Of pitchstone and reminiscence

Public art, industrial heritage, and urban regeneration in Sicily. Retracing the steps of FestiWall, Bitume Platform aims to prompt a conversation around the urban landscape and its industrial memory.

Dark hues and tarry fragrances heightened by the scorching sun: the streets of Ragusa – the southernmost province of Italy – bear traces of the sensory memory of a history profoundly entangled with the development of the asphalt industry.

This Sicilian city is located on a plateau in the middle of the Mediterranean. Its peculiar geological features have been evident since the late 18th century when “soft limestone, impregnated with hydrocarbons,” discovered in its soil was first scientifically documented. 

Since then, the economic life of Ragusa and its people revolved around mining for bitumen and pitchstone for producing asphalt. From the mid-19th century, the city’s architecture turned pitch black, as do the streets that were paved in the 1930s. The postwar decline of industrial activities related to pitchstone resulted in the closure of the production chain in 1968.

According to Angelo Battaglia, nowadays, the asphalt industry:

…belongs more to the economic history of the province of Ragusa than to its present, but its importance remains decisive. Asphalt represents the first experience of industrialism in the province, the first real opportunity to look towards international markets, the first approach to fluctuations in domestic and foreign demand, and, above all, the experimentation of the need to timely implement processes of modernization and refitting to respond to continually changing market forces.

Francisco Bosoletti, Polemos. Ph. Vincenzo Cascone

This is the driving force behind the Bitume Platform, one of the most intriguing cultural initiatives this part of Sicily has seen in the last few years. 

The platform follows in the footsteps of FestiWall, Europe’s southernmost annual public art festival. Between 2015 and 2019, FestiWall made Ragusa an international hub for creativity where artists would engage with urban landscapes using street art and murals. The weeklong festival used to host artists from around the world, and music events, poetry contests, workshops, and exhibitions complemented the visual art program. 

Throughout its existence, FestiWall hosted roughly thirty site-specific installations and murals. The works prompted viewers to rethink public space, mapping the city innovatively while opening up avenues for culturally fresh approaches to inhabiting the urban landscape. 

Bitume Platform was launched in 2020 to investigate the industrial history of Ragusa’s urban landscape. The venue is set among the warehouses and containers of the abandoned Ancione factory. Ancione was the largest local asphalt producer in the 20th century before closing its doors in 2014. This makes Bitume a site-specific project grounded in the pitchstone mining basin of Ragusa’s Tabuna district (Contrada Tabuna), where the former factory is located.

Gomez, Corpus Homini. Ph. Marcello Bocchieri

The project is a survey of industrial archaeology and community history and a research platform for public art. In the words of curator Vincenzo Cascone:

Bitumen is, above all, an experience. It is an exploration of material that has shaped the development of an entire society, an investigation of a piece of 20th-century history, and an individual and collective story written by the many workers who extracted and transformed the pitchstone of the Tabuna district. Bitumen is a reinterpretation of what has been removed, a dialogue between art and memory, fullness and emptiness, the visible and hidden. The production cycle of the Ancione company acts as a fulcrum for aesthetic production, which reconfigures the industrial system as a new arena for creativity.

Reflecting on the local industrial process served as a prompt for artistic interventions between 2016 and 2020. Twenty-five closed-door international artists have produced murals engaging with machinery, industrial remnants, and the factory’s architecture. Even Australia has a role to play in the project in the form of Brisbane-born artist Guido van Helten’s contribution of one of his trademark photorealistic murals painted on a silo. His work portrays Carmelo Bentivoglio, a carpenter who worked for the Ancione family for almost forty years.

Guido van Helten, Meno Leffa. Ph. Marcello Bocchieri

Bitume started welcoming visitors in October 2020. The platform offers community members and visitors a point of entry into a public conversation about the past, present, and future of a physical and social landscape deeply marked by its industrial history and its legacy.

Molded in viscous tar, the project is a creative and cutting-edge examination of how our post-industrial society can preserve the collective memory and identity of communities shaped by their working history. Just as the paved roads obtained from the pitchstone caves of Ragusa connect towns all over Sicily and beyond, so too does public art act as a form of cultural infrastructure linking the local community to the rest of the world through narratives drawing on the heritage of its industrial and urban landscape.  

Cover photo: 2501, Ancione (negative and positive). Ph. Vincenzo Cascone