Erasing peace to spread its seeds. Pacem in Terris by Emilio Isgrò

Made in 2019, Emilio Isgrò's "Pacem in Terris," kept at the Museum of the Battle and Anghiari, is a work that brings together John XXIII and Leonardo da Vinci to spread a high content of peace.

John XXII was a man who saw the future. And he saw it clear and bright, alive and palpable in the radiance of a universal order reflected in the intentions and actions of the human beings who will inhabit the earth. A future where everywhere there will be respect for existence, the right to have a decent standard of living, mutual cooperation among people, a future where there will be coexistence in truth, justice, love and freedom, a future where peace will no longer stand on the balance of armaments, but will be built on mutual trust. This is how John XXIII envisioned it in his 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris, one of the most visionary writings of the twentieth century, a text that has never lost a shattering of its relevance.

Emilio Isgrò was reasoning on this writing when, in 2019, the five-hundredth anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death, he had begun to grapple with the lost Battaglia di Anghiari, called upon to give life to a work capable of confronting the work of the vincian. To think of a merely illustrative work would have been a waste of energy. And to devote oneself to a “homage,” as they say, would have been idle and even risky, because one would have run the risk of looking at Leonardo’s work as one would look at a fossil: that is, with the detachment hollowed out by distance, on which always hangs the hazard of preclusions. Instead, there are continuities, alive and pulsating, between Leonardo da Vinci’s thought and the gaze that, today, we contemporaries turn to the world. And so approaching Leonardo with due respect, and at the same time producing something that is of some use, means finding equivalences between his ideas and ours. Emilio Isgrò has found these equivalences in the way Leonardo scrutinized war and the way we do, and he has elaborated them in the work that bears the name of John XXIII’s encyclical. And which from 2019 the public can admire at the Museum of the Battle and Anghiari, not far from the place where, on June 29, 1440, the Florentine and Milanese armies clashed in one of the most famous battles of the Renaissance: because it was a decisive clash, and because it was eternalized by Leonardo.

Emilio Isgrò, Pacem in terris (2019; tecnica mista su tela, 140 x 200 cm; Anghiari, Museo della Battaglia e di Anghiari)
Emilio Isgrò, Pacem in terris (2019; mixed media on canvas, 140 x 200 cm; Anghiari, Museo della Battaglia e di Anghiari)

Isgrò took the first words of Pacem in terris, arranged them on a white background, and as per his established practice erased them all. An apparently subversive and desecrating gesture: in fact it is the exact opposite. Erasing is not meant to fuel provocations: if anything, it is an expedient to safeguard the word in a world that overwhelms us, on the one hand, with the chatter of vain words, which do not remain but which continuously overwhelm us and do not allow us to breathe, and on the other hand with the overbearingness of incessant, pressing and pervasive visual communication, when not completely intrusive. Erasing Pacem in Terris does not mean erasing war, as appearance might suggest. It means making the erasures pregnant with the meaning, high, noble and vigorous, of John XXIII’s words. And to entrust the bees with the task of seeping the nectar of the text and scattering its pollen in the world so that the seeds of peace are produced everywhere. Isgrò’s is “a discourse,” he said in an interview with Finestre sull’Arte, “on the possibility that peace has of asserting itself in the world, at a time when the world is literally at war, within various countries, between nation and nation.” A speech that recalls a text written "at a difficult time for world reality, when atomic war and a confrontation that would eliminate all the inhabitants of the planet, or almost all of them, were feared at every minute,“ and that the artist intends to pronounce in the awareness that ”today the planet is inhabited by people exposed to too many risks: it is impoverished and exploited in a bestial way, as sometimes the men themselves are exploited."

Leonardo da Vinci’s consideration of war is well known, he who knew war all too well, not only as a Renaissance man, but also as a scientist and inventor who designed lethal machines to be used on the battlefields, because he was convinced, given the nature in his opinion abject of a human being who tends to destroy himself and his surroundings, that war was an inescapable way to preserve the good of freedom. But war horrified him: he called it “bestial madness.” The inhumanity of war repulsed him. He suffered at the idea that one man could kill another man, and we can only imagine the pain that the clash between his convictions and his profession, the disagreement between his wishes and the realization that he lived in an age that knew no peace, must have caused him. He understood, however, that for the human being, peace is the desirable condition: in the Battle of Anghiari itself, with the ferocious clash between the contenders, and the frightened horses who are called upon despite themselves to participate in the truly bestial cruelty of humans, one glimpses the “manifesto of an intellectual opposition to brutality, to discord,” as the director of the Anghiari museum, Gabriele Mazzi, has pointed out. This is where the work of Emilio Isgrò is grafted in, Mazzi goes on to explain, capable of grasping an analogy between Leonardo’s time and our own: “the contradiction of a European society that would like to be ecological, peaceful, secular and democratic (perhaps the best ideological fulfillment of humanism), but in which the regulatory mechanisms fail to interfere with the instincts of the animal-man.”

Here then, the relevance of Leonardo da Vinci’s work, continuing to live on in the work of Emilio Isgrò, takes on the appearance of a warning: those instincts that, in the 15th century, led armies to clash in battle, today are not dormant, but emerge in other forms, perhaps less violent in our society (but identical elsewhere: it is said that man has never known a year without wars), and yet capable of producing devastation. Writer Giorgio Bagnobianchi likened the image of Emilio Isgrò’s Pacem in Terris to that of a secular altarpiece, a work designed for “a dialectical questioning of life and the evolution of the biosphere.” A “majesty” of the 21st century, “ideally placed in the territory of our everyday life at the crossroads of roads with unknown destinations,” which, “with the ostension of peace, questions us about the epiphany of a state that is not simply the cancellation of war but the conquest of civil coexistence, of harmony between men nature and technology, a new alliance for the future.”

John XXXIII, and like him many great thinkers and artists of his time, believed that this future is an attainable goal. And it is certain that it will come, sooner or later, to this future of peace. It will not be tomorrow, it will not be in the immediate future, but it will get there. And since it is reason that claims this goal, John XXIII wrote, it will be reason itself that will show and build the way.