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© Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters, a project by the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, 2020. Project Partner: MiC.
All archival images and photographs taken at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii are used with permission from MiC-Ministry of Culture-Archaeological Park of Pompeii. Any copies or reproductions are strictly forbidden.

Carlo Alfano. Archaeological Walk with Flavia Alfano and Andrea Viliani

Commitments 23    02•07•2021

Carlo Alfano

1. Detail:

Journey to Pozzuoli, Flavian Amphitheater, 1970
Photo Fabio Donato

2. Image in the text:

Carlo Alfano and Mario Napoli in Paestum

3. Image:

Journey to Pompeii, via dell’Abbondanza, 1970
Photo Fabio Donato

4. Image:

Journey to Pompeii, Stabian Baths, 1970
Photo Fabio Donato

5. Image:

Journey to Pompeii, Quadriporticus of the Theatres, 1970
Photo Fabio Donato

6. Image:

Geographie, 1973
photo and graphite on map
Private Collection, Naples

7. Image:

Journey to Pompeii, Theatres, 1970
Photo Fabio Donato

8. Images:

Journey to Pompeii, Large Theatre, 1970
Photo Fabio Donato

9,10. Images:

Journey to Pozzuoli, Flavian Amphitheater, 1970
Photo Fabio Donato


Tempi prospettici, 1970-72
water, steel and plexiglass on marble matrix, type (rhythmic), three steel selectors, three plexiglass selectors
640 x 640 cm

12. Image:

Journey to Pozzuoli, Serapeo, 1970
Courtesy Archivio Jodice
Photo Mimmo Jodice

Because of his conception of time as circular, folded, intertwined upon itself, because of his experience of the work project – plural and variable, at the same time individual and multiple, traceable and dispersed – and because of the essentially self-critical nature of his artistic research, Carlo Alfano is one of the most mysterious authors of conceptual art of the second half of the twentieth century, embodying the figure of an ideal travelling companion with whom to tackle some of the questions posed by the narrative of Pompeii’s archaeological material.
The “prehistory” of his intellectual practice is characterised by a “solitary work” that examines the relationship between material and colour: beyond the subdivision between the informal expressionism of the 1950s and the optical-kinetic structuring of the 1960s, Alfano soon alighted upon the relationship between logical reflection and visual perception as the fulcrum of his research, which he configured as an uninterrupted questioning of the very meaning of representation: synchronous staging of intelligence, memory and narrative in which image and word (letter or sound), space and time, identity and otherness create continuous shifts between the different levels of an open and interconnected ecosystem of knowledge. Alfano connotes his work as a self-reflective experiment, acted out in the same “space-time” from which the work itself emerges and of which it consists, and he describes his research as an archive from whose accessibility and elasticity the work is generated, in a game of mirrorings, renamings and the generating of further fragments. Whether he evokes the mythological archetypes of Echo and Narcissus (also embodied in the Diver of Paestum to which the contribution on the artist published on this portal refers), or the chiaroscuro dynamic of Caravaggio, or the multiplicity of possible co-authors of his anthropological, phenomenological, philosophical and literary speculation (from William Shakespeare to Miguel de Cervantes, from Marcel Proust to James Joyce, and above all the philosopher of the archaeology of knowledge, Michel Foucault), Alfano does not quote them but brings them to the surface of consciousness, questions them and explores them, before losing track of them, letting them go, and allowing them to return from whence they came. The archive and naming on the one hand, the fragment and anonymity on the other, i.e. the portrait and the self-portrait, representation and distance from it, become the instruments of a philosophical theatre of shadows, of which the artist is the invisible puppeteer. Opting for emptiness (the blue, grey and black streaks of dense, saturated, even colour in his paintings) he can give his extemporaneous creatures the mental depth of fullness and bring to the surface – as though on a threshold between different spatial-temporal and cognitive dimensions – the mystery of the figure, the voice and human ideas: unfathomable figures, voices and ideas, that seem as yet unknown, or in the making, or on their way to extinction, or already extinct, entrusted to the score dictated by the scansion between sounds and pauses (in the ideal library of Room for Voices, Archive of Nominations 1969, ’70, ’71, ’72, ’73, ’74…, 1968–69), or to the fragments of a conversation (the singularity of the word that recovers the density of the sentence by repeating itself on the pictorial surface of Fragments of an Anonymous Self-Portrait, a series the artist began in 1969 and continued until his death), or to the outlines of a profile (the slashed canvases that seem to recompose their tears through dense wefts of threads). These (self) portraits are constructed representing the passage of time that the artist experiences in the first person, reporting the sentences he hears, or reads, and the thoughts he formulates.
So in the absence of his voice, and since it is impossible to share the same space-time with him, Carlo Alfano’s contribution to Pompeii Commitment has been entrusted to the Alfano Archive, and to his daughter Flavia, but using as a guide some of the artist’s words that accurately map the way in which he painted his self-portrait. Do the following words perhaps show us how to create a possible new embodiment of that self-portrait, with which to discuss (fragmentary) archaeological works and their (anonymous) authors?
“[…] I use a conventional way of writing the time with a progressive numerical horizontal line, in accordance with a linearity from 1 to 2. These linear series are interrupted, in keeping with the general structure of the direction that I want to give to the picture, by brief phrases, by voids and silences. The meaning of each fragment – as of the big fragment that is the painting – is not to communicate a series of completed concepts or a linearity of time; I am interested in grasping the circularity of time, its stops and its velocities. Among the units of seconds (the sign that I have chosen to indicate time) I am interested in the slow emergence of the word, the tensions of its rules, the conflicts and exclusions of its subjective movements, before the word reaches that fullness that will fill silence.” AV

