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  • Writer's pictureDominic Dalglish

Europe's Largest Sculpture Park: the Fiumara D’Arte

A ‘fiumara’, a ‘torrent’ in English, can describe the type of rocky, short rivers that fall abruptly from the hills of southern Italy and Sicily down to the sea. Often dry by the summer, they are nevertheless capable of powerful surges when the rain falls in the mountains. The ‘Fiumara D’Arte’ – ‘the largest sculpture park in Europe’[1] – derives its name from this feature, the majority of its works sitting in the valley of the Tusa river. Running from the north Sicilian coast at Castel di Tusa, sculptures and associated buildings are dotted about the river bed, overlooking hills and villages some 20 kilometres or so up the Tusa valley, with a few outliers in the next one over.

There’s some sort of romantic but nonetheless tortured metaphor waiting to be drawn between this type of river and the people of the region. Sicily is subject to its share of stereotypes as it is: rustic villages, old men on street corners, washing hanging from houses, scattered dogs and cats lounging about or things to this effect. Having been to a fair few places in this part of the world, I can confirm that this is not an inaccurate picture. But of course, the surface often masks a great deal of complexity. The truth is that the people here are as complicated as anywhere else: like the ebbing and flowing torrents of the Tusa river...

The ‘Fiumara D’Arte’ is one of the more public displays of the complexity of this region I’ve so far encountered: through the art, engineering, and the politics that surround its existence. But where does reflection stop and change begin? Are these artworks curated in or do they curate the space? And can the works be understood in isolation, or are they inextricably tied to the bigger idea of the Fiumara?

Above: ‘La Materia Poteva Non Esserci’, It Might Be Immaterial (1986), Pietro Consagra (Photos: Dominic Dalglish)

The history of the park could be a case study in the vicissitudes of public art creation. The idea first emerged after the death in 1982 of Angelo Presti, the owner of a local construction company (particularly road building) in the valley. His son Antonio, now the President of the Fiumara d’Arte Foundation, conceived the idea of a monument to his father, commissioning Pietro Consagra[2] to design the park’s first piece, ‘La Materia Poteva Non Esserci (1986)’ (something like Matter Could Not Be There or It Might Be Immaterial).

Above: a map of the various works that make up the Fiumara D'Arte (Original on the Fiumara D'Arte website)

Almost immediately problems arose between Presti, the local mayors, the government in Messina and those responsible for the promotion of culture in the region, over whether or not this should be allowed to exist. It’s easy to scoff at the kind of administrative intractability that this would seem to typify, but the artwork – and the others like it that Presti was advocating for – did present a very real problem: who gets to decide what gets erected and where? The sculpture represents a serious disruption in the landscape. ‘La Materia Poteva Non Esserci’ consists of two, white and black 18-metre-high concrete structures, parallel but distinct, close to the mouth of the Tusa. Today it is overshadowed by the autostrada bridge that cuts across the valley, but this section of the road was only completed in the mid-2000s. Unsurprisingly, the work raised a few eyebrows.

From some quite reasonable initial grumblings, things rapidly turned nasty with threats to demolish works, fine Presti exorbitant sums, and even imprison him.[3] The case of ‘Stanza di Barca D’Oro (1989)’ (Room of the Golden Boat) is perhaps the most farcical. The work of Hidetoshi Nagasawa sits in the bed of the Romei river, in the valley to the east of Tusa. Consisting of a 35-metre subterranean gangway leading to an enclosed room, the work can hardly be said to disfigure the landscape given that it is entirely underground. Perhaps most hilarious of all, on the day that the work ‘opened’ it was ‘shut’ by authorities. However, Nagasawa’s design specifically envisaged closing the door to the room for 100 years – to imagine and forget about its contents.

The photo shows a large, blue rectangular frame standing upright. It is positioned looking out to sea. A few clouds are painted onto the frame in simple white patches. A huge black, rectangular pillar cuts through the frame, resting on the bottom with one end on the ground and the other pointing towards the sky and out to sea. A man stands at the end of the pillar looking out to sea; he is small, showing the huge size of the sculpture.

