Originating in the collection assembled by Delfino Dinz Rialto, the basis of the Museum of Primitive Art set up in 1972, the Museum of the regards collects together items from different continents. It is housed in 18th century Villa Alvarado next to the pilgrimage church of S. Maria delle Grazie on the Hill of Covignano, and was set up in 2005 following a plan put together by Marc Augé. The various displays highlight the gaze of westerners towards “others” over the centuries, from the fascination of early explorers to horror in the face of human sacrifices, the scientific curiosity ethnographers and archaeologists and admiration by collectors and modern artists.
The unconventional approach follows thematic groups of items from Oceania, Africa and the Americas. A stimulating panel and multimedia information system places objects in their original context. Displays are organized along the following thematic lines: the awed gaze (the room of wonders), the scientific gaze, the collector's gaze, the aesthete's gaze.
The itinerary for visitors opens with items evoking encounters with “other” cultures: remodelled skulls and masks with human bones from New Guinea, examples of tribal customs and precious decorated objects, symbols of power, from America and Africa.
Then we have the arts of Oceania and Taiwan, with typical wooden sculpture, which introduce the Ethnographic Itinerary, where a great deal of space is devoted to Black Africa. Masks, which were particularly common among rural populations, are among the most interesting items. They symbolize the relationship between human beings and the supernatural. Masks are ever present throughout life and include, not only the part covering the face, but also the costume, accompanied by movements and sounds. Shields and cutting weapons – whose use, when replaced by firearms, was restricted to rites and dances – with other objects, such as pipes, small masterpieces of handicraft, illustrate aspects of daily life. There are some curious fixtures, such as wooden headrests, used mostly by shepherds and animal breeders, and miniature statues used for games and other cultural purposes. A vital role, among African peoples, whose lives were ruled by sounds and rhythms, was played by musical instruments, principally drums and percussion instruments.
The Archaeological Itinerary foregrounds pre-Colombian America and its great empires, from the Aztecs to the Incas and Mayas. These civilisations have left mostly ritual artefacts in semi-precious stones, gold, silver and wood…
The ball game was inspired by the genesis of the world. It was a religious expression typical of Mesoamerica. In this most ancient team game, the heavy solid rubber balls were hit by the hips. For protection players wore helmets and yokes, U-shaped wooden or leather hip protection, which could also be made of stone and sometimes magnificently decorated for ceremonial parades.
Symbolical-religious value was attributed to terracotta statuary in Western Mexico, with depiction of human figures, animals and scenes of daily life: deformed, dwarf like statuettes are interpreted as being shamans, while male-female couples appear to represent mythical ancestors.
The human figure was used, together with garments, as a writing surface. For example, in Ecuador, tattoos, body painting and bodily distortions convey information on lifestyles, social positions and participation in ceremonies. It was especially cranial deformation that designated belonging to a particular caste.
Garments communicate precise political and religious messages: the vanquished, stripped naked as a sign of submission must put on the garments of the victor, while the deceased is accompanied by garments permitting him/her to keep his/her rank in the afterlife. In pre-Colombian Peru textiles were woven immediately into garments; the threads of older garments could be used for new costumes, as heirs to previous life.
In connection with belief in life after death, especially among the people of the Andes region, we have mummification and offerings of food and objects. Care for mortal remains ensures wellbeing of the soul interrupting its wanderings on earth.
The enthusiasm of collectors such as Delfino Dinz Rialto, Ugo Canepa, Bruno Fusconi and the Franciscan friars of S. Maria delle Grazie gave birth to these modern collections, where the “primitive” nature of non-European cultures inspired the 20th century artistic avant-garde, from Gauguin, to the Fauves, Picasso, Braque and the Expressionists.
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