Emerging during the Italian postwar economic rebound, the era of La Dolce Vita, was a diverse group of native and international artists, each of whom found original ways of marrying ancient forms with new methods of painting and sculpture inspired by the history and terrain of central Italy’s Umbria and Tuscany regions. Five of these pathbreaking artists’ archives, with intriguing personal stories to match, are open to the public.
The Beverly Pepper Sculpture Park, Todi, Umbria
The internationally acclaimed sculptor and land artist Beverly Pepper, who made her home in the medieval hilltop city of Todi, was once a Brooklyn girl who began as an art director for advertising agencies. Yet she knew early on that the wider world could better contain her expansive spirit and experimental nature. After art school in New York and Paris—where she was taught by Fernand Léger—she discovered in Rome a more congenial environment and cohort. In 1970, at the age of 48, she relocated permanently to Todi with her husband, the journalist Bill Pepper, where she found enough space, light, natural beauty, and historical culture to absorb her restless talents and energies.
Working first as a painter but quickly migrating to sculpture, Pepper forged—literally, in her home and nearby factories, with the help of local artisans she greatly admired—a body of large, site-specific works that at first startled the local citizens, but have, since her death, in 2020, helped populate an eponymous park just below the city center. In addition, in the central piazza where she once temporarily installed four totemic, towering columns, an archival gallery dedicated to some of her smaller works now has pride of place.
If Pepper’s expatriatism caused a certain isolation from the art-world power centers—though she was close to fellow Italian artists, as well as friends such as Federico Fellini and Gore Vidal—Pepper was at peace with that. For her, the strength and inspiration she drew from the verdant hills was worth the consequent lack of recognition—she was not afraid of what she called “opposing forces” as the rare female artist doing such large-scale works.
Pepper wanted to dialogue with wind, weather, time, and the earth as much as the iron, bronze, and stone that were her favored materials of expression. She was one of the first artists to work in Cor-Ten steel. An amphitheater in nearby L’Aquila, a sculpture in Assisi, and many global installations attest to her abiding interest in conversations that went to the “unseen inside of things.”
“I think that my works end up ‘knowing’ more than I can about the future,” she said, “and clearly I’m interested in materials that endure, that might have something to say to those who come after us.”
Pepper died in Todi at 97, working almost until the end.
Brian O’Doherty’s Casa Dipinta, Todi
To call Brian O’Doherty a polymath is an understatement. Like the Italian artist Alberto Burri (see the next section), O’Doherty, born in Ireland in 1928, was first a medical student. But shifting gears to become a conceptual and performance artist freed him from traditional boundaries. He became a critic, an arts administrator, a TV presenter, a filmmaker, and a novelist, addressing issues of identity, language, and perception. Thus one name was not enough. Aliases including Sigmond Bode (linguist), William Maginn (poet), and Mary Josephson (art critic) made strategic appearances as subjects required.
O’Doherty famously buried his most enduring alter ego, Patrick Ireland (artist)—created in protest of Bloody Sunday—when progress was made toward the British withdrawal from Northern Ireland, in 2008. He also made an installation from recordings he personally took of Marcel Duchamp’s EKG, and he was fascinated with the intricacies of chess. A passionate, politically engaged, self-aware Irishman with heightened precision of word and image, he made his way largely in the U.S. until he and his wife, Barbara Novak, the art historian, heard about a house that had become available in Todi, a destination they had frequented, from the Peppers in 2008. “You have to pass through a place, its past, its history, its emanation, before you belong to it,” he once said.
Their three-story house, the Casa Dipinta, bequeathed to the city after his death, last year, is found—after some misdirection—down a steep set of stairs near the periphery. Instead of a sterile white cube for art (an O’Doherty bête noire), this modest dwelling is modified by rainbow-colored, house-paint frescoes he began work on in the late 1970s, which related to his abiding interests in ogham, the ancient Celtic language, and his series of rope drawings. Doorways, headboards, backsplashes, and walls convey the mysteries of time and language as they bounce light around the lived-in spaces.
A new book about the house, by Brenda McCann, O’Doherty’s biographer, will be published later this month.
The Fondazione Burri, Città di Castello, Umbria
The bustling, walled city of Città di Castello is home to two unusual museums dedicated to its native son, Alberto Burri, born there in 1915. Before he died, in 1995, Burri—who tightly controlled the dispensation of his work—designated the Renaissance Palazzo Albizzini and a nearby former tobacco-drying warehouse, the Ex Seccatoi del Tabacco, to house his prodigious output. (An impressive, interactive documentation center of his life and work was also installed.)
Despite his lifelong reluctance to ascribe any particular subtext to his work, once described as pathological, Alberto Burri is not a secret. A monumental retrospective at the Guggenheim in 2015, among other exhibitions, has made the artist—who had an extraordinary background, working as a medic in Libya and Tunisia during W.W. II and being captured and sent to prison in Hereford, Texas, along with thousands of Italians—the stuff of legend.
While imprisoned, Burri, who had no formal art training, began to draw and paint with basic supplies offered by the Red Cross, and decided to abandon medicine altogether. After his repatriation to Italy, humble materials once again invaded his canvases. Collaged elements such as burlap sacks (which once held food relief), stitchery (as if from wounds), scarlet and black paint (symbolizing blood and tar), sand (recalling his wartime service), wood (like a barracks), and eventually plastic (previously used for bandages) were taken to be his commentary on the trauma and violence of war.
Despite Burri’s fierce resistance to these interpretations, it’s impossible not to view their materiality and meaning at least partially as an observation on the anguish of conflict. Though the works were contained in standard frames, painting seemed remade.
