Topography and Frontier: Gibellina's City of Art

Joshua Synenko


Cities have long been important sites of collective memory. In this paper, I highlight the ritual and memorial functions of cities by focusing on Gibellina, a Sicilian town destroyed by earthquake, and the subsequent struggle among its community to articulate a sense of spatial belonging with its remains. By examining the productive relationships between art, landscape and collective memory, I consider how memorial objects in Gibellina have become integral to the reimagining of place, and, in some cases, to forgetting. To address the relationship between memorial objects and the articulation of communities from this unique vantage point, a significant part of my analysis compares memorial initiatives both in and around the old site on which Gibellina once stood. More specifically, my paper compares the aesthetic similarities between the Italian artist Alberto Burri’s design for a large concrete overlay of the city’s remains, and the Berlin Holocaust Memorial by the American architect Peter Eisenman. To reveal the distinctiveness of Burri’s design in relation to Eisenman’s work and the rich commentaries that have been produced in its name, and therefore to highlight the specificity of their relationship, I extend my comparison to more recent attempts at rebuilding Gibellina in the image of a “frontier city of art” (“Museum Network Belicina”).

Broadly speaking, this paper is framed by a series of observations concerning the role that landscape plays in the construction or naturalization of collective identity, and by a further attempt at mapping the bonds that tend to be shared among members of particular communities in any given circumstance. To organize my thoughts in this area, I follow W. J. T. Mitchell’s interpretation of landscape as “a medium of exchange,” in other words, as an artistic practice that galvanizes nature for the purpose of naturalizing culture and its relations of power (5). While the terms of landscape art may in turn be described as “complicated,” “mutual” and marked by “ambivalence,” as Mitchell himself suggests, I would further argue that the artist’s sought-after result will, in almost every case, be to unify the visual and the discursive fields through an ideological operation that engenders, reinforces, and, perhaps also mystifies the constituents of community in general (9). From this perspective, landscape represents a crucial if unavoidable materialization both of community and collective memory.

Conflicting viewpoints about this formation are undoubtedly present in the literature. For instance, in describing the effects of this operation, Mitchell, to use one example, will suggest that landscape as a mode of creation unfolds in ways that are similar to that of a dream, or that the materialization of landscape art is in accordance with the promise of “emancipation” that dreams inscribe into imaginaries (12). During the course of investigating and overturning the premise of Mitchell’s claim through a number of writers and commentators, I conclude my paper by turning to a famous work on the inoperative community by Jean-Luc Nancy. This work is especially useful for bringing clarity for understanding what is lost in the efforts by Gibellina’s residents to reconstruct a new city adjacent to the old, and therefore to emancipate themselves from their destructive past. By emphasizing the significance of acknowledging death for the regeneration and durability of communities and their material urban life, I suggest that the wishes of Gibellina’s residents have resulted in an environment for memory and memorialization despite apparent wishes to the contrary. In my reference to Nancy’s metaphor of ‘inoperativity’, therefore, I suggest that the community to emerge from Gibellina’s disaster is, in a sense, yet to come.

Figure 1. The “Cretto di Burri” by Alberto Burri (1984-1989). Creative Commons.

The old city of Gibellina was a township of Arabic and Medieval origins located southwest of Palermo in the heart of Sicily’s Belice valley. In January 1968, the region experienced a series of earthquakes as it had before. This time, however, the strongest among them provoked a rupture that within moments led to the complete destruction of towns and villages, and to the death of nearly 400 inhabitants. “From a seismological point of view,” as Susan Hough and Roger Bilham write, the towns and villages of the Belice valley were at this time “disasters in the making” (87). Maligned by a particular configuration of geological fault lines, the fragile structures along the surface of the valley were almost certain to be destroyed at some point in their lifetime. In 1968, after the largest disaster in recent history, the surviving inhabitants of the dilapidated urban centres were moved to the squalor conditions of displacement camps, in which many lived without permanent housing into the 1970s. While some of the smaller communities opted to rebuild, a number of the larger townships made the decision to move altogether. In 1971, a new settlement was created in Gibellina’s name, just eighteen kilometres west of the ruin.

