cartographies of the unidentifiable

cartographies of the unidentifiable Andrea Cortellessa

For some artists – but maybe, secretly, for all of them – a founding work exists. Not necessarily in the chronological sense; it might be the case that only later on in their trajectory does an artist decide to create a work which, in their interior landscape, is intimately the foundation of everything else: a work which, on closer inspection, potentially was there right from the start, in fact before the start; and which – to continue the metaphor of the trajectory – is like the springboard which provides the impulse and which dictates the vector on each subsequent evolution.

In the case of Elisabetta Di Maggio it is easy to identify this work-origin in something that perhaps at first was not even taken into consideration as an art form by the person doing it. Angela Vettese re-evokes this inaugural moment thus: “Years ago she began carving the plaster at her home, creating a repetitive and decorative pattern using hard and sharp cutters. Slowly, slowly, at a speed of around ten square centimetres a day, she uncovered the various layers of paint that the wall had had: for once the decoration did not conceal, but on the contrary revealed the different experiences of the place: from green to pale pink, right down to the mortar and the grey of the damp patches”. The gesture appears to repeat a key point of artistic literature: the one Leonardo codified as “a new invention of speculation”. Simply looking at a wall, merely to stimulate one’s vision, is enough to discover an entire world “if you look at the walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colours. If you have to invent some scene, you can see there resemblances to a number of landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great plains, valleys and hills, in various ways. Also you can see various battles and lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes and an infinite number of thing, which you can reduce to good integrated form. This happens on such walls and varicoloured stones, which act like the sound of bells, in whose peeling you can find every name and word that you can imagine”. It was thus on the surface of the external world that the Renaissance artist – the genius – was able to find the shape of the world; he was capable of glimpsing the pattern inscribed on it – far from being “sanza lettere”, Leonardo undoubtedly means invention in the sense of “discovery”: whether it is a drawing of figures or a comprehensive succession of sounds.  “Because,” as the artifexsays, “by indistinct things the mind is stimulated to new inventions.”  

Regarding this Platonising tradition, however, it is true that there is a turn of the screw in Elisabetta Di Maggio’s gesture that makes it concrete and at the same time categorically denies it; it overturns it. This time, that which for the Galileo of The Assayer would be the “book of nature” (and it is no coincidence that there is a knowledge, a scientifically minded curiositas – far from being unrelated to our artist – is at the root of a similar behaviour: just as in Leonardo, so in Galilio and in the Romantics who, states Hans Blumenberg, would take it up in the modern age) is not found on the surface of the world: instead it is deposited in an underlying layer (albeit maybe only a fraction of a millimetre below the surface). Therefore in order to be perceived, it has to be revealed by the human action: only by manipulating the palimpsest of nature, engraving the superficial layer that dissimulates it, literally chiselling away at it in similar fashion to another key Renaissance tradition, that of Michelangelo, can we appreciate its secret and miraculous structure. In that sense, hers is also an initial (or even initiation) gesture: starting from scratch. Apparently the meaning of this expression means to draw the line, which in olden times was inscribed with chalk dust on the beaten earth of a race track to indicate the designated starting point; but to scratch literally means “to strip, to scrape away”. In other words, precisely what Elisabetta started doing one day on the wall of her home.  

            Later, in 2004, the artist repeated this gesture on a wall of the museum where she has now returned to stage her imaginary world. As part of the Conservare il futuro project, in the Fondazione Querini Stampalia’s Jappelli Room, Elisabetta has carved the plaster of a corner of the wall with her trusty scalpel: thus bringing back to light the layers of colours preceding the most recent one and “embroidering” the subtle and delicate shapes which today we contemplate decorated on its surface. In this case, it is truly possible to see at work the compositional principle that Chiara Bertola has always insisted on from the very start of her longstanding faith in the artist, and which she has recently summed up thus: “the substance of this artist’s work is always the same […]: it is time, hours and hours of work, rigorous and rhythmed like a prayer as part of a discipline that she practises like a nun or an Olympic athlete” (to return to the image of the race track). It is the performative aspect of Elisabetta Di Maggio’s work: “a performance which dilates day after day” (Vettese) and which, although invisible (there is no documented record of the artist at work), ends up embracing her entire existence. A bit like the bricolage of a prisoner who, over the long years of reclusion, creates imposing architectures made of corks or maniacally meticulous ships in bottles, it is truly the Time of the Mighty Sculptor (to paraphrase a Marguerite Yourcenar title): in cases like these, human artifice does not seem to do anything other than speed up a process of transformation which is already verified in nature, humanly orienting it: just as Leonardo and Galileo taught us.

