Giuseppe Salerno founded the clinic that is home to Centro di Diagnostica per Immagini applicata ai Beni Culturali [Centre for Diagnostic Imaging Applied to Cultural Heritage]. We asked him to tell us about his extraordinary experiences and projects.
What is the mystery of life? How can we human beings save one another by going beyond the banalities of the visible world? We humans, such rational beings, have art to take us to the heart of the irrational in order to explain it. This is why man invented tools, because he knows that instinct is not enough. However, at times, these tools are also there to remind us that instinct is the root of a unique, artistic doing, linked to our humanity. We have living human treasures, as UNESCO tells us, and one of them is the radiologist Giuseppe Salerno, a doctor who has not forgotten his humanistic studies and is extending the field of radiology to the imaging of Art, one of the human practices that combines technique with something that escapes reason.
“My DNA is more humanistic than scientific. Over these 40 years in which I have applied diagnostic tools to works of art, I have analysed thousands of pieces and all number of archaeological sites that offer truly extraordinary surprises”. Pictures reveal the artists’ instinct, which is then corrected by technique, either their own or that of others, due to modesty, social circumstance, some people’s inability to interpret the beautiful or the artist’s will to exceed his limits. One example is the “Portrait of a young patrician” a canvas discovered in the warehouse of the Regional Museum of Palazzo Abatellis, and attributed, at first glance, to the school of Pietro Novelli and only later to the founder himself; the canvas was re-evaluated thanks to the work of the Centre for Diagnostic Imaging Applied to Cultural Heritage that Salerno directs at the Candela Clinic.
“The artistic quality of the 17th century portrait revealed by scanning it,” Salerno explains, “is clear in the fluid and confident strokes that are no longer visible to the naked eye, due to the work of the restorers who over the centuries have down-classed the piece. Sometimes, hiding under the visible lies reality, too harsh to be accepted, as in the case of the painting portraying Saint Agatha with a still life plate, whereas underneath the canvas reveals the tormented nature of her amputated breasts. Even the Virgin’s fear is a reality that is too human to be accepted”.
"In the case of the Annunciation, the hand stretching out as if to stop something or someone led us to suspect an inconsistency with the blessed face. The scan confirmed that the expression was a frightened one (pictures n. 1-2), as is only to be expected of a woman who has just been told about an event that will turn her life upside-down and to which she will futilely try to object".
Pictures n. 1-2: L'Annunciata di Palermo, oil painting on canvas by Antonello da Messina
A doctor knows that reality is often hard to accept but that it is the only way to find solutions and displace the limits of time: the vocation of science is to explore the truth, the vocation of art is to make it accessible, perhaps using metaphors. Art was the first form of communication for uniting people and it is a form made possible by technique, in other words by discovering how parts of the rest of nature could be used to connect: this happened, for example, using a piece of flint and the stories it brought to life.
It was precisely a MyLabTM ultrasound system that accompanied Dr Salerno in one of the most exciting experiences of his life “I can say that I experienced Stendhal syndrome. While studying the Addaura Cave engravings on Mount Pellegrino (Palermo), for SKY Arte, I experienced an indescribable feeling while looking at the scene engraved about 14 thousand years ago; figures engraved using a piece of flint and a mastery that it would seem impossible could date from prehistoric times” (pictures n. 3-4).
Pictures n. 3-4: The graffiti of the "Addaura Caves" in Monte Pellegrino (Palermo)
One of the caves of the Addaura complex, houses a vast and incredible group of engravings that date from between the late Epigravettian (Upper Palaeolithic) and the Mesolithic (between 14 and 20,000 years ago), depicting a number human and animal figures; but the particularity lies in the fact that the scene is characterised by the presence of human figures arranged in a circle around two central figures with covered heads and whose bodies are arched backwards. “It is very probably, a shamanic rite, the artist could even be the priest. The figures in the centre could be acrobats, but it is also suspected that the main subjects may be taking part in an initiation rite: that is what the presence of the priatic hoods suggests. This scene is one of the engravings discovered by Jole Bovio Marconi, whose studies were published in 1953. Underneath the many incrustations produced by the infiltration of water into the cave, we tried to find other figures using a portable ultrasound scanner: but we couldn’t find any images compatible with graffiti; however, a little way from the “scene”, we can see some zoomorphic figures and a pregnant woman with a large sack on her shoulder.