Above: ‘Monumento per un Poeta Morto’, Monument to a Dead Poet (1989), Tano Festa (Photo: Marco Crupi)

It would not be at all surprising if Presti had an inkling of the local authority’s intent. He is both savvy and bold enough to poke fun at the absurdity of it all. When in 2005 – after close to twenty years of wrangling – the status of the park was still in jeopardy, Presti took the inspired decision to ‘close’ one of them. ‘Monumento per un Poeta Morto (1989)’ (Monument to a Dead Poet), also known as ‘Finestra sul Mare’ (Window on the Sea), features a colossal blue rectangular frame looking out to sea at Torremuzza, not far down the coast from Castel di Tusa. To highlight the absence of the work – by this time a feature of the landscape in its own right – Presti covered the ‘window’ in a sheet with words for ‘closed’ written across it in various languages. In 2006 he finally secured the park’s future, and the ‘Fiumara D’Arte’ was officially born.

Above: the ‘Monumento per un Poeta Morto,’ covered over in 2005.

The introductory panels to the artworks don’t shy away from this past, but actively position them in relation to it and the idea of the park itself. A mixture of iron and inscribed clay tablets arranged in deconstructed rectangles, they speak ‘art’ as objects in their own right. They are worth reading in full:

The idea of 'Fiumara D’Arte' was born in 1982 when Antonio Presti thought of dedicating a work to his late father and turned to the sculptor Pietro Consagra.

Right from the start, he imagined donating the work to the community by placing it at the mouth of the Fiumara Tusa, giving life to a sculpture park that combines the beauty of the area with contemporary art.

The inauguration of Consagra’s sculpture in 1986 coincided with the announcement of the open-air museum.

Various judicial proceedings were initiated against the works of the Fiumara, ending in 1994, but not until 2006 was the ‘Fiumara D’Arte’ Park recognized with a regional law.[4] The end of these trials affirmed a political victory for art. The Fiumara Park is the largest in Europe and has 11 works.*

*The park contains 12 these days, with the addition of ‘Il Cavallo Eretico (2020)’ (The Heretical Horse) outside the Museo Albergo (Art Hotel) in Castel di Tusa.

This is the Italian, but the panels also contain an English section that adds to the picture:

Fiumara D’Arte, park of monumental sculptures represents a unique open-air museum in Europe. Even today Fiumara D’Arte Foundation promotes ethics and aesthetics as an indissolubly link [sic] for a renewed human been [sic] policy of civil commitment and resistance with regard to a system that, from the beginning, was hostile launching various legal proceedings. This legal persecution is [sic] concluded on 2006 with a regional law which recognized the Park of Fiumara D’Arte, thus confirming a political victory of art.

There is real fire in the English script; a defiant stand against oppression, but one the writer – for whatever reason – chose not to put in Italian or at least not in the same tone. Traces of the argument made throughout the Park’s tortured history echo in the Italian, too: it is ‘a sculpture park that combines the beauty of the area with contemporary art,’ the claim made all along against those who say these works detract from the area. Italian defence, English attack; surely this is the wrong way round….

The image shows the introductory panels to works of the Fiumara D'Arte. Irregular rectangular terracotta plaques, inscribed with English and Italian text, are fixed to rusting iron uprights stuck into the ground.

Above: the introductory sign to ‘Labirinto di Arianna’, with texts repeated at all of the sites comprising the Fiumara D'Arte (Photo: Dominic Dalglish)

Like a lot of art that is (mostly) free to see and out in the open, the twelve works that comprise the park have to contend with everything from outright disdain to listless apathy. Of course, they may also inspire degrees of quiet appreciation through to the type of gushing praise that can render their actual effects somewhat disappointing. This is true of art in general, but there is something different about being out in the open. People can’t help but get used to it. In cities, public works of art are often taken for granted or simply ignored; they compete in already cluttered environments and with the crowded rhythms of everyday lives. It's perhaps also because so much of this monumental, public art is half-arsed and frankly boring. Monuments and public artworks might well be one of the things that define what cities are, even if we don’t tend to think about them very much, but ironically this might mean that they have far less impact on those that live with them than they might in other places.

Above: ‘38º parallelo – Piramide’ (2010) Mauro Staccioli; photos from various angles and positions across the valley.

