Even in a city known for its grandiose and dramatic sights, there is no doubting that Triumphs and Laments is something special. In the heart of Rome eighty giant figures, depicting people and scenes from Roman mythology to the present day, rear up from the water’s edge of the River Tiber. Like shadows emerging from the darkness, they appear to have come alive and are parading along the river front.
At 550 metres in length and 12 metres in height, Triumphs and Laments is a monumental piece of public art. Perhaps the more so because it tracks the history of Rome by depicting moments of glory and tragedy from its past. One scene depicts the she-wolf that suckled brothers Remus and Romulus, a central part of Rome’s foundation myth. Later it shows Remus after he was slain by his brother.
Other figures include a laurel-wreathed Caesar; Roman goddess Minerva; Anita Ekberg, she of La Dolce Vita fame; controversial film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, murdered in 1975 for his communist sympathies; and Dominican monk, philosopher, mathematician and spy for Queen Elizabeth I of England, Giordano Bruno* (who was burned at the stake by the Inquisition for his beliefs).
The fascinating thing about the installation is that is was created by using a process of ‘reverse graffiti’ or ‘grime writing’. The dark silhouette-like figures were brought to life using giant stencils. Once the stencils were in place centuries of accumulated grime were blasted off the embankment with a high pressure water hose. This cleaned the walls leaving only the figures behind.
Reverse graffiti, sometimes called ‘clean advertising’, is a process that was pioneered by street artists. In one of those sweet ironies, a process that removes dirt from surfaces rather than adding spray paint still counts as graffiti and is illegal in many places. You’d think the authorities would want to encourage civic-minded street cleaning.
It would be fair to say that Rome’s river almost feels like it isn’t part of the city. It’s found 12 or 13 metres below street level and you have to walk down a couple of dozen urine-scented stone steps to reach water level. Triumphs and Laments is part of a wider effort bring the riverfront back to life, and to rejuvenate a neglected area of Rome.
Not that city authorities seem to be in much of a rush to help. It took over a decade for artist William Kentridge and TEVERETERNO, a not-for-profit initiative dedicated to revitalising Rome’s waterfront, to get the project from idea to reality. If a recent photo-journalism piece in The Guardian is anything to go by, there’s a long way to go before it emerges butterfly-like.
Like street art everywhere, Triumphs and Laments is a transitory piece of work. It will be left open to the elements and, slowly, over time will disappear from the walls. No need to rush to Rome immediately though, it’s estimated that it will take up to 5 years for the figures to fade from the cityscape.
* My old university tutor, John Bossy, wrote an excellent book about Bruno and his role as a spy for the Elizabethan court, Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair. It’s a book full of intrigue and double-cross, well worth a read if you’re into that sort of thing.