Home page image: Carlo Alfano, Journey to Pozzuoli, Flavian Amphitheater, 1970. Courtesy ARCHIVIO ALFANO. Photo Fabio Donato

The first solo exhibition of Carlo Alfano (Naples, 1932-1990) was held in 1955 at the Galleria San Carlo in Naples. Still in Naples, ten years later, in 1966, at the Modern Art Agency, the artist presented the works of the series Rhythmic type and structures and Perspective times, which he would later develop into the site-specific work Perspective times (1970-1972) commissioned by the Archaeological Museum of Paestum to complement the first museum presentation of the Tomb of the Diver frescoes, which had recently been discovered. Reinterpreting in a personal way the conceptual, programmed and kinetic aesthetics of the decade, as well as the classical and Renaissance canons governing the convention of perspective and the control mechanisms of representation, Alfano jointly created environmental installations that involve the viewer in critical experiences of space and time (the series Distanze – distances from representation, 1968-1969). In 1970, he took part in group exhibitions that summarised the decade that had just passed, such as My love and Vitality of the negative in Italian art 1960/70. In 1972, at the Galleria dell’Ariete in Milan and at the Galerie Folker Skulima in Berlin, he presented Room for voices, Archive of nominations 1969, ’70, ’71, ’72, ’73, ’74… (1968-69): here Alfano preserves only the perimeter space of the classic form of the painting, an empty aluminium frame, in which recordings on magnetic tapes are played. Although in this work representation is replaced by words that fill the entire space of the room like an abstract memorial, the artist had already reworked his own pictorial alphabet as far back as 1969, entrusting it to black or white monochrome canvases furrowed with linear numerical sequences lasting seconds, interspersed with silences, phrases and occasional reflections: Fragments of an Anonymous Self-Portrait was presented in 1974 at the Galerie Art in Progress in Munich, followed by presentations at the Kunsthalle in Bern and  the Galerie Sonnabend in Paris. From the mid-’70s onwards, the pictorial series Eco-Narciso (exhibited in 1978 at the Prince Diego Aragona Pignatelli Cortés Museum  in Naples, and in 1979 at the Museum Schloß Morsbroich in Leverkusen) and Eco-Descent  (a version of which later became a part of the Terrae Motus collection in 1984) or the works inspired by the Calling of St Matthew in 1599-1610focus on the state of suspension, rather than on the figural aspect of the works of Caravaggio (the main source of inspiration for Neapolitan Baroque as a whole) . Duration, intensity, resonance, depth, opacity, sonority, silence, memory, destiny and obscurity are the concepts which led to the conception of Camera n.1, presented in 1987 at the National Museum of Capodimonte and representing the peak of the artist’s research before his death. The most extensive solo exhibition and monographic retrospective catalogue dedicated to the artist were organised and published in 2017 by MART-Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto.