By contrast, it’s impossible to miss some of the Fiumara’s works in the landscape. Being positioned outside of large urban centres, they interact / interfere, enhance / detract from their more natural surrounds in ways that art in cities and towns does not. One of the latest additions, ‘38º parallelo – Piramide (2010)’ sits above the Tusa valley to the east. Despite being the last major addition, it is probably the work that most people who have passed through the area are familiar with. Visible from the motorway and the train, one doesn’t need to stop at Castel di Tusa to know it’s there. Having spent several years working across from the pyramid at the archaeological site of Halaesa, it is certainly the sculpture I’m most familiar with, at least from a distance.

You might not know immediately what the pyramid is supposed to 'be', but it forces you to ask the question. Similarly, as you pass the blue frame of ‘Monumento per un Poeta Morto’ on the train, you do a double-take: is this meant to be a ‘thing’ or some remnant of an industrial past, or both? Heading up the Tusa valley, the black and white shapes of ‘La Materia Poteva Non Esserci’ to your right-hand side prompt similar questions.

Given the defiant claims made about the ‘victory’ of art on the panels that accompany these works, it is hardly surprising that they should be so arresting. Does this undercut that other claim to work with the beauty of the landscape? Interestingly enough, though you cannot miss these three works, the blue frame, reddish pyramid, and white and black concrete (especially with the motorway bridge backdrop) do integrate into their spaces. Whether this detracts from the surroundings is a matter of taste, but there is no doubt that their addition to the landscape encourages those who live and work here, and those who visit, to think about the space differently. As you move up the valley, it is hard not to cast an eye back to catch a glimpse of the pyramid. Signs along the roads point towards other parts of the ‘Fiumara D’Arte’, practically steering you, but consequently keeping the whole notion of the park in mind. You are ‘in it’; ‘it’ is around you.

The image shows a building - the local police station in Castel di Lucio - with largely pinkish plastered walls. However, on the second and first floor balconies, and on a low wall outside, coloured triangles and other geometric shapes decorate the building.

Above: '‘Arethusa’ (1990), Piero Dorazio & Graziano Marini (Photo: Marcello Di Fiore)

Some of the works in the park have this more incidental quality, sustaining the idea of the Fiumara perhaps more than conveying their own artistic vision. As you enter Castel di Lucio up the valley, you cannot miss ‘Arethusa (1990)’, the bright geometric tiles that decorate the town’s Police station. Following the road from here to Mistretta, you pass another, ‘Il Muro della Vita (1991)’ (The Wall of Life), a series of forty clay sculptures on the side of the road (Google Maps really comes into its own, here). In some cases, this idea of moving through is incorporated much more into the idea behind the works. ‘Una Curva Gettata alle Spalle del Tempo (1990)’ (A Curve thrown Behind Time, lit. ‘on the shoulders of time’) is in the bend of the road heading up towards Castel di Lucio. The metallic ellipse that is flung on the outside of the curve contrasts the stone circle of the inside; materials of now and then that you pass on a journey to somewhere else.

Above: ‘Una Curva Gettata alle Spalle del Tempo,’ A Curve thrown Behind Time (1990), Paolo Schiavocampo (Photos: Dominic Dalglish)

Gauging the impact of art is notoriously difficult. It is also frequently accompanied by a rather depressing administrative angle that seeks to justify – or conversely fight against – its existence. But taking a less officious approach, there is something that is just different about this place than similar valleys in northern Sicily. One indication of that is the presence of a broader ‘scene’. Displaying art does tend to result in attracting more artists, and there is no doubt a bit of a community here. The opening of ‘L’Art Hotel: Atelier sul Mare (1991)’ (The Art Hotel: Atelier on the Sea) at Castel di Tusa gave the Fiumara a base of operations, and space for artists not only to display, but actually stay. Up in the hill-town of Tusa proper, other artists’ communes have sprung up in recent years, too. The acts of planning, making and the struggle to hang onto these works has had an effect on the people of this space, as much as the landscape they occupy.

* * *

Given the weight of the political baggage, and the need to work both in the landscape and as part of the wider park, it’s reasonable to ask whether any of these works can sustain their own independent artistic vision. Part of responding to that problem is the further question of what one gains from afar as opposed to up close.

The pyramid sits in the balcground against a blue sky. In front of it, projecting from the ground, is a long cylindrical metal tunnel, with a door at the end. This leads underground to come up inside the pyramid itself.

