An Exhibition by Keane at the Oxo Gallery, Barga – August 1-15, 2019
Review by Frank Viviano
Memory, in the barren language of conventional psychology, is simply “a faculty of the brain applied to the coding, storage and retrieval of data.” No wonder, then, that psychology’s numbing vocabulary (and mechanistic perspective) has been adopted whole by computer engineers and programmers.
“Ancient memories,” the exhibition by Keane now featured at Barga’s Oxo Gallery, is after something far more profound and mysterious. The latest chapter in his decades-long meditation on the fate of tradition in the modern world, the exhibition is about memory as philosophers and artists view it: a motive force in creative imagination and collective identity. Keane calls it “visceral memory,” a subtle current of knowledge that is “felt in the gut,” rather than coded and sorted in the mind.
The sources of that current are traced by Keane in powerful images of woodland implements known as “pennati.” In the most general sense, the term applies to gently curved blades, ending in a beak-like point, that have been in use here since the early Bronze Age 50 centuries ago. They are among the most traditional artifacts associated with Barga’s heavily forested mountain hinterland, the Garfagnana and the Lunigiana.
The exhibition is a mesmerizing survey of these extraordinary instruments — large and small, both venerable and relatively new — engraved by Keane into a stratum of hardened beechwood ash layered over canvas. The ash is from logs used to heat the Barga home of the artist and his wife, painter and poet Tiziana Fontana. It imparts a sensual depth and timelessness to the assemblages.
Since time immemorial, the pennati have been employed in forestry and pasturage. But they have also been lethal weapons, a lesson that a succession of Roman legions learned brutally at the hands of the Apuan Liguri, the region’s primeval inhabitants. In 186 BC, they dealt the Roman Republic one of the most disastrous military defeats in its history at the Battle of Saltus Marcius, in a remote pass east of Pietrasanta.
Pennati-like tools and weapons are found at many Bronze and Iron Age sites elsewhere in Europe. But only in the Apuan Alps of the Garganana and the Lunigiana have they been rendered as art. At several sites, most notably the Sella dell’Anguillara on the high plateau between the Pania della Croce and Monte Omo Morto, flat rock formations have been incised with images that clearly represent pennati. They are frequently accompanied by abstract symbols, also among Keane’s engravings, such as a six-pointed star that held cosmic significance for Celts, to whom the Apuan Liguri are believed by some anthropologists to be related.
Other symbols are explicit representations of the female vulva. The pennati themselves are laden with erotic anthropomorphic suggestion, male in the case of the erectly-held, phallic-shaped “pennato” — and female in another version, which closely resembles the figure of a pregnant woman and is known as a “pennata,” with the feminine “a” ending of Latin and Italian.
In stark testimony to the unease that stubbornly persistent pre-Christian ideas provoked in the censorious Middle Ages, fields of crosses were hacked into rock faces where pennati images were discovered.
Curious, carefully rounded depressions appear among the pennati and sexual symbols, sometimes in orderly rows. Were they used for mixing herbal medications or burning incense? For posts displaying banners with tribal or spiritual significance? There is no archaeological consensus on this question. Nor do we know, with any certainty, why specific locations were chosen for the petroglyphic images. One theory has it that exposed, flat rock surfaces such as the Sella dell’Anguillara served as meeting points for rival Apuan clan leaders. Another is that they were ritual places of worship, dedicated to forest deities analogous to the Etruscan god Selvans, later adopted by the Romans as “Silvanus.”
But why in the Garfagnana and the Lunigiana, and nowhere else? The symbols and tools pictured in Keane’s exhibition are at the heart of a mystery that may never be solved. His engravings were directly inspired by the Apuan petroglyphs, many of which he has studied and personally photographed after grueling treks among the serrated ridges and peaks that frame Barga’s western horizon.
So far, precise dating of these enigmatic images has also proven impossible. What’s unmistakable is that the pennati renderings are identical to actual Bronze Age implements unearthed by archaeological teams in the region — and also, astonishingly, to harvest and wood-working tools still sold at farm supply shops and hardware stores in the Province of Lucca, their basic design almost entirely unchanged. A pennato or pennata on offer today at the agraria in Barga Giardino would be immediately recognizable to a Garfagnana woodsman from the year 2,500 BC, as would Keane’s elegant representations in ash.
Pennati, in short, have been part of the local collective identity for hundreds of generations, knowledge of their use and care handed down from parent to child since prehistory. They are the very definition of visceral memory, the past beyond the realm of thought — its legacy intensely alive and felt in the gut.
All articles by Frank Viviano on barganews can be seen here
Frank Viviano is the author or co-author of seven books, including the critically-acclaimed Blood Washes Blood, Dispatches From the Pacific Century and In the Balkans (with Magnum photographer Nikos Economopoulos).