Grave Willow returns to the work of artist-in-residence Marta Polato. Her latest piece is a stark death’s-head created with oil on paper. It evolved from a series submitted for inclusion in a scholarly anthology of esoterica. The painting is entitled, Memento mori:
In the painting, a skull is shown crowned with a wreath of berried ivy, or Edera. Polato is multifaceted in her Dionysian expressions of the plant. Her devotion to the ivy spirit is no secret. Like the willow that grows over the grave, ivy dances upon tombs and abandoned structures.
Based near Venice, Polato is no stranger to the profound Memento mori around her. Venice is home to Ponte dei Sospiri — the Bridge of Sighs. Passing over the narrow waters of Rio di Palazzo, this limestone bridge is quite literally a passage between life and death. Historically, Ponte dei Sospiri served as the link between the interrogation chambers of the Doge’s Palace and the cells of Prigioni Nuove — the New Prison. As prisoners crossed from one edifice to the other —often being led to their death in the square — they beheld the sight of the lovely Venetian world one last time. Deeply, they sighed for the fate which awaited them beyond this final vision.
Polato reminisces on her own experience crossing bridges. Ponte degli Scalzi comes to mind. The name itself means Bridge of the Barefoot, or Bridge of Barefoot Monks. She youthfully recalls walking barefoot over the bridge intoxicated sometimes drunk on just Veneto alone. She says such barefoot crossings are traditional, though she does not know exactly why. It should come as no surprise that the ivy-adoring Polato delights in these experiences. On many occasions she has depicted ivy in its aspect as a plant of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, fertility, and ecstatic celebration.
As for bridge-travels and Memento mori… Creeping does our experience cross over such deathly ponti: Sometimes with sighs forlorn, and breaths of the inevitable. In other instances it crosses barefoot and intoxicated.
Polato is an Italian artist born in Padua and based in Venice. Her works capture the dance — both earthly and otherworldly — of European mythic traditions, herbal folklore, and esoteric currents. Like the flora they depict, Polato’s works emit a subtle potency. Polato is the first visual artist to join the Grave Willow project.
Marta Polato can be found on instagram via@__hedera__. She can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
In the spirit of the willow — and of new beginnings — Grave Willow wishes to feature an artist we hold a deep adoration for.
Behold the work of engraver, illustrator, and printmaker Marta Polato. Polato is an Italian artist born in Padua and based in Venice. Her works capture the dance — both earthly and otherworldly — of European mythic traditions, herbal folklore, and esoteric currents. Like the flora they depict, Polato’s works emit a deep potency.
Polato is highly-versed in her media, and dedicates to it the kind of serious time and labor that engaged artistry commands. Ever oriented towards refining her techne, Polato is fully-conscious of form, content, and historicity. A 2021 graduate of the Biennium in Graphic Art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice, her former student bio on the Italian art hub Giovani Artisti reads:
“… Her poetics have always brought out a passion for themes of the occult and esotericism, with a strong symbolic meaning through the most ancestral suggestions. The natural and symbolist element represent the pivots from which her graphic corpus develops, which branches out into the expressive means of engraving techniques and artistic drawing; with the prevalent use of black and white by means of a basically incisive sign, her work moves among the most archetypal images giving them a new identity — anchoring itself strongly to mythology, history, and poetry…
Polato was born in a town in the province of Padua, and has always been dedicated to the visual arts since childhood. She enrolled in the Modigliani Art School where she graduated in 2015 with the address of Figurative Design. In 2013 she came into contact for the first time with the engraving disciplines and the world of art printing at La Corte della Miniera in Urbino, an experience that would lead to her enrollment at the Academy of Fine Arts in Venice in the School of Graphic Art under the chair of Professor Andrea Serafini. Here her artistic experience moves between various disciplines of graphics and printing, including: chalcography, xylography, screen printing and lithography; always progressing equally in the studies of the history of art, drawing, illustration and anatomy. In 2018 she obtained the 1st level Diploma in Graphic Art, choosing to extend her academic career in the two years of the same discipline. She also tries her hand with pure, self-taught, and amateur passion in digital and analog photography.