These new graffiti confirmed, however, the exceptional artistic quality of the group of dancers. A subject that is very similar to dancers painted by Matisse, but who cannot possibly have been inspired by the cave engraving, because his last work dates from 1910”. There are still many mysteries waiting to be solved by Salerno, who works with a number of fine arts authorities, museums and private collectors. Starting from investigations into authenticity and the condition of the paintings or findings, certain questions come to light. “The work on the sarcophagus of Frederick II, which was performed using a machine that I designed for the specific purpose, revealed that one of the bodies buried in the sarcophagus is not, as claimed by historical sources, that of William, Duke of Athens, but a young maiden”.
Pictures n. 5-6: Portrait of a man (or Portrait of an unknown sailor), oil painting on canvas by Antonello da Messina.
Then we have the “Portrait of a man” (pictures n. 5-6), which when scanned revealed the fury of damage caused by a pointed tool, probably inflicted by the woman who, it has been said, saw the devil in that face, or we discover that the painting of David, Goliath and a disputant hides the features of a woman who looks like the model with whom Caravaggio (pictures n. 7-8-9) was in love, and we see a strong likeness between the painter and the figures of the disputant and the head of Goliath: for all we know, the painting might have quite simply been a metaphor of how the artist lost his mind out of love.
Pictures n. 7-8-9: Dr Salerno examines the Caravaggesque canvas "David, Goliath and the disputant"
The experience accrued in investigating under the beauty of harmony to grasp its most essential truths has been transformed into a series of CME courses for doctors organised by the Association of Physicians of Palermo. After all, the body is a complex instrument, as are the violins that Salerno explored using virtual endoscopy to understand how 72 little pieces can create so much marvellous and vital vibration. Very recently we have read how Beethoven’s music, in addition to sound, also carries a profound and archetypal meaning. According to the critic Angelo Pepicelli, the music the composer dedicated to the strings contains questions regarding the human race, as well as some answers. Thus, the violin is the technology used to transmit the philological sound and seek the philosophical sound of the best musicians.
Giuseppe Salerno is currently at work on the tenth correction (!) of his book Arte Svelata, which he co-authored with his son Ruggero. A few pages will undoubtedly be dedicated to the “Chamber of wonders”, a meeting point between Western and Oriental spirituality, frequently visited by Vittorio Sgarbi.
“The room is rich in decorations that can be attributed to Arabic letters. It is thought to have been a meditation room. It was commissioned by the Baron of Sommatino, Duke of Montalto, who some say was a mason. It is thought that in 1860 the room was used for spiritual meetings of Sufi Islamic philosophers. Our contribution made it possible to identify some of the engravings on one of the doors, which are now being studied by a team of Islamic scholars from Bonn University. We also discovered the composition of four different types of wood”.
The chamber of wonders is a cabinet of enigmas or perhaps, if we go back to Einstein, of what he terms cosmic religion, something that overcomes religion in a single code of nature of which religions are a metaphor: the writing that is repeated on the walls is “What Allah (God) wants, happens. What Allah (God) does not want, does not happen”. Then there is a third meaning to the signs that are repeated around the perimeter of the walls: when read from right to left, like Arabic letters, they read “Praise be to Allah (God), for nothing is like him” whereas if we read from left to right, we have the Latin phrase “recto luce”, “he shines with righteousness”. One last surprise, the notes of a melody noticed by a young visitor and later confirmed by the musician Giuseppe Mazzamuto: Sol, Sol, Re, Sol, Mi, Fa, Mi, Fa, Fa, Re, Mi, Sol are the notes of the celestial music.
All these stories, to which Salerno is an active witness, once again confirm that technological instruments improve perception: they make it possible to obtain confirmation, but sometimes also allow us to be surprised by the unexpected, make the unknown known, opening new paths up to the human mind, able to find a meaning, and in this unique in the art of pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.
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