1. Guido Sgaravatti’s first works of sacred art
Many well-known critics have analysed the work of sculptor Guido Sgaravatti, but particularly interesting is what Professor Salvatore Maugeri wrote in 1969 on the occasion of a personal exhibition of the Paduan artist in Bassano del Grappa (Punto Quadrato gallery, 24 May 1969):
«I know many sculptors, young and old, for whom it is not even necessary to ask in which academy and under which master they completed their studies. An examination of their works clearly displays the motifs and manners that are typical of Manzù or Marini, Minguzzi or Greco, Fazzini or Viani.
Guido Sgaravatti had Emilio Greco as his academy master, yet his sculptures do not reveal a direct ancestry with the Catanese master’s plastic solutions.
This means that Sgaravatti has his own personality and his own idea of sculpture, understood as a means to represent, with intelligence and love, man and his vicissitudes, the investigation of a typology that plumbs the motions of the psyche and translates them through the elaboration of plastic structures capable of stopping attitudes, of indicating the secret reasons of a personality, its authentic way of being and of not appearing».
In that exhibition, no sculpture with a religious subject, definable as ‘sacred art’, was yet presented, although an aura of sacredness pervaded the figures and portraits even then.
In the same year (1969), however, Sgaravatti participated in an exhibition of the UCAI in Padua with a series of drawings on St. George and, again in an exhibition organised by the UCAI in 1971, he received a gold medal from the Cassa di Risparmio for a painting on a theme dear to him, the Madonna and Child.
Again in Padua, he obtained a series of first prizes in sacred art competitions, starting in 1976 with the 16th Triveneto Competition whose theme was the Nativity; this was followed in 1977 by the first prize for Paliotto d’altare (6th Sacred Art Exhibition – S. Rocco) and the coveted gold medal from President of the Republic Pertini for the work ‘Madonna with Child’ at the 7th Sacred Art Exhibition in 1979.
Among his works, a careful project carried out in 1980 for the doors of the cathedral of Belluno deserves special mention; there are dozens of studies, drawings, sketches and panels in scale and life-size.
It is this intense research work that anticipates and allows, eight years later, the realisation, in a very short time, of the monumental complex dedicated to St. Eustochia, which can still be admired in Piazza Crisafulli in Messina.
This monument consists of two elements: a carefully modelled stele on both sides and the full-length figure of the then Pontiff John Paul II.
2. Wood and bronze portals
The Porta dei Fiaccolari therefore crowns a long and intense research work in the field of sacred art.
There are not many wooden doors with bronze panels to be found in Italian sacred art, not least because of the problems that the possible stagnation of rainwater at the points of contact between wood and bronze can create.
Compared to the most common fully bronze doors, however, wood-bronze doors are warmer, more ‘welcoming’, closer to the ‘sacred’. In contrast, the bronze-only door, however well crafted it may be, hardly avoids a certain sense of ‘safe’ that tends to repel the worshipper.
An artistically elaborated church portal is one of the most challenging artefacts because it implies not only the solution of plastic, architectural and compositional problems, but also more subtly psychological ones. For believers, it constitutes the moment of invitation to enter or not to enter, the boundary point between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ of the church, with all the implications, not only physical, that this implies.
The optimal success of a wood-bronze portal requires, in addition to the work of the artist-sculptor, the efficient collaboration of several teams of skilled wood and bronze craftsmen, whom the artist must know, identify and coordinate well.
The work of the artist-sculptor can never be one of assembling or blending his bronze with the wooden door of others, but of sacred union of the parts.
It takes dozens of people capable of simultaneously concentrating all their commitment of knowledge and love for their work into one purpose.
For these reasons, the Porta dei Fiaccolari must be observed as a collective work, with Guido Sgaravatti the sculptor primarily responsible.
3. Saponara and the ‘Quadrittu’ tradition
Saponara is a small town a few dozen kilometres from Messina, 180 m above sea level. Built at the beginning of the 11th century, it had a period of splendour in the 1600s. Its main architectural monuments date back to that period, generating an interest later enhanced by the traditional festivities of 7 and 8 December.
It is said that, several centuries ago and probably in the 1700s, the Carbonari (who lived in the village and worked in the nearby mountains, rich in water necessary for the production of coal) descended on the village in protest against the clergy and the local lords, who, relegating them to work in the mountains and disregarding their labours, profited from their absence to increasingly exclude them from all religious events.
Here, having broken down the locked door of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, they seized the painting of the Virgin Mary displayed on the altar (the ‘Quadrittu’, a small wooden painting dating back to the 16th century) and carried it away in procession by torchlight, in a popular protest that sought to affirm the autonomous re-appropriation of the ecumenical and non-caste closed value of the Catholic religion, over and above petty partisan interests.
The reconciliation of the conflict between the Carbonari and the hegemonic groups was then achieved with the return of the painting to the church, but the popular right to an annual feast that, in time, preceded the official one of the ruling classes of clergy and podesta remained.
