Unearthing Civilisation's Secrets in Venice

Unearthing Civilisation's Secrets in Venice

An exhibition of striking photographs at Fondazione Giancarlo Ligabue in Venice take us deep in to the caves of Lascaux, revealing the earliest known drawings in human history, documented through Domingo Milella's contemporary lens.
An exhibition of striking photographs at Fondazione Giancarlo Ligabue in Venice take us deep in to the caves of Lascaux, revealing the earliest known drawings in human history, documented through Domingo Milella's contemporary lens.

A rriving by boat at Palazzo Erizzo Ligabue on bustling waters of Venice’s Grand Canal is a little like pulling up on Park Lane or Fifth Avenue. It’s a destination address. But I arrive on foot. And, even by the city’s labyrinthine standards, finding the 15th century Gothic building is an epic tussle with the winding whims of Italian alleyways. However, the hidden entrance, pocketed in the shadowy passages, certainly suits the crepuscular exhibition I’ve come to visit at the Fondazione Giancarlo Ligabue.

Domingo Milella durante uno scatto in una grotta.

The foundation continues the work and ethos of Giancarlo Ligabue, the Venetian polymath – a celebrated palaeontologist, scholar, politician and businessman – who died in 2015. Run by Inti Ligabue, Giancarlo’s son, the organisation today promotes and disseminates understanding in the fields of palaeontology, archaeology and ethnology, through a programme of exhibitions, conferences, publications and scientific studies. It has been described as an “ark of knowledge.”

Domingo Milella, Deer Cave, The Dolphin, Italy 2019.

The foundation’s latest exhibition, Futuroremoto, is all about shining a light on forgotten wonders. It showcases the work of Italian artist Domingo Milella who has, for more than a decade, produced a series of large-format photographs of Europe’s prehistoric cave paintings – eerie human forms and outlines of long extinct animals, indecipherable symbols and patterns concealed deep in the ethereal caverns of Italy, Spain and France. “These images, these signs created by our ancestors, tens of thousands of years ago, reach us with a visual power that is incredible,” says Inti. Staged to coincide with the 60th edition of the Venice Biennale, the exhibition provides a timely reminder that the desire to visually interpret life’s mysteries – and everyday rhythms – has been a constant throughout the history of humankind.

“Caves are scary, but somehow fascinating. They pull you in,” observes Milella, who describes his subterranean pictures taken using a camera obscura as “casts of light from darkness.” Photographing these paintings, deep underground, was “a need not an option,” he says. “I could not choose a more difficult path to follow with the analogue matter of photography.”

Domingo Milella, El Castillo, Spain 2016.

The cave paintings feature dappled horses, mammoths and strange blue-tinged creatures with hooves and horns galloping in herds. There are patterns engraved on rock in red hues. Families of white stick people emerge from the surface of stone like ghosts. “Primitive images are transparent, empty and full at the same time. They float in circles, they do not do what we want them to do,” says Milella. “They are open and free, absent and present. I feel they represent the end and the beginning. They are real and abstract at the same time. They are not ‘art’; not what we think of as art today. Yet they are art, some of the best I have ever seen.”

“The depths of the earth preserve traces of a past that is at the origin of what we are today but that we still cannot fully decipher.”

Inti Ligabue was instinctively drawn to the photographs, having visited prehistoric caves with his father. Cave paintings, he argues, deliver a profound sense of time suspended. And the exhibition fits perfectly with a cultural mission that has been pursued for half a century: first under the aegis of a research centre founded by Giancarlo in 1973, and now as the foundation. “Prehistory, the origins of our civilization, the understanding of our humanity have always been areas of exploration,” Inti says. “In this case, we do so with a new tool, that of art, of emotion, renewing in a new way a dialogue between the past and our contemporaneity.”

Domingo Milella, La Pasiega, Finale, Spain 2016.

In Venice, the photographs are made even more impactful by being shown to visitors during special gallery tours after sunset, during which the palazzo itself becomes a Renaissance cave of marble, imagery and watery twilight. The exhibition allows this august family home to resonate with the fundamental impulses of humanity. “Depictions from the dawn of time, dating back 40,000 years, were created to fascinate and surprise us with the figurative power or, conversely, with the capacity for abstraction demonstrated by primitive man.”

Domingo Milella, Chufin, Vulva, Spain 2016.

Seen in the context of the palazzo, the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet and other locations seem simultaneously naïve and refined. As the title of the exhibition implies, they also feel futuristic and mercurial. Inti explains: “The depths of the earth preserve traces of a past that is at the origin of what we are today but that we still cannot fully decipher.”

His father left a remarkable legacy. A veteran of some 130 anthropological and archaeological expeditions across the globe, Giancarlo built a vast collection of objects, paintings, fossils, minerals, sculpture, tribal artefacts, and much more. He uncovered two buried cities and discovered the remains of an unknown genus of the noasaurid dinosaur, subsequently named the Ligabueino – meaning "Ligabue's little one" – in his honour. Some 2,000 pieces from his collection are now on permanent loan to the Natural History Museum of Venice, of which he was once the president.

Domingo Milella, Pech Merle, Horses, Hands, Discs, France 2018.

For Inti, directing the foundation has allowed him to learn more about his father, while sharing the expertise and wisdom acquired on adventures in the margins of the world. “Despite the age difference, he had often involved me in his expeditions, told stories of peoples and cultures, transmitted fundamental values,” he recalls. “Inevitably, over these years, with affection and admiration, I have discovered much more about his thoughts and his incredible personality.”

Inti Ligabue and Domingo Milella.

His aim now is to build on Giancarlo’s work through education and dissemination. “Research cannot be an end in itself,” he says. “Knowledge must be shared.” This, he maintains, is what enriches society and creates free thought. “Over the millennia, we have consciously destroyed and supplanted peoples and cultures. But understanding where we come from, what we were like, the impulses that moved us, looking back to distant eras, I believe this helps us to better understand what we are today.” To do otherwise is to remain lost in the dark.

Futuremoto is showing at Fondazione Giancarlo Ligabue, Venice, until 27 April.

The Venice Biennale Interviews Photographs

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