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'Get thee to a nunnery!' might be a quote from Shakespeare rather than Italian literature, but it would still be a relevant - if redundant - greeting for Gaia Scaramella. The Roman artist, who trained as an engraver, paints portraits of nuns - that is, she paints pictures of herself as a nun. Tucked away in the Z20 Galleria-Sara Zanin, very near the ancient Coliseum where Christians were once thrown to the lions, is a collection of paintings of the artist posing gleefully in a nun's habit.
Italians take their religion seriously, and Rome is, of course, the centre of the Catholic religion. So Scaramella's irreverent paintings are unusual.
Scaramella says her pictures are less about attacking religion than challenging the kingdom of death. She's not scared of the Grim Reaper, which is why her sombre portraits feature her grinning face. 'I like the idea of scaring Death with my works,' she says. 'It's a plausible idea, although I doubt if she is endowed with the same sense of humour as me.'
Her combative approach to death extends to her family. Pasted to one wall of the gallery are a hundred or so paper memento mori dedicated to her ancestors - except the artist has superimposed her own head on the mementos. The result is an amusing mockery of the rituals that surround death.
'To respect the memory of the dead just means not to intrude on the inner memory of the loss,' she says. 'But what is the memory of the dead, anyway - a framed picture? Well, that's just a fetish.'
As critic Marco Tonelli says in the exhibition notes, insouciance rather than blasphemy is at the heart of Scaramella's work. Now that God has been pronounced dead by atheists, it gives religiously inclined people liberty to reinvent him. Scaramella has chosen to reinvent him, and his rituals, as a bit of a laugh. What better way is there to celebrate God in our postmodern times than dressing up in a nun's habit and pulling funny faces? If members of all religions did that, religion would cease to be an excuse for war and terrorism.
Stylistically, the works appear sombre until you notice the artist's cheeky face. They're mainly composed of dark colours, and use a lot of chiaroscuro effects. Occasionally, Scaramella looks reverent, as if caught off-guard in a moment of serious contemplation. Some works feature four pictures of her face - quadruplet nuns from a devout family, perhaps.
Although Scaramella's work is religious in nature - she's no atheist - it probably offends some Christians. For instance, she has said she wouldn't want to have sex with God because he's said to emit a lot of light - and she prefers doing it in the dark.
But Scaramella doesn't worry too much about being sent down below when she dies. 'I wouldn't really mind it, as long as I could live in the higher regions of hell - in limbo,' she says.