The worlds of Primo Levi

A strenuous clarity - The Meaning of the Exhibit

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

“Carbon” is the last story in The Periodic Table, published in 1975. The story describes the adventurous journey of a carbon atom over the course of millennia and through the immense space of this planet. Its extraordinary transformations make it the protagonist of the birth and development of life on this earth. This story, which Levi had already imagined at the time of his imprisonment in the Auschwitz Lager, is one of his first literary dreams. In the exhibit, a rich sequence of tables designed by the Japanese artist Yosuke Taki leads visitors along this fantastic journey, helping him venture into the arcane recesses of animate and inanimate nature, thanks to the very personal style of Taki, who uses color as an essential emblem.

2. The journey towards nothingness / The path back home

A large map of Europe charts out the itinerary of the journey Primo Levi was forced to make between the end of 1943 and the beginning of 1944 after his arrest in Aosta Valley: from the camp at Fossoli (near Carpi in Modena) to Auschwitz. The map also charts the long meandering journey in central and Eastern Europe that Levi had to make in order to return home in 1945. The context in which that journey took place is described in two videos placed immediately above the map. The visit to the exhibit proceeds along a kind of tunnel, were Levi’s words are the only means presented to “illuminate” the reality of Auschwitz. Immediately after this, a sequence of panels helps visitors follow some of most significant passages of Levi’s testimony about the Lager, which he never ceased to give his whole life long, up to his last book The Drowned and the Saved in 1986. The images in a video help place Levi’s testimony into the broader context of the discussion about the extermination that took place during the whole post-war period.

3. Sewing words

The third section of the exhibit is dedicated to Levi as writer. A rich succession of images and quotations illustrates the various worlds that he imagined in his books – short stories, novels, poetry, and essays. The central feature of this part of the exhibit is his care for words, his untiring search for a sort of “strenuous clarity,” as in the title of the exhibit, a search that even led him to his amusement in interesting linguistic games. In a video interview Levi illustrates some of features of his activity as a writer.

4. Sewing molecules

The section on Primo Levi as chemist, a member of a complex and fascinating profession, begins with Mendeleev’s periodic table, a reproduction of the one in the Chemical Institute where Levi studied in the 1940s. Across from this, there is another table of the elements, the one in which Levi wanted to write the fundamental passages of his life and of his profession as a chemist when he wrote The Periodic Table. Further on, the exhibit presents the outstanding moments of his relationship with chemistry, from his years at school to Auschwitz up to his long experience with SIVA, the paint factory where he worked until he retired.

5. Homo Faber

The central theme of the fifth section of the exhibition is the relationship between hand and brain. A relationship that is already so close and decisive in the profession of the chemist, for which sensory capacities and manual skills are essential. But Levi also cultivated that relationship in other ways: for example by refining his ability to build sculptures in copper wire - the one worked on SIVA -. A model - a butterfly - is exposed in the exhibition; of others it is possible to see effective representations.

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

On the path approaching the sixth section, there is large panel with a rich sequence of period photographs evoking Levi’s Judeo-Piedmontese origins. This display has been purposely set up across from the word Auschwitz written in large letters that can be seen from every point along the exhibit. At the beginning of the section, visitors can be attracted to a large installation with two television screens. The first runs a video where Levi is talking about The Monkey’s Wrench and Tino Faussone, its protagonist, a rigger of utility towers and iron bridges. The other screen shows a sequence of images illustrating new and old trades.

The sixth section develops around the topic of work, a central one in The Monkey’s Wrench as well as in Levi’s thought. Levi tended almost through his natural calling to address the real circumstances of all kinds of crafts as well as the issue of the meaning of work in the lives of human beings. A video closes the walk through visit, featuring the various moments of Levi’s biography in words and images and helping visitors put together the various sections of the exhibit again in their minds.

Words In-Depth

The Worlds of Primo Levi – the title that the Studies Center chose – was meant to allude to the many characteristics of a personality with many interests. The subtitle – A Strenuous Clarity – places the emphasis on his constant search for the most effective forms of communication both on the linguistic and intellectual level. His search for his clarity is the unifying factor of all the contexts of Primo Levi’s activities.