In this sense, when one thinks of a work like Senza titolo, even its date of “2001-2010” is impressive. It is a 45-metre-long roll of tissue paper on which the artist has cut out the same design over ten years, repeated to the point of obsession and beyond: to the point of emulating a natural pattern, a recursive phenomenon which has lasted forever and, one imagines, will continue in the future into eternity, too (the roll is also a cycle, a Ringkomposition). It is as though Elisabetta Di Maggio had taken up the ironic challenge of Piero Manzoni’s Linee, virtually as long as the circumference of the earth (or that of Pinot Gallizio’s “industrial paint”, originally no less ironic: in this case there was also a real roll of paper, unlike those sealed up by Manzoni shortly thereafter, but printed on a machine by the Situationist from Piedmont: for example, the 74-metre prototype he created in 1958), but having the crazy idea to make them by hand, materially: thus making them pass from a virtual, conceptual dimension to a physical, existential nature. When looking at Elisabetta’s “roll”, what comes to mind is a moment of literary existentialism such as On the Road, the “trip” (also in the “druggy” sense of the word) that Jack Kerouac wrote in 1951 on a single strip of paper – almost as long as our artist’s: 36.5 metres – that he fed into the typewriter before redeveloping, rehashing, shortening and normalizing the text. Elisabetta’s Mighty Roll re-overturns the ironic overturning of conceptual art in a sacrificial, liturgical gesture of excruciating melancholy. (The episode also radically distances her attitude from postmodern “lightness”, examined comprehensively by Luca Cerizza recently. It is true that Di Maggio uses materially light supports such as tissue paper or soap, and if she uses more traditional materials, like ceramics, she treats them in such a way as to hone them and lighten them as much as possible; her technique could also be considered “light”, consisting of minimal, minute gestures; but her poetics are located at the opposite end of the anti-tragic dimension, “light” in the sense of ironic-playful, which has been the dominant line of Italian art over the last fifty years.)

Despite appearances, then, there is nothing decorative about Elisabetta Di Maggio’s work. The shapes she carves are filiform arabesques of iridescent elegance. And yet looking at them more closely, thus perceiving the filigree of time inscribed on them, we understand that each of her “decorations” not only “hides” but always implies and declares “the cut” (to paraphrase that other false Parnassian, Valerio Magrelli, who has always been interested in the veinings which course through natures). It is the cut of time – the transience imprinted on our bodies, on their elegance and ability, and the one ruthlessly demonstrated and highlighted in our acts and our works – that Elisabetta’s decoration takes as its subject. The consuming cruelty of time, but also its oblivious and therefore exemplary grace: similar to that of natural spectacles. The seemingly icy calligraphic elegance the artist’s gesture therefore barely dissimulates its own cruelty – once again duplicating nature’s, which inspires it: “the seemingly fragile aspect of the work is thus reversed and becomes its opposite, in a vision not lacking involvement, but it is a substantially cruel vision of reality” (Vettese). It is no coincidence that the scalpel, with its unequivocal symbolic aura, is her (scientific, medical) instrument of choice.

