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The worlds of Primo Levi

    A strenuous clarity - The Meaning of the Exhibit

    by Fabio Levi and Peppino Ortoleva, curators


    Following the words and stories of Primo Levi, chemist and writer, witness and inventor, means going around the world many times and in many ways.

    Levi was spurred on to become a narrator by an intimate impulse after he was plunged into one of the abysses of history, Auschwitz. He was led back to writing to tell of his coming back to life. He used his clear and enthralling Italian language to narrate other universes that he was also a special witness of, but in another way. He both followed and fabricated the adventures of a technician who was Piedmontese but global, traveling from Turin to the ends of the earth, the skilled worker and rigger Tino Faussone. He took on the art of fiction, ranging from a so-called popular genre like science fiction to the novel. In a passionate and unmatchable literary tour de force, he imitated nature itself by reconstructing the periodic table, whose essential simplicity he had been used to appreciating, going so far as to follow the ups and downs over time and space of the germ of life, a carbon atom.

    This exhibit about Primo Levi does not take on its meaning through telling in other words what the great writer knew how to narrate so well in his own words. Instead, the exhibit uses the craft of assembling – the craft of his Faussone, the main character in The Monkey’s Wrench – to put together different languages – languages made out of artistic works, videos, documents and more words. These include words that come from the writer’s own clear and unmistakable voice, all this done in order to lead the visitors to encounter the many worlds of Levi and travel through them. The exhibit leads its visitors to discover the symmetry that bonds so many literary adventures seemingly so distant from each other. There are the hard but steadily calm tones of his witnessing horror, there are the almost Mozart-like tones of the journey into the matter, and there are the humoristic tones of his other stories. The exhibit takes its visitors inside the laboratory of writing to visit the world that is at the center of all the others, the very personal world of one of the greats of twentieth-century culture.

    The first edition of the exhibit was set up at Palazzo Madama in Turin, which in the 1950s had hosted an exhibit where Levi played a leading role, on the first accounts of the extermination that the world then was having a hard time taking into consideration. The itinerary leads the exhibit’s visitors first through the infinitely little world of a carbon atom, which is accompanied by a visual artist’s very personal interpretation. Then visitors are led down into a journey into the underground of Auschwitz. Here they are guided by Levi’s own words as well as documentation that helps them understand why Levi’s name, once unknown, has become essential for the consciousness of humankind in the modern age. In addition, the exhibit presents them with this unresolved issue that the writer had kept on questioning himself about until the end of his life. Then, the exhibit leads its visitors to chemistry – the narrated, personal, and fantasy chemistry of The Periodic Table, which can be read in Mendeleev’s table of the elements and the chemistry of Levi’s lifelong experiences as a professional in love with his work. Further on, the exhibit leads to other endeavors that Levi was enthusiastic and curious about – the jobs of skilled workers that he knew how to share conversations and experiences with as well as the shapes that he himself put together by hand, blending art and experimentation. At the end, the chronological exposition of his biography joins together in the steps of a life the many worlds that had been crossed over the itinerary of the visit.


    The exhibit is set up in six sections:

    1. Carbon

    2. The journey towards nothingness / The path back home

    3. Sewing words

    4. Sewing molecules

    5. Homo Faber

    6. The round-the-world trip of rigger Faussone

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