The valley of Riu Pardu in Ogliastra, the eastern mountainous region of Sardinia is, as the locals say, an island on the island. The river runs in a deep valley between the two huge mountain ranges of the Tricoli and the Tacchi, and the pastoral villages, Gàiru, Osini, Ulassai, Jerzu, climb up on the steep slopes from the eternally shaded depths of the canyon, toward the light. For thousands of years closed off the external world, and inspired by the bizarre forms of the butte rocks of Tacchi, they populated the region with strange creatures, the evil and good spirits of darkness and light, which still live in their tales and songs.
Here, in Ulassai, in a shepherd’s family blessed with great imaginative power and quite a few artists, was born one of Sardinia’s most important modern artists, Maria Lai. She was lucky: her Italian language teacher discovered her talent, and she was able to complete high school in Rome. Then, since World War II had cut off the island from the mainland, she became acquainted with modern art during her years in Venice. Only her artistic bequest returned to Ulassai, to the former railway station established as a memorial museum. However, her pictures, statues, textiles throughout show the amorphous cliffs and deep fissures of the Sardinian mountains, their animals and shepherds, the basic experience of the contrast of light and darkness, and the stars, which are as bright here only in a very few places of the world.
The Stazione dell’Arte dedicated to Maria Lai on the hilltop, about which we are going to write soon.
The Italian mountains inspired also the manger of Bethlehem, in which the medieval imagination displays the encounter of darkness and light through the medium of religious theater, and with the motifs of the shepherds, the animals, the stars. The first Nativity manger was set up at Christmas 1223 in Greccio, in the Central Italian mountains by St. Francis, who was especially susceptible to such games, and the presepe has since become a basic genre of Italian popular art. In 2006, Maria Lai organized an exhibition in Cagliari of her presepi, made mainly in the 1960s, with the title It was night out there. The scenes, rendered in sweeping contours or collages, are surrounded by a box frame, which makes them three-dimensional. The pebbles and found objects stepping out on the edge of the box, and the similarly lapidary figures, which recall the relics of prehistoric Sardinian art, open up the compositions, and link them with the vastness of the mountains of Ogliastro.
Peppino Marotto and Coro di Neoneli: Sa Ninnia (shepherd’s lullaby)