Antonio Manfredi, director of the Contemporary Art Museum of Casoria, stands outside the doorway of his exhibition space. In one hand, he holds a torch made from a wad of white cloth tied to a piece of wood. Next to him, on a square stand of bent rebar, he has hung a painting. The clouds are low. The air holds a hint of rain. With a bottle of lighter fluid, Manfredi wets first the torch and then the painting. He passes the stream across the front of the canvas, over its back, and three times along the bottom of the frame. He uses a cigarette lighter to set the torch on fire. And then he gently transfers the flame to the painting.
At first, the canvas doesn’t burn. Painted in 2007 by a German artist named Astrid Stöfhas, it depicts four women from the Bayern Munich female soccer team embracing in celebration of a goal. The style is expressionist. A mass of soccer uniforms—red slashed with white—dominates the foreground. Above, the players’ faces are blurs of brushwork. The auto-da-fé has attracted three television crews and a handful of photographers, and for several seconds the only sound is the clicking of cameras. Smoke ripples across the painting’s surface like mist on a lake.
Manfredi inaugurated the museum in 2005, at the request of the then mayor of Casoria, a Mob-infested suburb in the Neapolitan hinterland, one of those all-too-typical zones of Italian degradation where garbage casually piles up on the sidewalk, and lost tourists wonder if they haven’t stepped into the Third World. The promised funding never arrived. Six months after the museum threw open its doors, the Casoria city council closed its own doors; the national government had dissolved it, following suspected infiltration by the Mafia. Manfredi decided to press on, using as a display space what was originally meant to be a temporary location: the rough concrete basement of a local school.