The major work at the Beuys Is Here exhibition on view at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill until the 27th of September is Scala Napoletana (“Neapolitan Ladder”). The 1985 sculpture, completed by Joseph Beuys near the end of his life, was inspired by a ladder the German conceptual artist spotted on the island of Capri. Held upright by wires connecting it to lead spheres, Joseph’s ladder is oddly proportioned: the spacing between its long parallel members is narrow whereas the gaps between its rungs are rather wide. The meaning behind this paradox has baffled art critics as well as the man most intimately acquainted with the sculpture, Kyle, the attendant who’s shared a room with it, the De La Warr’s Gallery 2, since early July. When I began to tell my wife Viv about similar ladders I’d seen at vineyards in southern Italy, Kyle sidled over and doubled the size of my audience.
I_Borboni is a leading producer and champion of Asprinio di Aversa, an ancient white wine varietal with tree-hugging vines. The winery, which I visited in May, is situated in the town of Lusciano, about halfway between the two provinces where Asprinio is produced, Naples and Caserta. The appellation takes its last name from Aversa, the town in Caserta around which most of the vineyards are found. To grow Asprinio, I Borboni supports a traditionally Etruscan viticultural system known as vite maritata (“married vine”) by which the vines wrap around the tree trunks of poplar trees and climb to heights of 15 metres. This poses special challenges for the grape pickers, hence the made-to-measure scala napoletana.
The wine grower’s Neapolitan ladder is typically only 30 cm (about 1 ft) wide, with steps spaced 40-50 cm (15-20 inches) apart in accordance with the length of the climber’s lower leg. The spacing allows him to plant his foot on one rung and wedge his knee beneath the one directly above it, thereby stabilizing his position as he picks grapes, loads them into a basket and lowers it to the ground on a rope.
Can the origins of the rickety old ladder in Beuys’s sculpture be traced to the Asprinio vineyards of Naples and Caserta provinces? Two points count against the hypothesis:
- Beuys’s ladder is too short to reach the heights of the poplar trees
- The artist is said to have purchased the ladder from a landlord in Amalfi.
That said, maybe there are shorter ladders required for younger trees. Or maybe the artist used a segment cut from a longer ladder. The Amalfi Coast is only 23 km (about 37 miles) southeast of Naples – not very far for a ladder to travel. And Beuys did not name his sculpture Scala Amalfitana, did he? In the end, this may be one more tree that art historians will need to wrap their heads around and climb.