Since that time, I claim that a pattern of memory and forgetting has developed in the space between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’. For instance, the old city of Gibellina underwent a dramatic refurbishment in the 1980s when an internationally renowned Italian sculptor, Alberto Burri, was invited by the city to build a large concrete structure directly on top of the city’s remains. As depicted in Figure One, the artist moulded the destroyed buildings into blocks of smooth concrete surfaces. Standing roughly at human scale, Burri divided these stone slabs, or stelae, in such a way as to retain the lineaments of Gibellina’s medieval streets. Although unfinished and abandoned by the artist due to lack of funds, the tomb of this destroyed city has since become both an artistic oddity and a permanent fixture on the Sicilian landscape. As Elisebha Fabienne and Platzer write,

if an ancient inhabitant of Gibellina walks in the inside of the Cretto, he is able to recognise the topic position of his house, but he is also forced by the Verfremdung [alienting effect] of the topical elements to distance himself from the past, to infer new information. (75)

According to this assessment, the work’s intrinsic merit appears to be in Burri’s effort to forge a link between a shared memory of the city’s past, and the potential for that memory to fortify the imagination towards a future. In spatial terms, the merit of the work lies in preserving the skeletal imprint of the urban landscape in order to retain a semblance of this once vibrant and living community. Andrea Simitch and Val Warke appear to corroborate this hypothesis. They suggest that while Burri’s structure includes a specific imprint or reference point of the city’s remains, “embedded within the masses that construct the ghosted streets is the physical detritus of imagined narratives” (61). In other words, Simitch and Warke maintain that by using the archival or preserving function to communicate a ritual practice, Burri’s Cretto is intended to infuse the forgotten urban space of old Gibellina with a promise that it will eventually be found and therefore remembered. This promise is met, in turn, by the invitation for visitors to stroll through the hallowed interior of Gibellina as they would any other city. In this sense, the Cretto invites a plurality of narratives and meanings depending on the visitor at hand. In the absence of guidance or interruption, the hope appears to be that visitors will gain an experience of the place that is both familiar and disturbing.

But there is a hidden dimension to this promise that the authors above do not explore in sufficient detail. For instance, Nigel Clark analyzes the way in which Burri has insisted upon “confronting us with the stark absence of life where once there was vitality,” a confrontation by the artist that is materialized by “cavernous wounds” (83). On this basis, by interpreting the promise of memory that others have discussed in terms of a warning about the longevity or durability of the built environment, Clark writes that Burri’s Cretto represents “an assertion of the forces of earth that have not been eclipsed by other forms of endangerment” (83). The implication of this particular forewarning is that “the precariousness of human settlement” is guaranteed by a non-human world that insists upon the relentless force of erasure (83). On the other hand, I would argue that Clark’s insistence upon situating the Cretto in relation to the natural forces of destruction ultimately represents a narrowing of perspective on Burri’s work. Significantly, by citing Burri’s choice of supposedly abstracted shapes made from lifeless concrete, Clark reduces the geographical intervention of the artist to “a paradigm of modernist austerity” (82). From Clark’s perspective, the overture to Modernism is meant to highlight Burri’s attempt at pairing the scale and proportion of the work with an effort to convey a sense of purity through abstraction. However, while some interpretations of Burri’s Cretto may be dependent upon its allusion to such Modernist formalism, it should also be recognized that the specific concerns raised by Gibellina go significantly beyond these equivocations.

