Friday, 15th June, 2018
La tentazione delle assenti
(The Temptation of the Absent […] Ones)
At the Oratory of San Lorenzo ‘Temptation’ has disappeared. It is not the first female figure to have been removed from this place. The first and certainly more known, a beautiful, dark-haired woman with thin dark eyebrows and a pointy face, vanished into thin air on the 18th of October 1969, with the infamous theft of Caravaggio’s Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence. The ‘Temptation’, the alluring female sculpture sequence of the Temptation of Saint Francis decorating the right wall of the Oratory, was stolen twelve years later from one of the nine small theatres decorated by Giacomo Serpotta. A light, elegant figure, anticipating the European Rococò, that lusters with that particular glazing of marble dust that gave the statues the translucency of alabaster. Since then she has not returned and today Saint Francis remains on the ground, almost supine, his face shielded by his right arm to protect himself from a baffling absence.
At the turn of the seventeenth to the eighteenth century, during the same years when the Oratory was decorated by Serpotta, many other ‘temptress’ women (this time in flesh and blood) were removed from society during the long Spanish domination in Sicily. In the records of the Inquisitors, these women are described as “donas de fuera” (literally “women from the outside”), women who, on certain days of the week, left their homes, attracting and offering magical, profane practices. “Beautiful, elegant, dressed in white, with drapes […] with other refined costumes with bright colors, appear rich with gifts and promises […], but unreliable”, wrote the Sicilian historian Maria Sofia Messana. Anthropologist Giuseppe Pitrè argued that their cult had never ceased to exist on a private and family level, disguising itself as a fantastic tale every time it came out of the intimacy of the home.
We are used to perceiving absence, removal, the outside as a form of lack to be filled, to be included, that “there hasn’t been nothing” (as we sometimes say in colloquial Italian). The remote past that holds the present hostage, as noted by Palermitano author Giorgio Vasta. However, it is equally true that absence represents the possibility of reaching the experience of desire (and miracle?). The absence of ‘Temptation’ in the Oratory of San Lorenzo suggests a possible interweaving of these themes, to the surprised face of Saint Francis. Perhaps, through its physical absence, the female figure is finally free from her stereotypical interpretation as a body of seduction. We, like the Saint, are left alone. Like him, engaged in his imagination, we are obliged to try and reach beyond the dimension of the fantastic tale, towards that outside which, for far too long, we refused to understand.