JCU Professor and Students Provide Image Palette for William Kentridge's "Triumphs and Laments"

 Professor Yawn and students pose with William Kentridge and his "Triumphs and Laments" on the Tiber

Professor Yawn and students pose with William Kentridge and his “Triumphs and Laments” on the Tiber

Enormous Drawings Along the Tiber – Anyone walking along the Tiber these days may be mystified by the enormous drawings that line the river embankments from Ponte Sisto northward to Ponte Mazzini. A Winged Victory and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius rise 8 meters above cyclists racing along the bike path, while a Capitoline She-Wolf larger than a draft horse growls protectively over their heads. Farther along a donkey-headed monster serves espresso out of a designer coffee pot; Remus, brother of Romulus, and the celebrated filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini lie assassinated alongside an artillery-pocked Mussolini; Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg from Fellini’s La dolce vita embrace in the Trevi Fountain, which has turned, inexplicably, into a bathtub.

How did this colossal, dramatic, whimsical parade of figures suddenly appear in such a public place, seemingly out of nowhere? For Rome’s grandest, newest work of public art we have one of the most sought-after artists of our time to thank: William Kentridge. Critically acclaimed worldwide for his videos, installations, drawings, and theater and opera productions, the South African artist is especially beloved in Rome thanks to his projects at the Teatro Valle (The Confessions of Zeno, 2002), MAXXI (The Refusal of Time, 2012), and the Teatro Argentina (Refuse the Hour, 2012). An exhibition now underway at MACRO in Via Nizza shows the drawings and models for his current, titanic work along the Tiber, Triumphs and Laments, which has been in preparation for more than a decade.

What very few people have known – until now – is that John Cabot University played a fundamental role in the genesis of this astounding masterpiece. When Kristin Jones, artistic director of the project, invited Mr. Kentridge to create a grand work about the history of Rome for the Tiber embankments under the auspices of the non-profit organization Tevereterno, they immediately faced an array of challenges. One of the most basic was what images to use as historical points of reference. Mr. Kentridge’s idea was to create a procession of figures that represented historical triumphs and laments from Roman history – the extremes of human experience, not just the most famous episodes but also more obscure and hidden ones.

Creating the Images – At Kristin Jones’s request in 2013, Prof. Lila Yawn of JCU’s Department of Art History stepped in and, with the help of nine JCU Art History and Classical Studies majors and one alumna (JCU Valedictorian Kirila Cvetkovska), created a database of nearly five hundred images from the history of art, journalism, and cinema for Mr. Kentridge’s use. Working from this iconographic palette (called ‘the timeline’), the artist made more than sixty drawings, which were then enlarged to form templates as tall as 9 meters. Recently, fifty-four of these templates were suspended one at a time over the Tiber river walls just beyond Ponte Sisto, on the Trastevere side, and a technical crew cleaned around them using a jet of water to reveal the natural off-white color of the travertine. Areas covered by the templates were thus left black, the color of the natural ‘pigment’ of mold and pollution already present on the river walls. Over time, the drawings will gradually disappear on their own as the black mold grows back to cover the sections of wall rendered white by the washing.

“My heart leaps when I see these drawings,” Prof. Yawn said in a recent walk along the Tiber. “Building the timeline was an art historian’s dream and an opportunity to immerse students in primary research with a thrilling aim: to provide one of the world’s foremost contemporary artists with historical-visual ideas for a project of unprecedented scale in our own city. Dozens of the images we proposed, including some amusingly enigmatic ones, are now part of the Roman river-scape, translated through the brilliant imagination and graphic idiom of William Kentridge. What could possibly be more gratifying?” With help from other JCU faculty and students, Prof. Yawn is currently curating texts for the online catalog, which will be launched soon after the inauguration of the project.

The Inauguration – The inauguration will take place this evening, Thursday, April 21st (the birthday of Rome), along the river between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini at 8:30 pm, with a grand procession of shadow plays and dancers, set to music composed for the occasion by South African composer Phillip Miller and performed live by an international assembly of musicians. Two bands, one triumphant, the other lamenting, will start from opposite ends of the frieze and process along the river, meeting in the middle, crossing through one another, and proceeding to the far end.

The public is warmly welcome to share in this moment of magic. The performances last about twenty minutes each and will be repeated on Friday, April 22nd, at 8:30 pm and 10:30 pm. The best vantage points are from the river walk below the Lungotevere on the Campus Martius side of the river between Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini, facing Trastevere. The other best spot is from the Lungotevere just above. The procession will also be partly visible from Ponte Sisto and Ponte Mazzini. For more information on the project see: Triumphs and Laments.

Those Who Helped – The JCU Triumphs and Laments timeline researchers, now all alumni, include Kirila Cvetkovska, Giulia Carletti, Flavia Catarinelli, Francesca Gallo, Giacinta Gandolfo, Jahan Khajavipour, Rosa Palermo, Giosuè Prezioso, Kirsten Rogerson, and Giorgia Tamburi. Current JCU students Alice Marinelli, Valeria Frezza, Maria Aurelia Catalano Rossi Danielli, Maria Vittoria Di Sabatino, Polina Nasonova, and Nicole Navarro have come on board more recently to assist with the catalog and public performances. The JCU Grassroots Club has been very active in helping to clean up the Tiber in preparation for the event.

For press on the project see:

Locating William Kentridge’s Massive Mural in the Roman Landscape

Triumphs and Laments: A Project for Rome by William Kentridge at Piazza Tevere in Rome

William Kentridge inaugura “Triumphs and Laments” la monumentale opera nata dallo sporco sul Lungotevere