In fact, one crucial element of Burri’s artistic process that is not recognized by Clark is his investment in the American land art movement, which at the time of Burri’s design for Gibellina was led by Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson and other prominent artists in the United States. Burri’s debt to this movement can be detected by his gradual shift towards landscape throughout his career, and by his eventual break from the enclosed and constrained space of the gallery. On this basis, the crumbling city design at Gibellina obliterates the boundaries as to what constitutes a work of art in relation to the land it occupies, and this, in turn, throws into question the specific criteria that we use to assess its value or artistic merit. In an important way, land art and landscape in general forces us to rethink the relationship between art and community in unparalleled ways. To put it another way, if Clark’s overriding concern for that which lies beneath the surface allows us to consider the importance of relationships between memory, forgetting, and erasure, I argue that Burri’s concern with the surface and the ground make it clear that projects such as the Gibellina Cretto might be better paired with memorial sites that deal in architecture.

Figure 2. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe / Berlin Holocaust Memorial, by Peter Eisenman. Photograph courtesy of the author.

A useful comparison in this regard is Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in downtown Berlin. For one, not only is Eisenman’s site composed of a similar exterior of concrete stelae, those concrete blocks resembling gravestones, but it has also been routinely scorned for the same reasons that Clark raised against Burri as mentioned above. To put it another way, while visitors may be struck by the memorial’s haunting and inspirational configuration of voids, some notable commentators, including the venerable James E. Young, have insinuated that the site signifies a restoration of the monument, derived as it is from a modernist architecture in which recuperation and amnesia are at play with each other (184-224). A more sympathetic reading of Eisenman’s memorial might point to the uniquely architectural vision he held for cultural memory. With Adrian Parr  for instance, we find that the traumatic memory of the Holocaust can be effectively transposed through the virtual content of the imagination as personified by visitors to Eisenman’s memorial. That is, by attending to the atrocities of the past, Parr claims that we need not be exhausted by the overwhelming sense of destruction that the memorial site brings to the literal surface. Rather, we might benefit more from considering the event of destruction as but one aspect of the spatial experience of the place to which it is dedicated—an experience that must be open-ended by design. By using the topographical lens that Parr, taking several pages from Gilles Deleuze, describes as “intensive,” I argue that Eisenman’s design is unique for its explicit encouragement to be both creative and present simultaneously (158).

On this account, Parr makes the compelling assertion that memorial culture facilitates an epistemic rupture or “break,” that that it reveals an opportunity to restore the potential for using the place occupied by memory as a starting point for effecting social change (3). Parr writes that “memorial culture is utopian memory thinking”—a defining slogan, to be sure, but one with which the author hopes will re-establish the link between memory and the force of life, and, in the process, to recognize the energetic resources that remain concealed by the traditional narratives of memorialization (3). Stefano Corbo corroborates Parr’s assertion by pointing to Eisenman’s efforts in the 1980s to supplement formal concerns with archaeological perspectives, and therefore to develop a theory whereby architecture presages a “deep structure,” in which the artistry or attempt at formal innovation ultimately rests on “a process of invention” itself (41). To accomplish this aim, a specific reference should be made to an early period in Eisenman’s career, in which the architect turned to conceptual issues as opposed to the demands of materiality, and more significantly, to a critical rethinking of site-specific engagement (Bedard). Included in this turn was a willingness on Eisenman’s part to explore the layered and textured history of cities, as well as the linguistic or deconstructive relationships that exist between the ground and the trace.

The interdisciplinary complexity of Eisenman’s approach is one that responds to the dominance of architectural form, and it therefore mirrors, as Corbo writes, a delicate interplay between “presence and absence, permanence and loss” (44). The city of Berlin with its cultural memory thus evinces a sort of tectonic rupture and collision upon its surfaces, but a rupture that both runs parallel and opposite to the natural disaster that engulfed Gibellina in 1968. Returning to Parr’s demand that we begin to (re)assert the power of virtual and imaginative space, I argue that Eisenman’s memorial design may be better appreciated for its ability to situate the city itself in relation to competing terms of artistic practice. That is, if Eisenman’s efforts indicate a softening “of the boundary between architecture and the landscape,” to quote Tomà Berlanda, the Holocaust Memorial might in turn be a productive counterpoint in the task of working through the specificity of Burri’s design and the meaning with which it has since been attached (2).