Burri married the American dancer and choreographer Minsa Craig in 1955 and spent almost 20 winters in Los Angeles, where he designed sets for Craig and others, and where a cretto (cracked-paint work) remains at U.C.L.A. (His most extraordinary of these covers the entire town of Gibellina, Sicily, destroyed in an earthquake in 1968.) Still, in his hometown, the echoes of his youth and his deeply personal choices about how his work was to be experienced, both in the Renaissance palazzo and in the warehouse, are unified in an unparalleled whole.
The Severini-Franchina Archive, M.A.E.C. Etruscan Academy Museum, Cortona, Tuscany
The storied city of Cortona, which looks over the Valdichiana, in Tuscany, became known to most Americans when the 2003 film Under the Tuscan Sun, starring Diane Lane, was filmed there. Yet it’s actually the birthplace of one of the celebrated Italian futurists, Gino Severini, and houses both a permanent exhibition of his life and work, in the imposing M.A.E.C. Etruscan Academy Museum, and, in a hidden corner of its courtyard, the Severini-Franchina Archive, a remarkable grotto filled with four generations of family artwork and memorabilia.
The archive is a project of Alessandra Franchina, 54, the vibrant great-granddaughter of Severini, granddaughter of sculptor Nino Franchina, and daughter of filmmaker Sandro Franchina, but is glued together, she maintains, by the ambitious spirit of generations of women of the family who created an environment that emphasized self-challenge. It’s a tiny wonderland of creativity, brimming with photographs, documents, maquettes, and sculptures. (A companion archive at the MART museum, in Trento, in Northern Italy, houses the bulk of Severini’s papers.)
Severini, born to a poor family in 1883, was passionate about the arts and went to Rome as a young man, where he studied alongside Umberto Boccioni under the tutelage of Giacomo Balla. The three later decamped to Paris and became signers of the original Futurist Manifesto. Color was everything to these artists, who believed they could capture the energies inherent in objects through the effects produced by the diffusion of light. Severini also painted in more realistic and Cubist styles in a very long career. (He died in 1966.)
Though Severini spent a great deal of his life in Paris—when he married Jeanne, the daughter of the French poet Paul Fort, his fellow poet Guillaume Apollinaire was the witness, and the couple lived down the street from Picasso—he nevertheless said, “I feel in myself shades of the … toughness and independent spirit … [that] probably explains my special love for [Cortona],” and he returned there often. The city is also home to the cartoons for his “Via Crucis” (Stations of the Cross) series in the Museo Diocesano del Capitolo as well as his mosaics, which line a steep and narrow street nearby. “You must let yourself be gripped by emotion,” said Severini, and “put away your knowledge of the exterior appearance of things.”
Severini’s daughter Gina married Sicily’s Nino Franchina, a widely recognized sculptor, and their son (Alessandra’s father), Sandro, became a prolific filmmaker. To have the family imprimatur on these collections and their histories is a special gift. Alessandra says her grandmother Gina played a game with her as a girl, to help her “exercise her eye and learn to tell which artworks were real and which were fake.” Here in Cortona, there is no question.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden, Tuscany
The French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, born in 1930, has been referred to as a sculptor, a painter, a filmmaker, and an assemblagist. All categorization seems reductive as you approach the entrance to her magical, whimsical, animated Tarot Garden, a hilltop sanctuary near the seaside town of Capalbio, Tuscany, which opened in 1998. Instead, words like “priestess,” “queen,” and “genius” come to mind. It’s a pilgrimage; a shrine; a park; a playground; a mystical kingdom in the middle of nowhere. And though monumental, it’s wholly personal.
Saint Phalle remains most widely known for her Nanas, oversize sculptures that embody feminine principles. Her garden, too, is a complex of gigantic handmade creatures representing the 22 major arcana of the tarot. Saint Phalle had long wanted a realm where her imagination could run free. A friend, Marella Agnelli (wife of Fiat head Gianni), was able to convince her brothers to donate her family’s land to Saint Phalle’s enterprise even without final plans. But Saint Phalle refused any other donations. She wanted no outside interference and determined to fund the garden by issuing a signature perfume. Now a gift shop with merchandise must fill the coffers—the garden is kept in pristine condition.
Her husband and lifelong collaborator, the kinetic sculptor Jean Tinguely, contributed Rube Goldberg metal gizmos, which are strategically placed as charming counterpoints to the immense, cement-covered figures garnished with mirrors and broken tiles. Everything was constructed on-site with the help of artisans—even the local postman—whom Saint Phalle revered. Other friends, such as the Italian architect Mario Botta, were also summoned. But the theatrical, organic nature of the ambitious enterprise—inscribed paths leading up and down narrow stairs, ramps, waterfalls, pools, aerial walkways, and secret chambers—is entirely her doing.
Saint Phalle was already sick from her work using toxic polyester resin on the Nanas, and with rheumatoid arthritis, when work on the Tarot Garden began, in 1968, and her conditions gradually worsened during construction. The glittering Empress sculpture that she lived in for more than a decade while she was on-site, with its cozy double bed; its dining table, where the laborers would often join her to eat; its breasts with nipples for windows; and the bathroom, with its red bath and snake-headed shower, is a surprising paradise of architecture and nature, a culminating project of 20 years’ duration. Saint Phalle’s bravery, her wit, her ability to inspire the artisans who worked with her, and, above all, her vision are truly life-affirming.
She died in 2002 in La Jolla, California, where she had moved to improve her health and where she created Queen Califia’s Magical Circle, another spectacular garden, in nearby Escondido, as well as many other international projects.
Patricia Zohn has contributed to numerous publications, including Wallpaper, Artnet, the Huffington Post, The New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times