone, were capable of screaming to everyone: never again.
It is why, many years later, looking at those faces, rediscovering the sense of a civil passion and a shared commitment, re-experiencing the tension of an entire community that rebels at a destiny that already seems mapped out but can be changed, is an important experience for all of us. It shows us yet again that it is possible to change, and that the great battle for legality, justice and rights, and the struggle against all mafias, must necessarily be an everyday commitment for each and every one of us. Only when it becomes a truly universal commitment and heritage will we be able to say that we have finally won that battle.
1992 is the year of the carnage, Palermo is stunned by grief and rage at the bombs that tore away from their families and country institutional figures, magistrates, police officers and civilians. Names that we’re all familiar with, which we’ll never grow tired of remembering.
Palermo reacts: white sheets are seen hanging from the windows, the co-ordinating bodies and the associations are born, the human chains appear. One of the various forms of protest is particularly powerful: for a month eleven women occupy Piazza Castelnuovo, alternating in a fast. Groups of three fast for three days, then they change places until it’s their turn again. It’s an all-female protest. They meet, recognize each other and decide to do something extreme, giving up food and letting themselves be overcome by hunger to denounce their “hunger for justice”. It is a non-violent protest against mafia violence.
These portraits by Francesco Francaviglia testify to the strength of these women, their dignity and their beauty. Twenty-two years have elapsed, but nothing of the fibre and courage of those days has been even slightly tarnished by time.
They are faces that it is wonderful to see again, eyes that challenge silence and fear.
Only those whose conscience is certain that they have done everything possible to break the code of silence, only those who feel that they have made their contribution, great or small, to the quest for truth and justice, to educating the younger generation to be responsible, to the spread of legality as a shared culture, will be able to look at these photos without having to avert their eyes.
They are magnificent, moving, also strong, but primarily to me they are the images that we will host at the future International Centre of Photography in Palermo. They will form the first collection of the photographic archives.
They are the portraits of the women who, immediately following Paolo Borsellino’s death, started fasting to protest against the institutions that allowed the Mafia to kill their finest citizens.
Many years have passed since 1992 – twenty-two to be precise – but today a young and dazzlingly intelligent photographer has felt the need to aim his lens at each of these women. Some were just girls twenty-two years ago, and it is thus touching to find them now women. The signs of the passage of time on these faces is a similarly touching sight.
Francesco arrives with the umbrellas, the tripod, a black backdrop and a gentle scrutinizing gaze.
He wants the eyes; he wants to photograph their essence, the story of these years through the women’s faces. And he does so gently, without ever raising his voice, almost in silence; almost a prayer.
Because this is what a good photographer must do. He must give his soul and mingle it with another, always with respect, without vanity, aware that that photograph will be forever. With a click.
It’s a miracle!