Maria Dompé studied at the Roman Academy of Art under the supervision of renowned sculptors Pericle Fazzini and Emilio Greco. After the Academy, she continued her studies in the town of Pietrasanta where she acquired mastery and hands-on skills in the use of stone and marble, materials which play an essential role in her work.
She loves traveling, and as a result of her study, travel, and work experiences in locations such as North Africa and the Far East, her work reflects traces of different cultures, of other ways of seeing. She is particularly attracted to Japan, where she spent a year on a grant from the Japan Foundation; she left a permanent installation, Umi-no-kanata-he (Above the Sea, 1991), in the forest of Nagano-Ken in Fujimi Kogen. Dompé’s passion is for large, outdoor projects which interact with nature and architecture. Another unique aspect of Dompé’s work is the combining of traditionally unrelated materials such as marble and stone with rope and textiles. This unusual grouping of materials creates a kind of counterpoint within the work itself, between the qualities of stone-weight, strength, and solidity-and the qualities of rope or textile-lightness, flexibility, and tension.
In 1989, inside the Lingotto building (an abandoned Fiat factory in Turin) in a group exhibition of young artists, Dompé was invited to interpret the music of Stockhausen. She created a work entitled Hymnen, by positioning 13 blocks of travertine (each measuring 100 by 25 by 10 centimeters) on the pavement and then linking them to the ceiling with thick, diagonally strung ropes. The effect is of a fantastic musical instrument seemingly about to play. In 1991, Dompé created Funda tracta inside a vast space in the foundations of an ancient palace in the medieval town of Gubbio. In this work, six cylinders of travertine are held by 12 ropes of coconut fiber strung from wall to wall.
For Dompé, the use of rope is not simply a means to suspend heavy materials or to play on the idea of balance, but also a way to introduce into the work a perishable and fragile element. The artist is particularly drawn to fragile and delicate materials (ribbon, textiles, antique lace, and flowers) and contrasts them to the strength of stone and to the ephemeral sensations (of scent, sound, and light) that often accompany the viewing of her creations. Her sculptures become, in effect, a complete sensory experience. The visual harmony of the proportions, the different tactile consistency of the materials, and, finally, a perfume or sound remind us of other places and experiences.
By inserting everyday objects into her works, such as a small plate or a seashell, as well as unusual and emblematic elements, such as light, flowers, and scent, the artist enriches her work with fragility, memory, and a sense of transience that offsets the strength of the marble-so that it is not the strength of the stone that remains in the mind of the viewer, but those more fragile elements. In some works, water is included as an element symbolizing catharsis and purification. In Le Terme (Roman Baths) built in 1992 inside of the Galleria l’Isola of Rome, six pairs of fluted columns divide the space along with 20 bowls of water arranged in groups of five. The water is kept moving by means of a motorized pump that produces a light, pleasant accompanying hum. Each pilaster is linked at the top to the next pilaster by a strip of light linen. All the elements together communicate a sense of tranquility, harmony, purification, and calm pleasure.
Many of Dompé’s works are dictated by events that move her to make an allegorical meditation or protest. Non immolate il bambino (Don’t Sacrifice the Child), a large work created in 1996 for the XII Quadrennial of Rome, is made up of numerous blocks of travertine aligned in three rows. The central row of blocks is covered by a single, long strip of linen on which the artist placed white roses. The scent of vanilla fills the space. The scent, the lightness of the linen, and the fragile beauty of white roses is counterpoised to the travertine blocks. It is an effective allegory of the defenselessness and innocence of children (the linen and the flowers) exploited by the cynicism of our stony society.
Created in 1992 in the Sanctuary of San Gabriele in the Gran Sasso, Fálcone-Borsellino (named for two Italian magistrates assassinated by the Mafia) is a cross made up of two blocks of layers of travertine symbolizing the spiritual bond and the martyrdom of these two men. A natural light that penetrates from above and illuminates the cross becomes part of the work in its suggestion of salvation. In 1993, at the Galleria l’Isola, Dompé installed her Donne della Bosnia (Women of Bosnia). The work’s ephemeral elements-honeysuckle perfume and orchids-provide a contrast to the forbidding wall of travertine, behind which a slab of split marble records those barbaric acts. Another piece, Fermateli (Stop them, 1994), is a protest against all wars. For this piece, the inner courtyard of a public library in Arezzo was covered by broken rocks (the destruction brought by war) and tombstones with Jewish, Moslem, and Christian symbols (a suggestion of tolerance). The 1997 installation of Don’t Forget Mururoa is a protest against the nuclear testing that has devastated the atoll of Mururoa. The entire space of the Laboratory Museum for Contemporary Art at the University “La Sapienza” of Rome became part of the work itself, since the artist utilized two of the room’s supporting columns to mount what appears to be the perimeter of an atoll-an oval made up of 92 slabs of slate. The oval also contains six square meters of sand and slabs of cracked slate. From the ceiling, other pieces of slate have been hung, on which viewers are invited to write something, as a form of public commitment. Meanwhile, the scent of lemons accompanies the muted chanting of “om.”
In Dompé’s work, the desire for self-expression is often provoked by social events, while the actual planning for the work is always defined in terms of the space-whether inside or outside-in which it is created. When Dompé surveys the selected space, she does not begin with a preconceived project or idea; it is precisely the spirit of the place that suggests to her the way to proceed.
Her work Meditazione (Meditation) was created in June 1997 in the park of Villa Glori in Rome as part of a project that includes other artists. One of the park’s buildings provides a home for terminally ill patients. The goal of the initiative is to create a feeling of solidarity between patients and visitors to the park. Dompé constructed, in front of the building, an excavation that resembles an upside-down pyramid. Slabs of travertine of varying dimensions and thicknesses covered the walls of the excavation; at the center of the work, the artist planted a 100-year-old olive tree. The work provokes a strong emotional impact and “forces” viewers to enter, stop, and meditate, even if they are unaware of the title. Maria Dompé’s works always have a title, but as suggested by Giorgio Bonomi, “It’s useless to search for the meaning of Dompé’s works, because they ‘mean’ without being limited to the rigidity of a definition.”
Laura Tansini is an art critic in Rome.