Pompeii Commitment

Carlo Alfano. Archaeological Walk with Flavia Alfano and Andrea Viliani

Commitments 23 02•07•2021

Fragments of an Archaeological Self-Portrait: Walking with Carlo Alfano

Flavia Alfano, Andrea Viliani

AV: Dear Flavia, I’d like to invite you to come for a walk with me today, along with your father… “Good morning Flavia. Good morning, Mr Alfano”. But I never met Carlo Alfano. Did he enjoy walking? He certainly enjoyed listening, reading, observing…

FA: Dear Andrea, walking, thinking… these are very similar activities. Both of them unfold their specific value in time and space. They help us, slowly, to construct what we wish to be, by allowing us to pass through, and observe, a captivating dimension, that leads us to become, step by step, different and more aware of our actions. Even this chat of ours, as we walk, retraces the footsteps of Carlo Alfano, perhaps it helps the two of us to listen to each other and to characterise the small perimeter of a silent yet possible existential and cultural background. Looking at the pictures of my father, a pilgrim in the classical settings most familiar to him – Pompeii, Paestum, Pozzuoli, Herculaneum – I rediscover the most intimate and true essence of a man, whom I remember immersed in the vital observation of classical reflections, in search of a non-contingent sense of belonging. I often think back to the words he said in 1978: “painting, by retracing its own steps, by reusing its old scenarios of representation, dissolves the unity of its previous categories and its ‘universals’. Like the event, it dissolves as it represents itself.”

AV: Carlo Alfano’s research seems, in my opinion, to condense quotations and presentiments, as if he were working on the project of a hypothetical time machine or on his own personal version of the Theatre of Memory 1. I have always thought of him, in fact, as an artist-philosopher intent on working not so much on works of art as on instruments of knowledge… like Newton’s “prism”, which transforms something as simple as a ray of light into something complex, or Leibniz’ or Deleuze’s “fold”, which creates a vertigo in which consciousness bends incessantly in the forms in which it manifests itself, or Husserl’s and Heidegger’s “threshold” which resides in the phenomenological contact between identity and otherness. Moreover, as Alfano himself declared, the thought of Michel Foucault, the “archaeologist of knowledge” par excellence, was a fundamental reference point for him in the development of his thoughts on art. What was Alfano’s relationship with knowledge and, in particular, with a branch of knowledge such as archaeology?

1 This is the name (together with the similar name Theatre of Knowledge) by which the utopian project of the humanist philosopher Giulio Camillo (1480–1544) is known, a wooden construction of Vitruvian design in which all human knowledge could be archived through a series of mnemonic associations.

FA: I think that the singularity of Memory pertains to an individual “Room” that shelters our cognitive and emotional forms; within this inner place, aspects of History undergo deformations, empirical dilations and even disproportionate amplifications, but perhaps, thanks to these distortions, the long past still continues, parallel to our own time, not hampering crossings and allowing art to create narratives based on fragments as bright as they are intermittent.
With eyes closed we finger “ruins” like inevitable interrupted tales; desire prompts us to pick up the traces, the sides of the prism, and it seems to us that we can grasp the organicity between things and lost words. Alfano’s narrative or “knowledge” begins from that point, his work speaks behind that dense discontinuity, in those chinks between the ruins of a prolonged classicism. There, where the step between identity and otherness is short, time appears as a chronologically unquantifiable interval, a space-time that appears as a gaping black zone of deep, dense and unfathomable silence.
Once that ancient world has vanished, the representations have faded, the signs and clues remain before our eyes, like metamorphic substances, in Pompeii as in Angkor Wat, to reveal another facies, to trigger new scenarios. And it is Carlo Alfano who points this out: “It is a road already travelled, we retrace it and, sometimes, in addition to feeling the security of stepping into old footprints, we also feel happy that a particular relationship between chance and thought has brought us to the place of an event.”
I think that the meticulous and scrupulous activity of the archaeologist is a far cry from human bewilderment and forgetfulness… for this vehement perseverance, I see, effectively, an affinity with Alfano’s method, unwaveringly faithful to the analytical reading.
I do, however, believe that there is a substantial aspect that marks an insurmountable boundary between art and archaeology and sheds light on that detachment or discontinuity: the objective goal of archaeology as a branch of knowledge is to reconstruct, to recompose a system and this research is an act of faith connected to historical awareness… art is something else…

AV: Could we call the photographic records of his visits to Herculaneum, Paestum, Pompeii and Pozzuoli performative actions? What definition would you give of these ‘archaeological walks’? And who were his companions on those walks?

FA: Absolutely, but still in the virginal sense of the term. A performative action that was not derived so much from a planned purpose with outcomes to be disseminated, but rather from the simple need to find his own existential “centre of gravity”; to legitimise himself, to recognise (modestly) his own position in a geography that is not absolute but relative. I like to think of existential, transversal mementoes, experienced in the shadow cone of classicism, an inner human need rather than a declaration of future glory, a necessary act experienced each time with the happiness of a renewed discovery, the reserved epiphany of an Arcadia experienced at times with the complicity of close friends. Leftover scraps of those walks can be found in the form of freeze frames, in the cycle of Geographies of the 1970s; those discrete events are small time-spaces, microscopic coordinates suspended within the great archaeological space-time.

