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Reaching for the Sky or Realizing Your Depths: Baldassare Forestiere and Simon Rodia

22/01/2021 Ravenna, Italy

Reaching for the Sky or Realizing Your Depths: Baldassare Forestiere and Simon Rodia

There comes a time in people’s lives when they feel the urge to do something grand, extraordinary, and even superhuman; this feeling undoubtedly arrives with varying degrees of strength for every person, which is perhaps the reason why not everyone—despite receiving this “calling,” a phenomenon that shouldn’t just have religious connotations—actually goes on to channel and, more importantly, take their ordained goal to the very end. Whether artists feel this urge more powerfully than priests or the other way around isn’t something I’d like to debate here; wherever you think this force comes from, it has led to some incredible feats of willpower, endurance, vigor, and most of all, art.

I can think of no two better examples which symbolize what I’ve written above than the names Sabato “Simon” Rodia and Baldassare Forestiere, who are both pictured below (right and left, respectively). Although their artistic projects couldn’t have been any more divergent (Rodia’s shot straight into the sky while Forestiere’s penetrated the Earth’s depths), their paths, fates, and sensibilities were eerily identical. Both men were from the south of Italy (Forestiere from Sicily and Rodia from the Campania region); both created their masterpieces in California; both spent more than thirty years working on their masterpieces; and both dealt with tragic circumstances and suffered disappointments during their lives, which may have inspired their particular projects.

Having lived in Los Angeles for over fifteen years, the place where Rodia’s work (the so-called “Watts Towers“) is located, I can certainly say that the gem is much better known simply because of where it’s located—in a sprawling metropolis home to millions. Although Watts today (and probably also during the time Rodia lived there) can by any stretch of the imagination not be considered LA’s most desirable neighborhood, the sheer fact that the towers are located in the city has given them far greater exposure than the work of Forestiere, which is equally as impressive (and yet, Rodia is the one featured on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—on the upper right-hand corner, between Bob Dylan and Huntz Hall—while Forestiere, who built his amazing underground gardens in the quiet town of Fresno, has no such distinction).

I had the privilege to see the work of both these men in person and the impact their masterpieces made on me was profound; even more fascinating, however, were their life stories, which seemed like they had been taken out of a Tornatore or Fellini film; naturally, I’ll start with the tale of the one who’s less widely known.

Baldassare Forestiere was born on July 8, 1879, in Filari, a small village in the province of Messina. Growing up with an oppressive, harsh father, Forestiere quickly learned that life wouldn’t become the joyride he or anyone else really expected it to be, and not because his family didn’t have the economic means which could make that a reality—they did—but because his dad not only refused to share much of the wealth with his other three sons, but had also cut Forestiere out of his will entirely. Without prospects, let alone a sensible future, Forestiere had little reason to remain in Sicily and thus decided to seek his fortunes in the US, leaving the island for good at the age of twenty-one, never to return. And so, in 1906, after working odd jobs up and down the coast of California, he arrived in Fresno and began trying to make a living as a farmer, something he would’ve been content to do had life not given him a great basket of lemons. It just so happened that the plain, soft-spoken man from Sicily had indeed been duped into purchasing a type of land locals commonly referred to as “hardpan,” which is an impermeable layer of soil not really suitable (to say the least) for any kind of agriculture whatsoever.

Once again, life had let him down, forcing the Sicilian to endure yet another major disappointment in his already desperate existence: The reality that he would never become a farmer either. His frugal immigrant lifestyle, which had allowed him to collect a bit of hard-earned money, was wasted and there was nothing left to be done. Perhaps it was because of the inability to cope with his disappointment, or perhaps it was due to the killer San Joaquin Valley heat that made existence impossible—whatever it happened to have been, the down-and-out man from the village of Filari arrived at this conclusion: “To make something with a lot of money, that is easy; but to make something out of nothing—now that is something.” The question, hence, became: Well, how do you do that? And even if you did know, where do you go to escape the sun? And if you do escape it, how would you find the strength to give life a new meaning? You start building something like this.

