Front: The Umbrian Markers
Rear: Ternay Marker
Left: The Umbrian Markers
Right: Ternay Marker
Summer travelers to Florence have the unusual option of topping off their visit to Ghiberti's gilt Gates of Paradise and Botticelli's Birth of Venus by climbing a hillside to see a retrospective of Beverly Pepper's unadorned steel columns arrayed on broad terraces of the abandoned Forte Belvedere.
To get there, cross the Ponte Vecchio -- avoiding the dazzle of jewelers' displays in the small shops lining the bridge's edges -- to the quieter Oltrarno district on the south side of the Arno. A block further and Piazza San Felicita reveals itself, with its pigeons and open-air cafes. At its rear is a narrow street, Costa di San Giorgio. Stay on it as it spirals up the hill, and within 20 minutes you'll be at the monumental arched gate leading to the 16th-century fort.
Climb the stairs and enter the expansive courtyard, and the panoramic vista of Florence is yours, now framed by groupings of Pepper's signature chiseled columns. A faint scent of manure attests to the site's rustic origins, enhancing the sense of viewing contemporary art in an ancient place. There's the massive, elegant cupola of the Duomo, Florence's main cathedral. Off to the right, the crenelated tower of the Palazzo Publico stretches into the sky, dwarfing Michelangelo's huge David at its foot. Tawny terra-cotta covers a jumble of roofs.
Sculptural installations at Forte Belvedere play off of this great expanse of space and distinctive monuments. If this is formidable visual competition for Pepper's work, so are her predecessors at the Fort -- stellar sculptors such as Constantin Brancusi, Marino Marini and Henry Moore. She is the first American, and the first woman, to exhibit at this site -- a rather remarkable instance of chauvinism. However, Pepper's works in no way refute the esthetic conservatism implied by such discrimination.
Pepper's four slim "Todi" columns, overlooking the northern part of the city, were the first of her huge stele. Ranging from 28 to 36 feet high, they were first installed in 1979 in a piazza in the Umbrian hill town of Todi, for a conference on public sculpture. (Since the 1950s, Pepper and her husband have lived both in Italy and in lower Manhattan.)
In contrast to the Old World charm of Florence, the strong rectilinear solidity of the "Venice-Todi" columns immediately demonstrates the appeal, however conventional, of Pepper's geometric Minimalism. In their monumental height -- around 20 feet -- and intricate interplay of voids and masses, they bear a hieratic power.
Gazing beyond the columns toward Florence, the tall dark posts divide the panorama like bars on a window, challenging perceptions of interior and exterior. The dramatic contrast of the earthy-hued Florentine cityscape enhances the stark verticality of her forms, as Brunelleschi's swelling dome stands as a bulwark of Renaissance refinement.
Pepper's austerity is most striking if only a few works are examined, lest the repetition dilute the impact. At the fort's rear yard, a grouping of more human-scaled, bronze Umbrian Markers and a bronze Ternay Marker, all from 1988, stand like tribal figure carvings or chess pieces. Grouped on a concrete plinth, they suggest a ritualistic meeting of shaman. Given the Forte Belvedere's exhibition record, the reference to primitive art is more easily read as a tribute to the primitivism of Brancusi and Moore.
In true retrospective form, the exhibition also includes some of Pepper's earlier works. Take for instance her cubic Prisms 1 from 1967, a series of open stainless steel boxes attached to a post, their mirror surfaces brightly reflecting the surrounding landscape. In spite of its mechanistic vivacity, Prisms 1, resembles a generic period piece from mid-1960s New York rather than a product of Pepper's own vision. The same can be said for the metal collage Don't Fence Me In and the darkly beautiful, Abstract Expressionist painting Natura / Naturans: Umbrio Uno. The work would have been provocative in 1957 -- it is disappointing to discover that its tired style was produced in 1997.
On the other hand, two recent sculptures have been released from the constraints of Pepper's hard geometricized primitivism, integrating a more organic fluidity into her controlled compositions. In Panicale, Muro, 1998, a sweeping arc of steel, bolstered from the rear by piled earth, emerges from the ground. The slightly irregular plank of mottled pietra serena stone of her Borgia Column, 1984-98, suggests a living being, as the lower part of the "body" is punctured by a small, broad, pubis-like triangle. This ancient sign for the female pudendum -- incised in Cycladic figurines -- renders the rather androgynous sculpture a Woman, stalwart and tall. If this impressive work demonstrates a less inhibited mood for Pepper, we can look forward to a powerful synthesis of the primitive and the personal in her work to come.
An illustrated catalogue containing essays by art historians Carlo Bertelli, Bruno Cora and Diane Kelder was published by Electa; a film of the exhibition on videocassette is also available. For information: (39) 55 234 6423.
SUZAAN BOETTGER is an art historian and critic in New York.