            However, Senza titolo 2001-2010 introduces another important component of Elisabetta Di Maggio’s work, which is her so-called “domestic” or familiar imagery. The artist’s first works in particular relentlessly alluded to a “female” dimension which pointed out the arbitrary nature and silent violence of archaic, not to mention ancestral, anthropological stereotypes (“the vortex of obsession in which women’s work and fate are sealed up” – as one of her loyal interpreters, Francesca Pasini, puts it). One of her first works, from 1997, had the eloquent title of Corredo (Dowry): it reproduced on paper the decorative motifs that were once embroidered on fabric by “betrothed” girls, thus materially giving shape to matrilineal continuity through various generations of women. Yet, in its development and elucidation, Elisabetta’s imagination quickly spills out of this suffocating family intérieur, shattering the confines of the protected cloister-penitentiary “female” space – albeit without ever ceasing to allude to it. In this sense, the works on soap created between 2008 and 2015 are extraordinary: on the minimal surface of one or more bars of Marseille soap (the ones most closely linked to the tradition of housework, even in our olfactory perception) the geographical maps of some city-symbols of the West – from Paris to New York – and, above all, from the Near East – the kasbah of Algiers and Fez – have been carved with micro-calligraphic virtuosity: unfortunately, the latter are places where the subordination of women is not a relic of the past.

Soap is exquisitely Elisabetta’s substance: quintessentially perishable and impermanent, over time encountering natural drying processes which can ossify it and mineralise it, soap symbolises magnificently the ambivalence between organic and inorganic which has always fascinated the artist. I am thinking for example of Victoria from 2012 or Cavolo(Cabbage) from 2011, exhibited here: large plant leaves which, before being handled with the usual scalpel, undergo a procedure known as “stabilisation” via a solution of water and glycerine; in this fashion the veining and capillaries highlighted by the artist’s incisions refer on the one hand to microscopic images of bone tissues and on the other to new networks of imaginary, Calvinistically “invisible” transport routes. Or the wonderful Archivio (Archive) from 2017, a work belonging to what Cristina Baldacci has recently defined “an obsession of contemporary art”, which gathers a series of the artist’s beloved objects in that which is truly an interior en abîme museum inside the museum: a display case in the music room (the items include, in particular, some small white Madagascar corals which, placed on some antique Burano lace, highlight the symmetry between natural forms and human production). Another very recent and site-specific work is Edera (Ivy) which now greets the visitors in the museum salon: the living climbing plants, which have proliferated up its walls and across its floors for some time, are juxtaposed with fossil shoots, manipulated by the artist with her meticulous scalpel “embroidery”. Thus the motifs she created by imitating the eighteenth-century stuccos of the room interweave with the natural motifs of plants in a continuous and vertiginous short circuit between nature and artifice (or, perhaps better, between naturans and naturata nature…).  

            Elisabetta Di Maggio’s landscapes are the works which perhaps impressed me the most. There is probably no artist today who knows better than her how to highlight the profound ambivalence that, in a psychological sense, connotes this ‘genre’ that is so prestigious and seemingly canonically pacified. Instead, each of Elisabetta’s works places culturally rooted categories – real psychological a priori ones, in fact – in crisis, such as the dichotomy between internal and external, but also between real and imaginary. In particular, the works on soap, summoning the universe of family references and operating the overlay of real, historic urban plans on them, create an astonishing incontournable archetype of fantastic geography such as the Carte du Pays de Tendre which a pioneer of female creativity, Madeleine de Scudéry, included in the second volume of her novel Clélie, histoire romaine, which appeared between 1654 and 1660 (but it was thanks to Jacques Lacan – or his fault, depending on how you look at it – if this imaginary pictogram, in which the “Lake of Indifference”, the “Sea of Enmity” and villages called “Obedience”, “Submission” or “Perfidy” appear, became a craze on the European intellectual scene from the 1950s). Chiara Bertola writes that, albeit tracing the real ones of Fez or Paris, Elisabetta Di Maggio’s are in fact “maps and circuits that do not appear to lead anywhere and do not describe any precise organic or geographic condition other than the intricate circuits through which we came into the world and where we find ourselves living.”

