The next time you see someone who seems to be cleaning the marble exterior of a Florentine monument, look closer. It is likely vigilante ‘smog artist’ Alessandro Ricci collecting material for his next artwork.
Born in Florence in 1968, Ricci has been creating his ‘paintings’ using the thick black pollution that coats the city’s statues and buildings since about 2003. It’s his personal form of environmental protest. ‘Smog destroys buildings and people,’ he laments. ‘The streets of this city are so small; they were never meant to host all these cars and buses.’ In fact, Ricci says, in all the other European cities he has visited, he has never collected dirt as black as what he finds here.
True, Florence has finally started making some important changes in this regard. Making the Duomo area pedestrian-only as of October 25, 2009 was ‘a small revolution,’ concedes Ricci. He also approves of the new Tramvia that travels from his present-day home of Scandicci to downtown Florence, which has reduced bus traffic to the city centre. But Ricci and die-hard environmentalists like him still feel the city has a long way to go. It will take several years, for example, to clean the thick layers of grime that have accumulated everywhere throughout the city, especially on heavily trafficked streets like via Proconsolo, which Ricci refers to as a ‘gas chamber,’ and those around the Santa Maria Novella train station.
Ricci’s first ‘artistic’ contact with smog came in the early 1990s when he used the city’s polluted dirt to write words on walls that were decorated by some graffiti-artist friends. It wasn’t until about a decade later, however, when he was taking some pollution samples for the environmental chemistry department at the University of Florence, that he got the idea to use it as a medium for painting on canvas.
Since then, Ricci has been producing his quiet, melancholic street scenes and portraits of the very buildings from which he retrieves his charcoal-like medium with clean, damp cotton. He is always careful to use the ‘purest’ material available, ‘just dirt and air,’ obtaining it from several feet above the ground, and only from surfaces like marble, stone or plastic, which won’t leave any residue. He then applies this directly to his canvas and seals his image with a natural resin.
The natural-sciences graduate took a couple of art classes several years ago, but is essentially self-taught. ‘For me, it’s not so much about being this big artist,’ he says, ‘the point is to bring attention to how much of this material is here.’ Indeed, the soft-spoken Ricci is utterly lacking in pretension. He doesn’t work in a studio, he donates much of his work and he refuses to play by the rules of the Florentine gallery system, which he considers fundamentally corrupt. Selling his art that way would not only compromise his principles, he explains, but also contradict the very thing he’s trying to do.
Instead, Ricci relies on organizations like Città Ciclabile and Amici dei Musei to help spread his message. ‘Besides,’ he says, ‘getting a compliment from [internationally renowned oncologist] Umberto Veronesi is so much more interesting to me than what some art critic thinks.’
Watch Ricci collecting his material around Florence in this online video: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ig4Z09FIYu0
See a gallery of his artwork here: