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South Tyrol’s artists and designers have spread their influence throughout the world

Italy’s largest and most northerly province, South Tyrol derives its uniqueness from the fusion of Austrian and Italian cultures which influences the design, architecture, cuisine and language of the region.

Ask a local what the rest of Italy might feel about them and the answer might be envy – and not only for the spectacular scenery (the famous, jagged-toothed Dolomites mountain range, a World Heritage Site, has over 350 summits above 3,000 metres), wines, fruits and vegetables (including every tenth apple grown in Europe) or healthy mountain air (making locals the longest living in Italy).

What mainly sparks envy is South Tyrol’s internationally recognised status as an autonomous region, the result of a post-WWII agreement which granted the region special provisions regarding the development of language, economy and culture. This means that 90 per cent of the province’s income stays there (the other ten per cent going to Rome), resulting in a level of prosperity other Italian provinces can only dream of. Tourism is the number one business, with 29 million overnight stays a year at the last count.



The provincial capital, Bolzano, has the distinction of being both the hottest and coldest town in Italy, with 300 days of sunshine a year (hence its flourishing wine and agriculture industries), the same as Crete in the Mediterranean. It has been ranked as having the best quality of life of all Italian cities.

Sitting at the convergence of several valleys, Bolzano is surrounded by steep mountains. Little wonder that the world’s first cable car operated near here in 1908 and that today locals use it to commute to and from work.

Bolzano’s most famous resident is Ötzi the Iceman, a 5,300 year old mummy discovered in 1991 preserved intact in an Alpine glacier along with his clothing and equipment. Ötzi now ‘lives’ in a climate-controlled chamber in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, where he has been visited by 4.5 million people since taking up residence in 1998. A full size recreation of him shows how he might have looked shortly before his untimely death by an assassin’s arrows or a subsequent blow to the skull.

Sitting on an east-west axis, the beautifully designed Museion, Bolzano’s museum for modern and contemporary art, is flooded with dazzling light, the views of the surrounding mountains from the top floor providing the “Wow!” factor. This year’s special exhibition in the angular glass structure is The Force of Photography, a showcase of photographic works from its permanent collection.  Examining notions of identity through portraits and self-portraits, the exhibition also features a selection of sculptures and videos around the same theme.

Wanderer Collective

South Tyrol’s creative scene lives and breathes on five continents. That is how far afield a group of over 50 creatives from the region have dispersed to pursue their careers, taking their design, fashion and art to the world. Many of them dine together every December 26 as invited members of the Wanderer Collective to swap experiences and celebrate their shared origin.

The collective includes: the internationally renowned wood sculptor Aron Demetz, who represented Italy at the 2009 Venice Biennale; London-based designer Martino Gamper, who came to fame with his project ‘100 Chairs in 100 Days’; Andrea Lissoni, Senior Curator of International Film at the Tate; art and fashion photographer Brigitte Niedermair; and Stefan Siegel, founder of the fashion brand Not Just a Label.

Artmag spent time with two of the Wanderer Collective in their ‘Heimat’, or homeland.

Aron Demetz

Born in Val Gardena, where he still lives and works, Aron Demetz adopted a traditional South Tyrolean technique of woodcarving. His sculptures, mostly depicting the human figure, explore the possibilities of wood as a material. The resulting works have a strong physical presence, which also deeply engage the viewer on a psychological level.

Aron Demetz

Instead of presenting polished and perfected works, Demetz celebrates the wood’s textures and transformation through natural processes. After the figure has been carved out of a block of wood the material is submitted to different ‘injuries’, as its surface is roughened, burned, scarred or otherwise distressed.

A favourite techique is to cover the works with resin, which trees produce in nature to heal ‘wounds’ and thus create a new bark. “You have to respect the soul of the materials,” says Demetz. “The resin is the blood of the trees. With the resin I give them back a soul.” Another technique is to use a special electrical tool to churn parts of a figure into a mass of chipped whorls, representing moss growing on trees.

Working in his spacious workshop in the village of Ortisei, Demetz echoes traditional local craftsmen in style, insisting – as opposed to today‘s trend in young Italian art of developing a generic ‘international style‘ – on his own cultural roots as the starting point for his work.

3D Wood

3D Wood sculptor Gregor Prugger carves a replica Saint Joseph to replace one damaged in a church

Across the road from Aron Demetz’s workshop in Val Gardena 3D Wood is using modern technology to continue a tradition of wood carving attributed to a centuries old custom of farmers making wooden toys in the ‘dead’ days of winter. This evolved into a tradition of sculpture, especially of church items such as altars and religious figures, and eventually the area’s main industry at one time. Appealing to the tourist trade, shelves in the 3D Wood shop are laden with traditional wooden ornaments, from, angels, cherubs, wildlife and saints to Alpine huntsmen, nativity scenes, crucifixes and Jesus figures. Behind the scenes craftsmen create one-off, hand-carved pieces or work machinery to produce small series items to thousands of units. Even a fine sawdust-spewing robot gets in on the act.

3D Wood

Martino Gamper

Now based in London, Martino Gamper started as an apprentice with a furniture maker in his native Merano, 30-odd kilometres north of Bolzano. He went on to study sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna before completing a Masters at the Royal College of Art in London. Gamper now works in interior design, including for high end retail stores, one-off furniture commissions and the design of mass-produced products for the furniture industry.

For his best known project ‘100 Chairs in 100 days’ Gamper collected disused chairs from alleyways and friends’ homes and reassembled them – one per day – into poetic and often humorous forms. It has since been shown as an installation internationally. He has said: “My intention was to investigate the potential of creating useful new chairs by blending together the stylistic and structural elements of the found one, like a three-dimensional sketchbook.”

Our day spent with Martino involved a visit to the Mairhofer furniture factory in the hamlet of Proveis, which he uses for his one-off commissions, including a beautiful table for a New York client which was nearing completion – a classic example of how this tiny corner of Europe, seemingly dense with artists and designers, is having a worldwide impact on the creative industries.

Martino Gamper
Tischlerei Mairhofer
Tischlerei Mairhofer

Zaha Hadid

Even the late architect Zaha Hadid was inspired by South Tyrol. In collaboration with the famous mountaineer Reinhold Messner, she designed in her distinctive style the Messner Mountain Museum (MMM) Corones, which is embedded like a crashed spaceship into the top of Mount Kronplatz (2,275 metres).

Messner Mountain Museum, Photo © inexhibit.com

Language & place names  

Of the 500,000 or so South Tyroleans, around 70 per cent speak German and 20 per cent speak Italian. Italian speakers live almost exclusively in town, while over 70 per cent of German speakers are country folk. The remaining five per cent – just over 20,000 people – speak Ladin, which evolved as the ‘aborigines’ of South Tyrol absorbed the Latin of their Roman occupiers into their own native language.

Nearly 90 per cent of Ladin speakers occupy only two valleys, Alta Badia and Val Gardena. Even though the valleys practically adjoin each other, accents betray which valley speakers are from. Reflecting this diversity, Balzano has Europe’s first tri-lingual university, while in the school system either German or Italian is taught as the first foreign language and in the Ladin-speaking valleys both are rotated with Ladin, taking a week each.

As you travel through the countryside, you will notice that every town, village and hamlet has two names – a German one and an Italian one. This is the legacy of Ettore Tolomei, an Italian nationalist and later Mussolini sympathiser who regarded the watershed of the Alps to the north as the true boundary between Italy and Austria.

Formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, South Tyrol was annexed by Italy in 1918 as part of the WW1 peace treaty and in the 1920s Mussolini promoted mass immigration from the south, banning German being taught in order.

As part of the ‘Italianisation’ of this mostly German-speaking area, Ettore Tolomei set about attributing an Italian name to every place and geographical feature – all 12,000 of them.

Further info https://www.suedtirol.info


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