Phenomenological Reviews

Journal | Volume | Article

A non-mental experiment

Nicola Pedone

pp. 307-313

1Giovanni Piana was a philosopher for whom philosophy was not exclusively nourished by philosophy, namely books written by other philosophers, but had continually to relate to the world, in the broadest possible way. This aspect of his intellectual personality was one with his curiosity as well as his willingness to be taken to territories perhaps less usual for him, but of which he sensed the philosophical potential. These digressions almost always ended with a theoretical formulation of great perspicacity. And so, ultimately, they went back to philosophy.

2A moment of the correspondence by mail I continued to have with my maestro Giovanni Piana after my graduation could be a good demonstration of this. In January 2013, I had the opportunity to meet Italian artist, Giuseppe Penone (b. 1947), a rather well-known exponent of the so called ‘Arte povera’, which flourished in Italy in the 1960s. I was with a colleague and Penone received us in his great workshop, in Turin, where he was giving the finishing touches to huge, strange trees. We were impressed by them but, perhaps even more, by the explanation the artist gave us about the way he had created such works. I asked the author for permission to take some photographs and then I sent them to Piana, without revealing the artist’s name nor other information, but just to urge his curiosity. Piana, which fortunately had never heard of Penone, willingly submitted to my ‘experiment’. What follows is our correspondence.


Dear Giovanni,

3(…) The sculptor was working with some big trees and what we saw actually caught our attention. But when he began to ‘explain’ how he got those objects, well, our perception of them changed radically, as if we were seeing actually different things. I send you in attachment three photos I took there. When you have time, I’d like you to take a look and tell me what they do to you. Then we’ll talk, if you like.


Dear Nicola,

4(…) It’s very difficult to talk about the sculptures you sent me. I have basically two impressions. The first is that they need to be properly set up in an architecture that can accommodate them. It is not easy, I’m afraid: a sculpture occupies on principle space; some sculptures are relatively neutral with respect to the space, but some others require a special space and specially designed for them. These sculptures are of this second type, and in a rigid and intolerant way. This is my first reaction. The second is a feeling, I don’t know how to call it, of artificialism. Let me explain: one thing is a root emerging from the ground that you put in your house, a branch or a tree trunk (even a stone) that for some reason tells you something and that assumes, so to speak, a double aspect. On the one hand, it remains what it is—a natural object—but to the extent that you take it and place it in an environment, possibly in your house, it becomes also artificial, an object of art precisely. It seems to me that these logs have no longer their ‘natural’ side. They have been denaturalized. It may be good or bad, I don’t know! But now I have a third impression: that there is a game between the smooth and the pointy that creates an impression of discomfort.


Dear Giovanni,

5(…) The mysterious sculptor, now I can tell you, is Giuseppe Penone, a rather famous name in the field of contemporary art, an exponent of that current known as ‘Arte Povera’. You are right when you observe that those flayed and polished trees appear natural and artificial at the same time and, moreover, they seem out of place. It’s easy to answer to this last observation by saying that those trees are leaving to the Gardens of Versailles for a great exhibition entirely dedicated to the Italian artist the next June. Therefore, they will be relocated outdoor, in an ambient which is at the same time natural and artificial. But, as I told you, there is a very interesting aspect about the way in which those artifacts were obtained, an aspect in some way decisive when you come to uncover it. I would add that it is difficult to find out it just on the basis of the photos I sent you: unless you are a botanist or a carpenter, you don’t even notice it when you’re there in person. The sculptor, in a few words, started from big squared beams and got those logs by digging, ring after ring, layers of wood. Each ring is a year of the tree lifetime and the little branches you see were once brunches that died during the growth, namely brunches the tree has incorporated by growing. If you look at the second picture again, you will have to reconsider the polished stand on which the tree ‘rests’; well, the original beam that entered the Penone workshop was all like this, a huge wooden parallelepiped on which the sculptor began to remove material (Michelangelo called this operation ‘levare’), in order to free the inner form the artist had already seen. The tree comes literally out of the stand, it has not been glued on it. In the third picture, on the contrary, Penone didn’t move from a regularized beam, but from an entire natural tree, which he partially wanted to leave, freeing the small inner tree that the big tree was a few decades before. The young tree stands, so to speak, within the brackets of the old tree.

6In this respect, the final objects can be seen as a work on time: you remove the layers the time has accumulated and unveil how the tree was thirty or forty years ago. As you can understand, the explanation the artist gave us was not a simple additional—and perhaps superfluous—information , but something that changed drastically our perception of the object itself. After the explanation, we went back to observe the works and they weren’t no longer the same.

7In the workshop we also saw other Penone’s works, such as large bronze trees, obtained with the traditional melting technique, but in that case, the technical and artistic explanations seemed less conclusive to understand the works. They seemed like those merely technical descriptions of pieces of music—and very often of contemporary music—which don’t add anything significant to what you are already listening to.

8The Studio Penone kindly provided us with the following photograph, which shows how the original idea, in addition to that of rediscovering the shape of the young tree within the wooden beam, is also to recreate a forest of debarked beams:


Dear Nicola,

9It’s really remarkable your explanation of the origin of the trees I thought were simply skinned. I must confess I didn’t quite understand how he took off ring by ring, in order to find out the young tree within the old one, but I’m neither carpenter nor sculptor and whatever technique he actually used, it’s a very clever job. And you’re right by saying that such an information changes the way you see the ‘object’ and its meaning. I also agree with you that the mere technical description is not sufficient for an authentic understanding of a piece of music, but you need ‘extramusical’ explanations or information around that piece. This is also what I tried to say in the last chapter of Filosofia della Musica (excuse me for the self-quotation!): the symbol always goes a little beyond the structure, and you need a look at both directions. In the case of our trees, the symbolic element becomes visible if you can ‘see’ the carpentry work, that is the procedure that allowed the realization of the object. Really very interesting, indeed.

10This last letter contains a reference to Piana’s Filosofia della musica (1991), precisely to its fourth chapter “Simbolo”, where the philosopher, starting from the twentieth century controversy of form vs content, faces with the problem of the music meaning and tries to work out his own original way. The answer my ‘maestro’ gave me to the little provocation of my experiment contains what I called Piana’s theoretical perspicacity. I mean his sharp philosophical gaze which knew, if necessary, to depart from the philosophy’s books and let be seduced by the objects of the world in their wonderful complexity. And then to return to a philosophy that knew how to illuminate those objects with a different and meaningful light.

Publication details

Published in:

Caminada Emanuele, Summa Michela (2020) Giovanni Piana. Phenomenological Reviews Special Issue 1.

Pages: 307-313

DOI: 10.19079/PR.s1.19

Full citation:

Pedone Nicola (2020) „A non-mental experiment“. Phenomenological Reviews 1, 307–313.