AV: Carlo Alfano seems to adopt, also during these walks as he does in his other works, a circular and cyclical conception of time of a Greco-Roman (and Persian, Indian-Buddhist, Mayan and Aztec…) matrix, as opposed to a linear and teleological matrix of the Biblical-Qur’anic type. The Greeks distinguished between time that could be measured (χρονος) and a concept of time that was characterised by its events (καιρος). Kairological time involves an experience of time (which has a singular and qualitative dimension), while chronological time corresponds to a sequence of time (quantitative standardising dimension).
The first case involves the adoption of criteria not simply of measurement but of reflection, evaluation, argumentation, interpretation and understanding. A time, therefore, that reflects on itself, that harks back to Carl Gustav Jung’s “synchronicity”, Henri Bergson’s “real duration” of consciousness, Einstein’s relativity and even to the theories of quantum physics – spirit levels, strings, conceptions of the multiverse and the Big Bounce which explore an “oscillating” or “pulsating” and infinitely multiple universe.
And I believe that this is precisely the time expressed by a site like Pompeii: a “perspective” time, as your father would have said. What was Alfano’s relationship with time? Would you tell me about the genesis, in this sense, of the ‘fountain’ Tempi prospettici (Perspective Times) (1970–72) that your father created for the Paestum site?

FA: In the figurative cycle Frammenti anonimi (Anonymous Fragments) time is described through brief events but also through the empty spaces of pauses and silences. This is a central theme in the poetics of Carlo Alfano and was admirably staged in 1969 with the work Stanza per voci, Archivio delle nominazioni, 1969,’70,’71,’72,’73,’74… (Room for Voices, Archive of Nominations 1969, ’70, ’71, ’72, ’73, ’74”). In this work a magnetic audio tape a few seconds long, containing a brief portrait-self-portrait, recorded earlier and therefore in another time, crosses the empty space of the frame with a circular motion, offering observers a concrete and sensitive experience of the incessant stratifying of time on our present. Time-space in its circular, imperishable meaning is also dominant in the work Delle distanze dalla rappresentazione (“Of the Distances from the Representation”), 1968, now at the MADRE in Naples, where, in a dimly lit setting, we witness the dripping of a drop in a basin that uninterruptedly creates concentric circles that are compelling and hypnotic, as only ideal and inexhaustible things can express. Every relationship of art with classicism contains both truth and falsehood, because the data is amended by human time, which nourishes it with personal memories, smoothing and dulling roughness and hollows, but above all distilling it.
In 1970 the great archaeologist Mario Napoli wanted to create a new wing in the Museo di Paestum, designed by the architect Giovanni De Franciscis and dedicated to the Tomba del Tuffatore (Diver’s Tomb): there he imagined, with Carlo Alfano, an ideal bridge between the archaeological view and contemporary artistic observation called upon to dialogue with a classical theme with a strong symbolic impact. The human enigma of the distance between life and death, but also between spatial and temporal planes, was rendered tangible in an installation in which the signs of aniconic classicism appear as thoughts ab origine of Euclidean shapes and columns. Tempi prospettici is Alfano’s tribute to the very concept of the Classic, as an ideal and inexhaustible mental representation, purified of any narrative reference, anonymous, configured to dialogue and modify itself thanks to the eternal reality of the place through the reflection of light and the movement of the wind on the water… simply…

AV: I am also thinking now of the squaring off that diagonally furrows the cobalt blue surface of a painting by him that recalls the movement of the Tuffatore of Paestum… practically nothing has come down to us of Greek painting, and the Tuffatore itself is one of the very few remains. And I also think back to the series Frammenti di un autoritratto anonimo (Fragments of an Anonymous Self-Portrait) (1969–75)… we often don’t even know the names of the ancient artists, due to that “shipwreck” of knowledge – not only limited to works of art – to which the archaeologist Salvatore Settis refers. What did it mean for Carlo Alfano to work on this dearth? And why did he use the words “fragment” and “anonymous” – basic terms in the archaeological vocabulary – associating them with the more analytical and objective idea of the “self-portrait”?

