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Circle of Confusion

Peter Callas

Digital prints
Boutwell-Draper Gallery, Sydney (2004);
ARC one Gallery, Melbourne (2007);
“Digital Aesthetic”, Preston, UK (2012)

The image series titled ‘Circle of Confusion’ is a part of a meditation on the Trionfo della Morte (‘The Triumph of Death’), an early 14th century fresco cycle in the Camposanto in Pisa.

The Trionfo was one of the earliest of the frescos to be executed on the walls of the Camposanto — Pisa’s monumental cemetery — as part of what became the most ambitious fresco project in medieval Italy. Nearly the entire cycle, involving numerous artists and taking about 150 years to complete, was destroyed in a cataclysmic fire resulting from a stray American bomb during the liberation of Pisa in 1944. Although badly damaged, the Trionfo was one of the only surviving parts of the vast opus.

The Trionfo cycle consists of four parts, the ‘Triumph’ itself (with Death personified as a fearful flying spirit), the Last Judgement, the Inferno, and the Lives of the Monks. It is attributed to Buonamico Buffalmacco, a figure who until recently was known about only reflexively through some highly amusing anecdotes recounted in Boccaccio’s Decameron, which, perversely — given the shrill propaganda which seems to permeate these frescos — portrayed him as the quintessential prankster.

Ondavideo, Pisa, arranged permission for me to shoot in three locations: the Trionfo della Morte frescos in the Camposanto; the 19th century hand-coloured engravings of the frescos by Carlo Lasinio on exhibit in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo; and the Trionfo cycle sinopie in the Museo delle Sinopie in Pisa. I also went to a number of other locations to photograph the landscape and related historical imagery.

Whilst travelling through Italy we were trapped in extraordinarily thick but highly localised mist (nebbia) on several occasions. This reminded me of how we now look at the remains of the fresco, separated from it not only by its blistered surface with the missing parts floating like obscuring clouds, but also by the great gap existing between that age and our own.

Nonetheless, I was struck by how much the landscape en route led me further and further into the Trionfo paintings. I deliberately sought out contexts in which I might imagine the participants in the Trionfo occupying, including wilderness hermitages such as the Franciscan complex at La Verna, where the background panoramas of ‘Postscript’ and ‘Liberators’ were filmed.

I was startled at La Verna by a web of crucifixes scratched in with keys, coins, and stones into a long moss wall. They had the same plaintive note as the outstretched arms in the Trionfo’s Last Judgement - which now seemed to reach across the centuries. The very ambiguity of Death itself is the fog that this fresco has, in time, come to be about. Its meaning has shifted from one of ultimate and threatening certainty to one of profound uncertainty.

Peter Callas

Image from the series: Circle of Confusion, 2004.
Image from the series: Circle of Confusion, 2004.