In October 2015, the art world celebrated the centenary of influential Italian painter Alberto Burri with a major exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. In the same month Il Grande Cretto, Burri’s land art project in Sicily, was finally completed after 30 years—and the monumental work is now inspiring artists worldwide.

It was conceived by Burri in 1984 as a memorial to the town of Gibellina, destroyed when a violent earthquake struck western Sicily on January 15, 1968. The quake killed more than 400 people and left hundreds injured and a thousand homeless, evoking expressions of sorrow and sympathy throughout Italy.

Placed directly over the ruins of Gibellina, the 86,000-square-foot Il Grande Cretto is composed of large semi-rectangular blocks of white concrete a little more than five feet high. The blocks are broken by deep fissures that create walkable paths roughly corresponding to the ancient town’s pattern of streets.

The work’s title, which means “The Large Cretto,” establishes it as a huge, horizontal version of the cretti, or “fissures,” paintings that Burri created in the 1970s by inducing fissures or cracks in large black or white monochromatic fields of paint. The land art piece is so gigantic and imposing that it’s difficult to believe it came from the mind of an artist whose earlier works were scaled to the walls of galleries and museums.

The work was conceived when a new incarnation of the village, Gibellina Nuova, was planned a few kilometers away from the old site, and its art-loving mayor, Ludovico Corrao, engaged architects, urban planners, and artists of international renown in its construction. After a decade, Corrao realized that one name was missing from the roster of major artists working on Gibellina Nuova: Alberto Burri, celebrated worldwide since his retrospective at the Venice Biennale in 1960. So Corrao contacted Burri in 1984, and the artist agreed to take part—with a caveat.

Many pieces of public art had already been installed in Gibellina Nuova and Burri was not interested in intervening in the new city; his attention was drawn to the ruins, dubbed Gibellina Vecchia (“old Gibellina”). “His interest in Gibellina was stimulated by the tragic story of the town and the topography and site-specificity of the place,” says Emily Braun, curator of the Burri retrospective at the Guggenheim.

He proposed a gigantic work of land art to completely cover the ruins left by the earthquake. With artistic sensitivity and foresight unusual in an Italian politician at the time—unusual in politicians anywhere and at any time—Corrao sensed that, although the somber work was bound to be provocative, it would eventually come to be seen as a masterpiece and an appropriate homage to the deceased.

From Prison Camp to Gallery

Born in 1915 in Città di Castello, a small town in the Umbria region of Italy, Burri took a degree in medicine in 1940 and was forced to serve in World War II, first as a frontline soldier and then as a physician. Captured by American soldiers in Tunisia in May 1943, he was sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Hereford, Texas. Assigned to peel potatoes in the camp kitchen, he began drawing on the burlap sacks the potatoes came in. Soon he was painting, and an art career was born.

Burri came back to Italy in 1946, arriving in a ruined Naples before settling in Rome. “The dire poverty of the south—exacerbated by the war and occupation—was what he first saw upon his return as the boat carried him back to Naples for his repatriation,” explains Emily Braun.

With Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, Burri was a powerful force in Italian art in the 1960s, particularly influencing the painters who were later to start the arte povera movement: Alighiero Boetti, Mario Merz, and Giuseppe Penone, advocates of an art full of symbolic power in opposition to American pop and minimalism. Burri became known for his sacchi (bags or burlaps), cumbustioni (burnt plastic on canvas), and cretti—artworks mixing painting and sculpture.

Il Grande Cretto, A Unique Piece in the World of Land Art

The construction of Il Grande Cretto was launched in 1984, and it was three-quarters completed by 1989. But due to a lack of public funding, the project was halted for more than a quarter century, only to be completed 20 years after Burri’s death, on its original plan.

“His contribution to land art is singular,” says Emily Braun. “His Grande Cretto is a site-specific memorial based on an urban footprint. Moreover, the ‘style’ of the work, a cretto, relates to his own painterly vocabulary and process-interests as much as it does to the symbolism of an earthquake.… It strikes a balance between his personal vision as an artist and honesty to what happened there, drawing out the seismic power of the earth itself and the depths of the tragedy.”

Imbued with a spirit of mourning and commemoration, the Cretto is very different from American land art of the mid-1960s and ’70s and the work of British artists such as Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy. It serves as “a memorial in and of the land, a record of the land or the earth, [which] was disastrous for human life,” says Emily Braun. “It represents a moment seized in time, as well as serving as a larger metaphor of cycles of nature and of life and death.”

The piece also places a capstone on the significance and influence of Burri, which reaches far beyond the Italian art world.

Celebrating and Interpreting a Masterpiece

To celebrate the piece’s completion, last October, the Gibellina Nuova city councillor in charge of art, sport, and tourism, Giuseppe Zummo, invited Giancarlo Neri to create an audiovisual performance.

Neri, born in Naples and now based in Rome, is one of Italy’s major installation artists and public art creators. Originally a painter, he later devoted himself to large public installations in the United States, Brazil, and Europe. He had already created light shows for Il Grande Cretto in the early 2010s; in 2015 he chose to collaborate with a friend, the Bristol-based artist Robert Del Naja, who is also a founding member of the British trip-hop band Massive Attack and has family connections to Naples. Together they created an installation/event entitled AudioGhost68.

Having placed portable radios within the Cretto to broadcast a soundtrack of audio from the year 1968, the artists invited Gibellina Nuova’s citizens into Burri’s labyrinthine masterpiece, giving each of them a flashlight. “One thousand white fireflies move and dance in the night in all directions inside the ‘veins’ of the Cretto, their moving light forming a great luminous mosaic in constant evolution,” Neri wrote in a press release. “[In] the air, came the sounds and voices of a long-gone era, a year that changed the world for a long moment but that here, in Gibellina, like a true Apocalypse, marked the end of it.”

“Alberto Burri’s Grande Cretto, remembering but also hiding the tragic event under concrete, represents a return to life through art,” Del Naja wrote.

More than 3,000 people attended the event, some of them coming for the first time to the site of the town where their family members used to live. For Emily Braun, this event “shows how alive the work continues to be.”

Since then, Il Grande Cretto has continued to inspire. In the summer of 2016, an exhibition dedicated to arte povera at the Centre Pompidou in Paris highlighted a painting by Burri, Rosso è Nero, and ended with the screening of three films shot in Gibellina. Raphaël Zarka’s film is very sober, taking a documentary approach to describing the site. Thierry De Mey filmed a dance performance in the Grande Cretto, and the third film, by Petra Noordkamp, was commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum to retell the whole story of the Sicilian city.

“The three films are presented in dialogue with the paintings and with the Grande Cretto itself,” explains Frédéric Paul, curator of the exhibition. “Even those who feared Burri’s megalomania have now recognized the impressive creativity of the Grande Cretto.”

In Gibellina, Giuseppe Zummo continues to program choreography and art events in the Cretto. A film shot by Giancarlo Neri and Giuseppe Lanno during the performance of AudioGhost68 was screened in Naples at Artecinema, the International Festival of Films on Contemporary Art, in early October 2016. Thanks to contemporary artists and the participation of local people, Gibellina Vecchia has never been more alive.

Freelance journalist and writer Melissa Chemam has been covering news and culture for 13 years. Born in Paris, she has lived in Prague, Miami, London, and Nairobi. Her nonfiction book about Bristol was published in France in October 2016.

From Public Art Review #55, where this article originally appeared as “A Concrete Rebirth.”