FA: In the living experience of present time, recollection and oblivion coexist in the form of Memory, just as the negative and the positive in a photograph are bound to share, in the same space, the fundamentals of a broken identity.
Thus, destruction and relics of the past are balanced by new signs, or perhaps I should say signals, of the possible. Birth is possible when the seductive fetishes of the past are erased or exist as fragments. By this I mean, when the vessel is adrift and we are, in a way, liberated and free to transform those shipwrecks into something else.
In the West, Alberti’s “window” theoretically designated a symbolic construct of knowledge, an expressive condition that was fruit of the rational need to organise an intentional harmonious vision; the Renaissance perspective created the conditions of a closed representation of the field of observation in an unlikely but possible form of truth.
In Carlo Alfano, this vision of hypothetical classical truth corresponds to that small intentional “gap” in art, the expression of a deliberate stumbling block in our lives which, opposing or rejecting origins, imposes the recombination of absences, silences and the many anonymous here and nows that stud the history of art in infinite combinatorial successions. Paraphrasing Foucault, perhaps for Alfano the essence of Art appears thanks to the disappearance of its assumptions.

AV: If identity is revealed in its disappearance, or mirroring, multiplication, expansion and proliferation, all that remains is for us too much to deny the principle of identity and Aristotle’s elements of drama which predetermine the unity and recognisability also of time, space and action and therefore of the actor, or actors, on the stage (precisely… Frammenti di un autoritratto anonimo – Fragments of an Anonymous Self-Portrait). I’d like to ask you why your father was so interested in the metaphor of theatre to describe his work, which he himself defined as the “theatrical space of the soul”. And there is no shortage of theatres, indeed among the ancient ruins he visited, they were the focus…

FA: Behind every form of theatre hides the double of the performance. The theatre stages the symbolic presence of the fracture, the contradiction that imposes acceptance outside of itself and the excruciating absence of a precise boundary of one’s own identity. The theatre for Alfano represents the threshold of broken subjectivity; perhaps the fear of losing the other of oneself without knowing who the other of oneself is (?)
His words, in this sense, are still enlightening: “The scenes, as in a distant mirror that erases features and details, show us figures and gestures in which we could recognise ourselves. Even if opaque, in this ‘theatrical mirror’ we can sometimes make out our own profile […]. We may be troubled by a doubt. That behind this space there is another in front: another stage on which the movements are the reverse of what we are looking at. Is there another profile behind the mirror?  That of the inner self? This ambiguous relationship reduces our condition of extraneousness by immersing us in the internal reasons for the work.”

AV: So Alfano’s theatre is the work of an artist-researcher, who seeks – with each work of art, one by one, with a progression that calls each work into question – the fundamentals and consistency of the work itself. It is as though the work itself were not as important as the questions it raises. As though it were the void around which the Pompeian cast is created, an expression of the “vitality of the negative,” to quote the title of an exhibition in which Alfano took part in 1970. How did he relate to the impermanence and variation of his works? What relationship did he have with the concept of disappearance and, by extension, with the idea of destruction so intimately connected to the archaeological episteme?

FA: His was a possible way of sustaining the lightness of words and images that had once been ponderous and absolute; reworking places and memory to then capture a fundamental value in the concept of Distance. ‘Digging’: around events or memory, in his own personal geography of desire, allowed him to reveal to himself a web of impalpable shadows. The cast is, perhaps, the most evocative of allusions and at the same time the most exciting; it is the form of absence that best corresponds to his idea of the “vitality of the negative” and of ambiguity.

AV: Who would have been, in your father’s opinion, the ideal companions for this walk too?

FA: Definitely you, me and distance.

AV: This has been a fantastic walk, I’ve been wanting to do this with you for a long time… “Thank you Flavia. Thank you, Mr Alfano”.

FA: Thanks to both of you… I shall continue my walk…

Tempi prospettici, Paestum, 1970-72

Giovanni de Franciscis, Project for the new wing of the Paestum Museum, 1968-70
Tempi prospettici, 1970-72 installation view Courtesy ARCHIVIO ALFANO © Archivio dell'Arte / Rocco e Luciano Pedicini
Tempi prospettici, 1970-72 detail Courtesy ARCHIVIO ALFANO Photo Barbara Jodice

Tempi prospettici, 1970-72
installation view
© Archivio dell’Arte / Rocco e Luciano Pedicini
Installation of the work Tempi prospettici in Paestum, 1972 Courtesy ARCHIVIO ALFANO
Installation of the work Tempi prospettici in Paestum, 1972 Courtesy ARCHIVIO ALFANO