However, it could be argued that there is a more recent precedent – to Lacan, not to Scudéry – to Elisabetta Di Maggio’s sensibility. Less idyllic and “tender”, more painfully metaphysical: the splendid neologism coined by Emily Dickinson in the composition of poem number 963, Illocality:  


A nearness to Tremendousness –

An Agony procures –

Affliction ranges Boundlessness –

Vicinity to Laws


Contentment’s quiet Suburb –

Affliction cannot stay

In Acres – It’s Location

Is Illocality –


            Hermetic due to being excessively pregnant, Emily Dickinson’s poem is among her least translatable (and, by the way, she looks disturbingly – almost psychically – like our artist, at least judging by the daguerreotype taken in 1847…): here, the structural amphibology that innervates each component (thanks to the vexatious diacritic device of the dash, the sphraghìs hyphen) is pushed to a condition of ultimate psychic stenography. A reliable ad sensum translation (by Silvio Raffo) renders the lexeme as an “absence of boundaries”. But it was the poet’s tormented heir Amelia Rosselli, in what were among the very last verses she wrote, to translate the poem into Italian thus:

Una vicinanza al Tremendo-

Un'Agonia procura-

Afflizione supera l’Illimitato –

L’Aderenza alle Leggi


Della Contentezza la quieta Periferia

Afflizione non può misurarsi

In Acri – La Sua Locazione

È l’Illocazione –


            Neither the Vicinity to Laws, confined among the padded walls of Contentment’s quiet Suburb, nor the Agony and nearness to Tremendousness suggested by the unrestrained losing oneself in the cannot stay in Acres are dimensions congenial to an indomitable traveller in the boundless coordinates of one’s own room such as Elisabetta Di Maggio. Precisely because it is of minimal range, her endless journey is the one that leads her – leads us – to the endless Fort-Da(Gone-There) between the one and the other: between the Great Outdoors and the Microscopic Inside which, we discover when looking at her works, coincide flawlessly every time. Illocality is the slender, practically impalpable and almost transparent wall that, separating these two dimensions, unites them. This is why Elisabetta has to wear a special hat on her journey: a protection which is a “transit” tool (to use the artist’s expression) that allows the “passage of something”.

If I had no hesitation in picking out Elisabetta’s “foundation work”, in the same way I had no doubts after viewing her works more closely in knowing for sure which of them would accompany me like a mental tattoo from that moment onwards. The identity tale, the work-probe, the punctum that struck me mercilessly is recent, from 2016, and is untitled. Chiara Bertola has defined it “a mysterious, ambiguous and polysemic object […]: looking at this object, what comes to mind is a bonnet, a container, a basket, but also a net, a head, a skull”. This ceramic film – extremely thin and fragile, white and perforated like a piece of lace – was made with infinite patience, covering a medical gauze for the head with liquid porcelain, which was then perforated following the mesh pattern of the underlying fabric. Here, the object is resting on a red velvet chair located opposite one of the most prestigious works housed in the museum: Giovanni Bellini’sPresentation at the Temple. I imagine this was to “rhyme” with the equally white gauzes in the painting that swaddle the baby, held with infinite care in its mother’s arms. Yet the enigma of the object does not stop. It does not stop indicating “an indeterminate which remains suspended between the no longer and the not yet” (again, Bertola’s words), in a “fluctuating space” which “only suggests instability”.

It is therefore possible that we are not so far from Tremendousness; but from the space of this Illocality, I honestly do not see how we can distance ourselves from it.  




