contemporary art / history of art

Artwork of the Month / January 2023

Il Santo che brucia (The Burning Saint)
Alessia Rollo

80 cm x 60 cm
Analogue photography on fine art photo paper
Edition of 5

The photography, “The Burning Saint” by the Italian artist Alessia Rollo shows a hill with people at the left slope, who are passing bundles of brushwood from one to another. In front of an evening sky, the scenery reminds a shadow theatre. Alessia shot the image in Novoli, Apulia, south of Italy, during the preparation of the “Focara”. Focara is a term in the dialect of the region, which means bonfire. The Focara in Novoli is the biggest one in Italy.

Every winter, in the weeks before the 16th of January, the Feast of Anthony the Abbot, several dozens of volunteers are collecting brushwood from the grapevine pruning, to stack at least 90.000 faggots to an enormous hill with a diameter of twenty metres and a height of twenty-five metres. On the evening before the feast of the saint, this fire is lightened, along with fireworks in the sky, to initiate the three days of festivities dedicated to Anthony the Abbot. Yearly over 50.000 visitors are following the events.

Primarily, the tradition was a rite of purification and fertility. In autumn, the grapevines are trimmed as preparation for a good harvest in the following year. The bonfire with the cuttings is not only practical to eliminate them, but the ashes can be used as fertilisation of the vineyards. Moreover, the fire warms people in the coldest nights of the year, so that families and also pilgrims met there. Perhaps originally a pagan rite, became an official Christian festival in the 17th century, in honour of Saint Anthony the Abbot, patron saint of the peasants.

“The Burning Saint” is part of Alessia’s series “Parallel Eyes”. Here, the artist focussed ancient practices in the south of Italy. Like many other traditions in various areas, these rituals have lost their initial sense for today’s societies. If still enduring, the old customs have lost their original meaning and are now popular festivals with a commercial purpose. As the yearly visitor number indicates, also the Focara of Novoli, has become a major attraction.

Alessia depicts both elements of the festival. Instead of displaying the burning bonfire, she shows the manual work of the peasants constructing the hill of faggots. As silhouettes in the shadow, they are anonymous volunteers, working for a common objective. Furthermore, the taking of the photo in the evening refers to the approaching festivities. Several stars in the evening sky appear as lines, due to the long exposure time in the night. Thus, they remind fireworks, a contemporary element in the ancient rite of the Focara.


Alessia Rollo

Born 1982 in Lecce, Italy, Alessia studied first at the University of Perugia to obtain her BA and made then a Master in “Creative Photography” at the Escuela de Fotografia y Cine (EFTI – School for Photography and Cinema) in Madrid, Spain. She frequented the State University in Milan, Italy for her Master in Publishing. Besides her studies, she participated in many workshops with international artists like Peter Funch, Mauricio Alejo, Denis Darzacq, Jill Greenberg, Matt Siber, James Casebere and Mary Ellen Mark. Additionally, she was selected for the international Default – Masterclass residency in 2011 and the MO.ta residency in Ljubljana, Slovenia in 2013. In 2019 and 2020, she had residencies at the Italian Cultural Institute in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and participated in 2019 in the project “European Eyes on Japan” in Mashiko.

Since 2010, Alessia had several solo exhibitions, mainly in Spain, but also in Brazil, Italy and Japan. Moreover, she participated in many group shows. At the beginning of her carrier, the focus was in Spain. Nevertheless, in the last years her works were as well on view in Italy, Netherlands (Unseen Amsterdam), France (Arles Cosmos) and England (Lens Culture Award, London Photo). Outside Europe, her works were presented in Brazil (Galeria Mascate), Shanghai (Shanghai Photofestival) and Ethiopia (Addis Foto Fest).

Alessia’s first photos were still life’s, close to Italian renaissance painting. After a period of experimenting with different techniques and combining diverse genres, her work became more conceptual. She creates series by investigating an issue from various angles, with the result that the single shooting gets its importance mainly in context with the associated photos. This becomes evident in her series “Fata Morgana”, where our artwork of the month February 2019 is taken from. Here she is questioning the ambiguous image of her home region Salento between reality and appearance.

With her series “Parallel Eyes” from 2019, Alessia focussed once more on the south of Italy. She photographed ancient practices of the region, which have lost their original meaning by the time and became popular festivals with a commercial purpose. The photo “The Burning Saint” from this series, presents the Focara of Novoli and is our artwork of the month January 2023. As exhibition “Parallel Eyes” travelled in 2021 to Tirana, Albany, Bari and Lecce and in 2022 to Athens, Greece.

In 2018, Fata Morgana was on view, in Tokyo, Japan, in Nigni Tagil, Russia and in Monopoli, Italy and in 2020 in the Italian Embassy in Madrid. The Spanish editor Ediciones Anómalas released a photobook of the project in March 2019. Her series “Dialoghi Italiani” was also published as book in 2018, where Alessia enquired about photography itself and the loss or change of meaning in an image, when the original context is no longer available. Earlier series questioned about changing eating habits (Happy Meal and We eat what we are) or depicted unusual arrangements at home (In Domestico).

Alessia lives and works in Lecce.