Burri’s Cretto raises a number of questions for this hypothesis, as with the Cretto we find a displacement of the constitutive process that writers such as W.J.T. Mitchell describe above in relation to the generative potential of community. Undoubtedly, the imperative to unify is present in the Cretto’s aesthetic presentation, as the concrete surfaces maintain the capacity to reflect the light of the sun against a wide green earth that stretches beyond the visitor’s horizon. On the other hand, while Mitchell, along with Parr and other commentators might opt to insist upon a deeper correlation between the unifying function of the landscape and the forces of life, intensity, or desire, I would only reiterate that Burri’s design is ultimately based on establishing a meaningful relationship with death, not life, and he is consequently focused on the much less spectacular mission of providing solutions as to what the remains should become in the aftermath of total destruction. If there is an intensity to speak of here, it is a maligned intensity, and an intensity that can only be established through relation.

Figure 3. The “Porta del Belice” by Pietro Consagra (2014). Wiki Commons.

If Burri’s Cretto were measured by the criteria that are variously described by Mitchell and others, the effects that the landscape produces would have necessarily to account for an expression of desire for emancipation from death. However, in a significant departure from Eisenman’s Holocaust Memorial, Burri’s design by itself is marked by a throughout absence of any expression of desire for emancipation as such. Indeed, finding such a promised emancipatory narrative would require one to cast their gaze away from the Cretto altogether, and towards a nearby urban center that has supposedly triumphed over the very need for a memory culture at all. This urban center is none other than Gibellina Nuova. As a point in fact, the settlers of Gibellina Nuova did insist upon emancipating themselves from their destructive past. In 1971, the city planners and governors of Gibellina Nuova made efforts to attract contemporary Italian artists and architects, to design and build a series of commemorative structures, and ultimately to make the settlement into a “città di frontiera dell’arte”—a frontier city of art (“Museum Network Belicina”). With the potential for rejuvenation just a stone’s throw away from the original city, the former inhabitants appear to have become immediately invested in the sort of utopian potential that would make its architectural wonders capable of transgressing the line that perennially divides art from community and from the living world.   

Rivalled only by the refurbishment of Marfa, Texas, which in the last twenty years has become a shrine to minimalist sculpture, the edifices at Gibellina Nuova have been authored by some of Italy’s better-known mid-century artists and architects, including Ludovico Quaroni, Vitorrio Gregotti, and, most notably, Pietro Consagra, whose ‘Porta del Belice’ (Figure Two) has become the most iconic urban fixture of the new urban designs. With the hopes of becoming a sort of “open-air museum” in which to attract international visitors, the city is now in possession of an exceedingly large number of public memorials and avant-garde buildings in various states of decay and disrepair (Bileddo). Predictably, this museological distinction has become a curse in many ways. Some commentators have argued that the obsession among city planners to create a “laboratory of art and architecture” has led in fact to an urban center of monstrous proportions: a city space that can only be described as “elliptical and spinning” (Bileddo). Whereas Gibellina Nuova was supposed to represent a rebalancing of the forces of life in relation to the funereal themes of the Cretto, the robust initiatives of the 1980s have instead produced an egregious lack of cohesiveness, a severed link to Sicilian culture, and a stark erasure of the distinctive traditions of the Belice valley.

On the other hand, this experiment in urban design has been reduced to a venerable time capsule of 1970s Italian sculpture, an archive that persists but in constant disrepair. More significantly, however, the city’s failure to deliver on its many promises raises important questions about the ritual and memorial functions of urban space in general, of what specific relationships need to be forged between the history of a place and its architectural presentation, and the ways in which memorials come to reflect, privilege or convoke particular values over those of others. As Elisebha Fabienne Platzer writes, “Gibellina portrays its future in order to forget,” as “its faith in contemporary art is precisely a reaction to death,” or, more specifically, to its effacement (73). If the various pastiche designs of the city’s buildings and ritual edifices fail to stand the measure of time, I claim that it is not simply because they are gaudy reminders of a time best forgotten, but rather because they signify the restless hunt for resolution among inhabitants of this still-unsettled community.

