New York

Italo Scanga

112 Greene Street

On two facing walls of the gallery, Italo Scanga hangs handsomely framed reproductions of kitschy religious paintings spattered with red paint. Before these, he places glass urns containing spices or grains, and occasionally leans farming implements, a rake or a hoe, against the wall. At the rear of the gallery, he hangs large bunches of dried herbs. Scanga constructs a kind of ritual space which resembles a series of ambulatory chapels in a cathedral, each with its own devotional image. One has to kneel to examine the paintings closely, since they are hung so low to the ground, and from there it is a natural step to smell or taste the foodstuffs in the urns.

The reproductions Scanga appropriates are the kind of sweet versions of gruesome imagery—bleeding martyrs and sacred hearts—found in poorer Italian homes. The spots and streaks of thin red paint have been applied helter-skelter, almost as if he had opened a vein before the images.

Scanga’s allusion to desecration (or perhaps it is an extreme form of veneration) speaks directly to the devotional function of these images. So do the tools leaning against the wall. Many a Catholic saint was martyred by common people who used just such pedestrian implements. In medieval times, peasants used their tools as weapons since only gentry were allowed to use swords. Yet these implements are muffled. The tines of a rake, for example, are braided with straw, which both indicates and mutes the tool’s deadly function. Thinking about why those tools are there, kneeling and realizing just what Scanga has done to his images, together with smelling and tasting the urns’ contents, draws the spectator into a kind of kinesthetic parody of Holy Communion.

Scanga appears to be forcing a familiar religious issue here, pointing up the discontinuity between the painful violence the martyrs underwent and the devotional images that abstract sweet sanctity from suffering. Scanga places an urn brimming with chili powder before the bespattered image of the Christ child as Salvator mundi, so that the tasting becomes almost like one of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises, an encouragement for us to empathize with His suffering for us. But Scanga’s iconography is a bit more complex than this.

The Baroque era during which St. Ignatius wrote his Exercises also saw the culmination of a particular tradition of natural magic. This humanist systematization of the natural world was no more nor less respectable in the eyes of the church than the then-emerging scientific attitude. Two of the leading philosophers and practitioners of this tradition of magic, Giordano Bruno (who was burned for his views) and the Dominican friar Tommaso Campanella, were born in Calabria, Italy, as was Scanga himself.

Campanella was frequently jailed during his lifetime, once for defending Galileo. But his development of a powerful astrological magic won him the support of Pope Urban VIII, who in 1628 called upon Campanella to use his magic to ward off planetary influences threatening the pontiff’s life. In performing the embarrassingly pagan ritual derived from Bruno and earlier magicians, the pope and the friar sang, lit candles to simulate the planets in a safe arrangement, drank specially distilled liquors, and sprinkled and burned selected herbs. In return for this service, Campanella gained the Pope’s support for the establishment of a short-lived order to proselytize a syncretistic brand of millennial Catholicism and sun worhsip.

Scanga’s art is informed by an awareness of 17th-century Calabrian magical tradition, which was by no means a populist shamanism. Campanella, among others, thought of Catholicism as contiguous with the natural magic they had wrought out of humanist philosophy. Similarly, Scanga’s art infers a kind of community between cooking and religion and magic; it is not a new attempt at an orthodox Christian art.

Alan Moore