A queenly figure, exuding essential, feminine power reigns over the Piazza Santa Maria Novella in Maestà Tradita, a new exhibition at the Museo del Novecento in Florence by Italian artist, designer, and architect Gaetano Pesce. The feminist stand staged in three acts is a multisensory manifesto against the oppression of women worldwide. It is an issue that recurs again and again in the artist’s oeuvre, from his iconic 1969 creation Up 5 Chair & Up 6 Ottoman to his newest works in Maestà Tradita. “I am particularly sensitive when it comes to violence against women, because I was brought up and raised by women,” Pesce explains. “So I believe I know the sensitivity, abilities, strength, and suffering of the female world.”
“When I started being sensitive to women’s injustices, I thought this problem would disappear over time,” Pesce tells the Creators Project. “Over half a century has passed since then and this serious inequality has increased.”
Outside of the museum is act one: Maestà Tradita herself. “Majesty Betrayed” sits upon a throne. And yet, her ankle is chained to a heavy, rusted metal ball and her surface has been slashed and scarred with abuse. She is faceless. All that fills her royal clock is dark, empty space. She may be a queen, but she is also a slave.
Act two and three occupy a pair of rooms in the Museo del Novecento. For Libertà Impedita, Pesce has crafted a second throne in the style of Up 5 Chair & Up 6 Ottoman. The throne is upholstered with a mosaic of women’s clothes from across the world and across the years. Spreading out from its colorful feet and throughout the long room is a shining pool of blood-red resin. In this ghastly liquid sit six Up 5 Chairs, chained to heavy spheres, their “Liberty prevented” just like Maestà Tradita’s chained existence.
In a second room is the Sala dei Sensi. The Sala challenges the visitor to “bear witness to the pain of the female experience under the prejudice of patriarchal society,” the press release explains. This translates into a multi-sensory and symbolic experience of suffering. Upon entering, visitors hear a haunting symphony of crying women, an idea Pesce first used in his 1973 work, La Massa Schiaccia le Minoranze (Omaggio ai Curdi) [The Mass Crushes Minorities (A Homage to Kurds)]. In this earlier iteration, the Venice gallery which housed the work sounded with the “moans of Kurdish women,” Pesce says. “In Florence, I borrowed this idea and recorded voices of Italian, Kurdish, Iranian, Yemeni women, etc. in order to emphasize how painful and strenuous being a woman in certain countries is.”
The second thing visitors will notice is the stench of sweat that pervades the small space. To bottle sweat, the artist consulted a fragrance expert. He says, “There are experts who are capable of creating any perfume or odor you ask for. For me, [this] particular smell symbolizes the daily labors of the female world.”
Next, visitors test their taste buds with a bit of bread dipped in poison, both of which are found throughout the room on black and white pedestals. Pesce explains, the “poison” is “actually ‘bile’: a very bitter liquid which I encourage guests to taste, with all due precautions.” With each bite, Pesce wants his visitor to experience, “a metaphor for the bitter pills many women have to swallow every day.” Lastly, visitors can see suffering, oppression, and patriarchy visualized on the walls of the Sala in 39 of Pesce’s illustrations dating from 1969 to today.
I ask Pesce why his earlier work, these illustrations and Up 5 Chair & Up 5 Ottomon, remain relevant today. “Because, much harm is still being done to women,” he says, “for religious reasons in some countries; for financial reasons in other countries; for political reasons in other places.”