Whereas Burri’s Cretto activates a process of mourning and working-through that proves to be unresolvable and yet necessary, the city of Gibellina Nuova operates instead by neutralizing and dividing this process. Taken as a whole, the irreparable relationship between the two sites offers competing images of the relation between place and community. From the time of its division by earthquake if not sooner, the inhabitants of Gibellina became an “inoperative” community in the same way that the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has famously described. In the specific hopes of uncovering the motives of Burri and those of the designers and architects of Gibellina Nuova, I argue that Nancy uses the terms of inoperability as a makeshift solution for the persistent rootedness of communities in an atomized metaphysics for which the relationality between subjects is an abiding problem. Nancy defines community on the basis of its relational content alone, and for this reason he is able to make the claim that death itself should be a necessary moment of its articulation. Nancy writes that “community has not taken place,” as beyond “what society has crushed or lost, it is something that happens to us in the form of a question, waiting, event or imperative” (11).

Though Nancy is attempting to provide his own interpretation of the impervious dialectic between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, between “community” and “society,” the substance of his assertion can be brought into a critical reading of Gibellina’s abiding problem of its formations of collective memory in the aftermath of destruction. For instance, it might be argued that if we leave the experience of loss aside, we can perhaps begin to acknowledge that communities are transformed through complex interactions for which their inert physicality provides but one important indication. While “old” Gibellina was not lost in a day, Gibellina Nuova was not created in an instant. For Nancy, it would rather be the case that “death is indissociable from community, and that it is through death that the community reveals itself” (14). Given this claim, while Gibellina Nuova has undoubtedly been shaped and reconstituted by the architecture of the future and the desire to forget, it could equally be argued that this very architecture shares in a reciprocal exchange with the Cretto, a circuit of memory that inadvertently houses an archive of the city’s destructive past. As the community comes into being through resistance, entropy, possibility and reparation, the city landscape provides some clues regarding the trace of this activity as left upon its ground.


Bedard, Jean-Francois, ed. Cities of Artificial Excavation: The Work of Peter Eisenman, 1978-1988. New York: Rizzoli Publishing, 1994.

Berlanda, Tomà. Architectural Topographies: A Graphic Lexicon of How Buildings Touch the Ground. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Bileddo, Marco. “Back in Sicily / The Three Dogs Gibellina.” Eodoto108 Magazine. 30 July 2014. 

Bilham, Roger G., and Susan Elizabeth Hough. After the Earth Quakes: Elastic Rebound on an Urban Planet. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Clark, Nigel. Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, 2010.

Corbo, Stefano. From Formalism to Weak Form: The Architecture and Philosophy of Peter Eisenman. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

Mitchell, W.J. Thomas. Landscape and Power. University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Museum Network Belicina

Nancy, Jean-Luc. Inoperative Community. Trans. Christopher Fynsk. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Parr, Adrian. Deleuze and Memorial Culture: Desire, Singular Memory and the Politics of Trauma. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Platzer, Elisbha Fabienne. “Semiotics of Spaces: City and Landart.” Seni/able Spaces: Space, Art and the Environment. Edward Huijbens and Ólafur Jónsson, eds. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.

Simitch, Andrea, and Val Warke. The Language of Architecture: 26 Principles Every Architect Should Know. Rockport Publishers Incorporated, 2014.

Young, James E. At Memory’s Edge: After-Images of the Holocaust in Contemporary Art and Architecture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.


Gibellina; Earthquakes; Italian Collective Memory; Recuperation.

Copyright (c) 2016 Joshua Synenko

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

  • M/C - Media and Culture
  • Supported by QUT - Creative Industries
  • Copyright © M/C, 1998-2016
  • ISSN 1441-2616