Above: ‘38º parallelo – Piramide’ (2010) Mauro Staccioli; the entrance way - usually locked - leads inside the Pyramid itself.

After several years of looking across the valley at the pyramid, you might think I would at some stage bother to go and see it up close. But despite having both the time and means, I assumed that there wasn’t much point to standing outside a large metal box, as nice as it might be to say I’ve been. All the photos I’d ever seen were pictures from the outside that added little to my sense of the object, or inspired limited curiosity. It had never crossed my mind that you can actually go inside the pyramid, not – I should say – on a passing visit, but only during ‘Il Rito della Luce’ (The Ritual of the Light) on the summer solstice. Clearly there is always something to be said for getting up close, if only to have a better sense of what you are looking at.

Above: ‘Labirinto di Arianna,’ Labyrinth of Ariadne (1990), Italo Lanfredini; view from the town of Castel di Lucio (Photo: Dominic Dalglish).

One work I did make the effort to see was the ‘Labirinto di Arianna (1990)’ (Labyrinth of Ariadne) by Italo Lanfredini, which sits just outside Castel di Lucio. From the town, the structure is a reddish, distant line on a hill with a curious set of conjoined, tapering orthostats. Mazes are quite an appropriate form of large, public artwork. The idea of them, and the vision of them from a distance – half in the mind anyway as we invent what we cannot see – is often more intriguing than what you get up close. At the centre of every maze lies disappointment; little did you know that the whole point was the journey in, and indeed out. Whatever you find cannot live up to the experience gained along the way (hence why mythological accounts have to invent fantastical beasts for the denouement. Spoiler: no Minotaur to be found here, just an olive tree). Having driven up the winding roads of the Tusa valley to see this artwork, the walk around the layers of the maze felt like a continuation of the journey. In this respect, the labyrinth works well both in the landscape and within the idea of the park. But I cannot help but feel the intentions of the artist – hoping to comment on the anxiety of life, the sublime and fecundity – could not rise above the artwork’s place in the Fiumara.

Above: ‘Labirinto di Arianna,’ Labyrinth of Ariadne (1990), Italo Lanfredini (Photos: Dominic Dalglish).

It is no bad thing that individuality takes a backseat to collective intent here. The main purpose of public works of art should be to encourage people to express themselves in their daily lives, and indeed to do so by making art of their own. Of course, specific intentions, ideas, feelings and so on, can always be expressed, but so far as they are public and a part of the life that we share with others, it is the practices they engender that have far more import than any specific message they might convey. Presti, and those who have worked on the park, have always made very clear that this is art for the community.[5] The struggle to realise the Fiumara D’Arte and to secure its future has ultimately been for this, and thus there is no failure here, rather an atypical form of success.

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[1] A claim made on the signs in front of various works (see the full translation above), based not on their number, but rather the extent of the sculpture ‘park’ (Il Parco della Fiumara è il piú grande d’Europa conta ben 11 opere).

[2] An interesting sculptor who was involved in the work in the area of Gibellina after the 1968 Bellice earthquake. That is a piece for another day, though.

[3] This is not to mention the bombing of the Atelier sul Mare on 17th February 1992 by the local racket. Fortunately, no one was killed or badly injured, but it cost over 200 million lira to repair the damage.

[4] Legge Regionale 6/06 with the title ‘Valorizzazione turistica-Fruizione e conservazione opere di Fiumara d'arte’.

[5] In fact this is something that Presti has encouraged in other parts of Sicily, too, in particular at ‘La Porta della Bellezza (2009)’ (The Door of Beauty) in Librino, a suburb of Catania.


Further Links & Information:

The history of the park in English:

A map (and tour suggestions) of the various artworks:

Google Arts & Culture:

The Fondazione Antonio Presti, which has a video of him visiting some of the sites of the Fiumara. Even if you can’t understand the Italian, this is well worth a watch:

Rosso Siciliano – this YouTube user has visited the major sites and gives you a sense of how you get to them, as well as some lovely shots of the works with a drone, too:

A good recent write-up with illustrative shots:

On the inauguration of the heretical horse:

A video from the Rito della Luce at the Pyramid:


Dominic Dalglish is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space

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