The Angela Vettese quotations are from La natura è una faccenda ottusa, in Elisabetta Di Maggio, Dis-nascere, in the exhibition catalogue she curated (Venice, Fondazione Bevilacqua La Masa, 9 October-9 December 2012), Milan, Silvana, 2012, pp. 9-12; Chiara Bertola’s quotations are from At the still point of the turning world, in the exhibition catalogue she curated, with Christiana Fissore, Polvere di stelle. La ceramica contemporanea (Mondovì, Museo della Ceramica, 10 September 2016-8 January 2017), Milan, Silvana, 2016, pp. 23-39 (on Di Maggio cf. pp. 30-2, here you can also find the artist’s words regarding Senza titolo,2016); the Francesca Pasini quotation is from Il deserto abbagliante della carta velina, in Elisabetta Di Maggio, La Parete, exhibition catalogue curated by Chiara Bertola (Verona, Francesco Girondini Arte contemporanea, 7 February-10 April 2004). The Leonardo da Vinci quotation comes from his Treatise on Painting (this is the traditional title of the master’s thoughts, compiled by Francesco Melzi), in the version edited by Ettore Camesasca, Milan, TEA, 1995; from Galileo Galilei Il Saggiatore[1623], ed. Libero Sosio, introduction by Giulio Giorello, Milan, Feltrinelli, 1992; from Hans Blumenberg, La leggibilità del mondo. Il libro come metafora della natura [1981], translated by Bruno Argenton, Italian edition ed. Remo Bodei, Bologna, il Mulino, 1984. Le Temps, ce grand sculpteur is the title of a collection of essays by Marguerite Yourcenar published in 1983 (Italian translation by Giuseppe Guglielmi, Il tempo, grande scultore, Turin, Einaudi, 1985). Luca Cerizza is the author of L’uccello e la piuma. La questione della leggerezza nell’arte italiana, Milano, Et Al, 2010. The original version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (published with the title Sulla strada by Mondadori in 1959, on the basis of the princeps of 1957), restored by Howard Cunnell and translated by Michele Piumini, was published as part of the Oscar Mondadori series in 2010, with a postscript by Fernanda Pivano: On the Road. Il “rotolo” del 1951. The cited poem by Valerio Magrelli (inc. “Sto sotto la montagna”) can be found in Id., Nature e venature, Milan, Mondadori, 1987 (and now in Id., Poesie (1980-1992) e altre poesie, Turin, Einaudi, 1996, p. 208). The Cristina Baldacci citation is from Archivi impossibili. Un’ossessione dell’arte contemporanea, Monza, Johan & Levi, 2016. Jacques Lacan mentions the “Carta del Tenero” (which compares Freud’s “clinical records”) in his essay The Freudian Thing, published in 1956 (in the Italian edition of Scritti, ed. Giacomo Contri, Turin, Einaudi, 1974, vol. I, p. 401); they take from it for example Andrea Zanzotto in the sidereal Ecloga V. “Lorna, Gemma delle colline” (da un’epigrafe), 1962 (in Id., Le poesie e prose scelte, ed. Stefano Dal Bianco and Gian Mario Villalta, Milan, Mondadori, 1999, p. 237) and Giuliana Bruno, who puts it on the cover of his imposing Atlante delle emozioni. In viaggio tra arte, architettura e cinema [2002], Italian edition ed. Maria Nadotti, Milan, Bruno Mondadori, 2006 (and now Monza, Johan & Levi, 2015). I read composition 963 by Emily Dickinson in the beautiful edition edited by Marisa Bulgheroni, Milan, Mondadori, 1997, p. 1034 (Raffo’s translation is on the opposite page, Amelia Rosselli’s is on p. 1666; the portrait reproduced on the cover of the case is dated 1847, when Dickinson was about sixteen). Marisa Bulgheroni comments: “in her linguistic definition of the mental space, Emily associates anxiety with the absence of confines, contentedness with a calm, limited suburb […]. Those who accept the limit of the norm live in a quiet affine to the “quiet desperation” in which Thoreau saw his cohabitants immersed (in Walden). Those who break the boundaries precipitate outside of any measurable space, in the Illocality: an extraordinary neologism which indicates the impossibility of collocating oneself, the supreme dissolution, virtuality. It is possible to read this poem as a pre-Freudian psychic cartography operation; or like the current intuition of the ‘illocalisable’ energy of the poetic word” (ivi, p. 1717). She cites composition 274 (inc. “The only Ghost I ever saw / Was dressed in Mechlin – so – / He had no sandal on his foot – / And Stepped like flakes of snow –”), ivi p. 286, Chiara Bertola in Tra le righe: in the catalogue she curated, by Bruno Corà, Daniela Lancioni and Claudio Spadoni of the Quindicesima Quadriennale d’arte di Roma, Venice, Marsilio, 2008, pp. 22-7.