Dualities and liminal spaces abound in Polato’s work. They are interwoven among a rich and raw herbarium. Here, syncretic visions of vegetation, crucifixion, and sabbatic night flights commingle in a dark ecstasy.
The series in Polato’s body of work which embodies this most strongly is called Erbario suggestivo. Translated from Italian, it means suggestive herbarium. Erbario is a collection of fourteen works expressing the mythic dimensions of numerous flora. It is only appropriate to feature two of Polato’s centering on the Tree that Weeps.
The first piece is a 2019 work entitled Salix L. — the latin botanical name for the willow. Salix L. was created with pen, china ink, and pencil.
Polato offers up an exposition on the themes of the willow. These themes are nested in the context of Celtic mythology and religious belief:
“For the Celts the willow was considered a highly sacred tree. Similarly, in the Celtic tree alphabet (Ogham) it was associated with the number five, connected to the Great Mother. The Druids created woven baskets with willow branches, which would then contain the human sacrifices made at the full moon as a gift to the Goddess. This line between death and life (which unites the willow to other plants such as cypresses and poplars) is fueled by the fact that, in ancient times, there existed a belief of the willow killing its fruits due to the rapidity of their ripening post-bloom. This aura of mystery towards the plant informed many beliefs, such as the medieval — according to which the willow would be the seat of witches’ haunts; reached the foot of the tree to perform their spells. In this regard, writer Robert Graves analyzes the etymology of the English words “witch” and “wicked,” tracing them back to “willow.” We find it widely quoted also in the Old Testament, where it is an allusion to suffering in Egypt; it also seems that it was he, the willow, who supported Christ in a yielding due to the weight of the cross while walking up the slope to Golgotha.”
Polato’s depiction of willow lore highlights a universal quality to the tree. This quality lends itself to the deep syncretic vision emerging from Polato’s media. This depiction also engages the themes that Grave Willow emphasizes: The dialectics of life, death, and myth — as well as the slippery membranes between.
The second piece shown below is much starker. It is a 2019 etching entitled Salice — the Italian word for willow:
A stark duality is emphasized in Salice. The etched branch revels in a juxtaposition which drives this quality. Ever conscious of aspects related to uplift and renewal, Polato remarks, Non sembra poi così triste —
“It doesn’t seem all that sad.”
Another of Polato’s most striking images centers on the stately walnut tree. This work, entitled Noce, exudes the witching quality that marks much of Polato’s corpus:
Noce is the Italian word for the Walnut tree. Polato is ever loyal to her expositio of lore, and she asks us what the noce has to do with a caryatid, or Καρυάτις in ancient Greek. A caryatid is a pillar in the shape of a woman’s body used to support temples and other structures. In her own words, Polato provides an answer:
“What do the female statues called caryatids have in common with the walnut tree? The three daughters of the king of Laconia were pardoned by Apollo with the gift of clairvoyance, as long as it was used for good. Dionysus fell in love with one of the three, Caria, who reciprocated him. The jealous and curious sisters used the gift to learn more about their relationship; Needless to say, the god punished them by turning them into rocks…
…Caria died of pain, and Bacchus took pity on her and turned her into a fruitful nut. It is therefore up to Apollo’s sister, Diana, to tell the sad story to the Laconians; they erected in her honor a temple with columns with female features carved in walnut. For this reason, the plant was associated with the Great Pagan Mother. It also holds a strongly dichotomous symbology between death and life. Often these beliefs carry a precise botanical meaning: in fact, around the walnut there is no growth of other plants due to the substance that its roots secrete.”
Polato also contextualizes the piece with localities:
“In Benevento there is a story of a large walnut which attracted witches and demons on the night of St. John for wild parties and magical sessions. A bishop named Barbato in the seventh century tried to have him uprooted but to no avail; legend has it that the walnut grew back and the janare (witches in the Campania dialect) continued to find themselves in that area. The nocino liqueur is famous: on the solstice night only the women had the burden of removing the still green drupes, strictly with wooden tools (never in iron. This liqueur was considered a panacea, I pray of the magic of that night and far from the dismal vision attributed to the plant.”
Marta Polato can be found on instagram@__hedera__. She can also be reached at email@example.com