Universal Gestures: Giuseppe Penone at the Galleria Borghese

Rome, Italy

7-Meter Tree (1983), 8-Meter Tree (2000-2002)

Weaving throughout the baroque halls and winding botanical gardens of Rome’s 17th century Galleria Borghese, the exhibition Giuseppe Penone. Gesti Universali presents a jarringly imperfect world when set against the ornate backdrop of a fabled space — one that has provoked unique dialogues between classical and contemporary art for decades. Throughout his career, Penone has examined sculpture (alongside drawing and photography) as a medium elaborate in its philosophical sensibility yet void of artifice, with works that blur the boundaries of the manmade and natural worlds. Curated by independent Italian curator and director of Il Foglio Arte Francesco Stocchi, Gesti Universali catalogues lesser known works and familiar themes across Penone’s 55 year career.

A return to Rome for the Torinese sculptor, the exhibition follows the 2017 unveiling of Foglie di pietra, a gargantuan bronze tree cradling blocks of marble situated on the Piazza Goldoni and commissioned by Fendi. Celebrating the public work — a gift from Fendi to the city of Rome — the fashion house also presented Penone’s work in a show titled Matrice, at their HQ in the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana in the same year.

Penone’s earliest works emerged during the Arte Povera movement in the late 1960s, yet he has continued to evolve through an exploration of not only the materials and life processes of nature but a continual reexamination of  the documentation of the work itself. Through his photographic practice, Penone alters the perception of sculpture, layering his works with sentiment and forcing new perspectives of the work’s physicality in subtly provocative ways.

Space of Light, 2008


Trees, often at enormous heights rendered in leather, metal, and wood, permeate Giuseppe Penone’s past and present works in photography and sculpture to represent life and the essential vitality present between humanity and nature. Nestled in the ornate Salone D’Ingresso, Alberi I Trees uses gouged and knotted towering 7-metre beams that are sculpted to emphasise the aged rings of trunks into stunted branches. Exemplifying the fundamental duality between materiality and form, the artist demonstrates both the purity of the untouched and the interruptions of human-made objects present in everyday life. Perhaps a more recognizable element of Penone’s work, wood recurs to symbolise how energy translates itself to resemble the dynamism of human skin or the preciousness of gold in works like Pelle di Cedro – Oro / Skin of Cedar – Gold.

Vegetal Gestures is a continuation of Giuseppe Penone’s work through the 1980s, not simply through the materiality reminiscent of Arte Povera but through process. Casual movements are paused in bronze and plant life while chemical oxidation and weather morph the works into a moody colour palette of rich and mossy viridescence that mirrors the organic world.

Skin of Cedar – Gold, 2003

Penone evinces, “Breath is automatic, involuntary sculpture that most closely brings us to osmosis with things.” The imprinting of human gestures onto nature reaffirms his central themes. Soffio di foglie / Breath of Leaves traces the artist’s own physical impression cast onto a pile of leaves, his breath blowing leaves with each exhale. Breath and body interact with matter, creating work that delicately measures physical impressions.

In conversation with Galleria Borghese as a venue, Penone’s work gently intertwines human and natural histories. Laurels and olive trees simultaneously recall Ancient Rome and primordial earth while patinated bronze and myrtle mingle with neoclassical marbles and florid trims. The contrast and echoes of Penone’s works and Stocchi’s curation, add concrete layers to the space Galleria Borghese currently maintains between art history and contemporary art.

Giusseppe Penone. Gesti Universali is on view at Galleria Borghese from March 14th to May 28th, 2023.

Words by Jeffrey W. Butler III

Vegetal Gesture, 1983




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