It follows that, in the village, the popular feast of the ‘Quadrittu’ preceded the official feast of the ‘Madonna Immacolata’ by one day.
The traditional torchlight procession
On 7 December, therefore, the mayor and the town’s notables follow the ‘Quadrittu’ in a heartfelt popular procession.
On the following day, 8 December, they themselves officiate at the ceremony, girded with scarves and carrying flags and with a sombre spirit, almost as a penitence for the guilt of public office.
The tradition of the ‘Quadrittu’ is deeply felt in the village and represents both an element of cohesion of the masses and an outlet for opposing tendencies.
The votive torchlight procession is carried out with original cylindrical torches, a kind of white stick about one and a half metres long.
The torches, according to tradition, are prepared by steeping dried Saponaria gypsophila roots and long flax fibres. This forms the inner core, which is then rolled on gripping chalk to form a protective shell. There is a need for this because what may look like an innocent candle, releases, once lit, a high and mean flame, which resists wind and rain but drips burning pitch that falls on the hands, sometimes bare, of the officiants. And if the plaster crust gets damaged, one must be ready to put it out immediately… with a hammer!
For the ceremony, the parish priest, dressed in black, with hood and gloves, carries the ‘Quadrittu’ on a tour of the entire village.
The participants in the torchlight procession proceed along the entire route, always and only pushing back and pushing the torches behind the advancing ‘Quadrittu’, supported by the officiant.
The participants protect themselves from the dripping, burning pitch with havana or black tarpaulin hoods and thick robes. There are also those who unload, on a quasi-game level, the old conflicts, intentionally directing the dripping of the pitch onto the other officiating friends-enemies, first and foremost the officiating priest himself.
But this, today, is also part of the ritual!
All the torch-bearers are coordinated by a group leader who directs the shouting choir. The Virgin Mary is continuously praised to the unanimous cry of ‘Viva Maria!’ and the principle of the universality of the sentiment of the sacred is reaffirmed.
Each stop of the ‘Quadrittu’ is punctuated by a longer ritual phrase: ‘Non sulu li putenti (o “li signuri”) ma puro nui dicemu: viva Maria!’ (‘Not only the powerful (or ‘the lords’) but also we say: long live Mary!’). Initially, one of the officiants symbolically simulates the breaking of the church with a large nail. Immediately afterwards, the officiating priest comes out and raises the ‘Quadrittu’ on a long pole, which from that moment on becomes the ritual centrepiece.
The group of torch-bearers moves backwards and rhythmically shouts and runs through the entire village followed by the municipal band, the entire population and all the choreography typical of village festivals. Curiously, when the band stops playing, the chorus of shouts also stops and everyone stops marching.
4. The Porta dei Fiaccolari in Saponara (Messina)
It was the mayor of Saponara, Mr Leone Saiya, who wanted, urged and financed the realisation of this work, which could fix this tradition in a sculptural work for the new church doors.
The wooden part of the portal, made of well-seasoned national walnut (over 12 years old) is worked in sections to prevent the wood from shifting and was created with the collaboration of CAMS of Arco (Trento).
The bronze panelling is slightly removed from the wooden support to prevent the feared stagnation of rainwater and was carefully cast by GI-TI-CUM of Sandrigo (Vicenza).
Located in the 17th-century Church of the Immaculate Conception in Saponara (Messina), the portal measures 1 m in base by 3.84 m in height and weighs about ten quintals.
The freshness of the casting, which uses the ancient and traditional lost-wax system, is also due to the fact that all the waxes were accurately modelled by the artist, who followed all the multiple phases of the work and did not limit himself to the execution of the model.
The four panels of the Porta dei Fiaccolari
In terms of iconography, the work breaks out of the usual patterns of similar works.
The two upper panels of the Annunciation and the Angel remain in the tradition. The lower ones, on the other hand, are characterised by that adherence to daily life typical of times when the relationship between life and faith was felt and constant.
On the lower right we have the panel with the group of torchbearers and on the left we see the band and the participation of the village.
Of the four panels, that of the torch bearers is probably the most heartfelt and the most beautiful.
Here the artist has skilfully blended the sacred and profane in a harmonious composition of people and objects (officiant and torch-bearers, ‘Quadrittu’ and torches); the popular desire to reappropriate, in a non-violent manner, the sacred for a sacrifice that could remain ecumenical and officiated and, as such, not dramatic in content but Eucharistic.
The spirit that pervades the work reconnects us to the atmosphere of the depictions of Arts and Crafts typical of Romanesque portals.
Artistically, the strength that the relief acquires should be emphasised, both for its projection and for the interplay that is achieved between the bronze and the wood that also appears within the individual panels, between the profiles of the figures.
As the projection is more than ten centimetres over figures of about ninety in height, the relief appears very high, almost all round, and this gives the whole of the Porta dei Fiaccolari a plasticity that makes it particularly appropriate for installation in a 17th century church.
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