Forestiere, initially, must’ve looked down at the useless land he’d been tricked into buying, reflected for some time, and subsequently glanced up at the sky from where the heat of hell was pouring down, which is perhaps when he realized that his answer was to be found underground; it’s with this ambition that he began the slow and painful process of digging his famous caverns, a task which would last over forty years and eventually culminate in the creation of perhaps the greatest underground complex built by a single man—with no mechanized tools.

Fresno’s small Italian population quickly got wind of his activities and labeled him an eccentric, criticizing his peculiar activities and calling them a shame to the Italian community. Forestiere, like all men possessed by a great vision, continued on with his work, unabashed. Very much inspired by both secular and religious themes, the great Sicilian, in true Renaissance fashion, let his imagination be ignited by the arches and grottoes of the Old World; the Ancient Greeks (who also colonized Sicily) believed that divine beings resided in the latter (supposedly the workshop of Hephaestus was located inside Mount Etna, Europe’s most active volcano).

To find relief from the summer heat, Forestiere began by first digging out his living quarters, which are seen here, and are quite comfortable, I must say.

Besides spending the next thirty years painstakingly excavating the other structures, Forestiere was also an artist in a much gentler, less laborious sense—he was an expert grafter, which sounds like a vagrant who leaves ghastly graffiti in badly smelling tunnels, but is actually a gardener who has the expertise to create precise incisions in a plant that allow him to insert the tissue of another species, thus making it possible for the organism to produce two (or even up to eight) fruits, a feat Forestiere had managed to accomplish with one of his trees, which, if my memory serves me right, doesn’t exist anymore.

The man from Sicily was also apparently a very skilled engineer. He crafted his masterpiece in a such a way that allowed him to control the entrance of rainwater for an efficient irrigation and drainage system, precisely what made his garden possible. Clearly, the man wasn’t your average down-and-out “loser” with no prospects or job—he would’ve most likely been able to run his father’s factories with more competence and care than the old tyrant himself, but sometimes life has more ambitious things in store for you, especially when it gives you lemons.

Like Forestiere, Rodia also immigrated to the US with his brother, albeit at an earlier age, fifteen, and like his contemporary, who was also born in 1879 (another eerie similarity I forgot to mention), Rodia endured his own disappointments and tragedies, seeing his brother die in a mining accident. After marrying young in 1902, then having three kids, and finally divorcing just seven years after his marriage, the man from Campania at last came to Watts in 1920, and began constructing the world-famous towers only a year later. Faced with bleak prospects brought on by his disappointments, Rodia suddenly decided that he had to do “something big,” and, to this day, no one really knows why, but who can after all understand the “calling” of a preacher, much less that of an artist, whose vision you see below?

And so, Rodia began collecting all the found objects that were available: tiles, mirrors, bottles, shells, and everything else he could get his hands on—sometimes the neighbors even helped, and sometimes those neighbors happened to be kids with the name of Charles Mingus, who was just a boy living in Watts at the time, but subsequently became one of the greatest Jazz musicians ever (doing “something big” his own way, one might note). Mingus even mentioned Rodia’s masterpiece in his 1971 autobiography, Beneath the Underdog. Given how much is already known and talked about with regard to the towers, it would perhaps be better to quote a passage at length from the autobiography:

“At that time in Watts there was an Italian man, named Simon Rodia—though some people said his name was Sabatino Rodella—and his neighbors called him Sam. He had a regular job as a tile setter, but on weekends and at night time, under lights he strung up, he was building something strange and mysterious and he’d been working on it since before my boy was born. Nobody knew what it was or what it was for. Around his small frame house he had made a low wall shaped like a ship and inside it he was constructing what looked like three masts, all different heights, shaped like upside-down ice cream cones. First he would set up skeletons of metal and chicken wire, and plaster them over with concrete, then he’d cover that with fancy designs made of pieces of seashells and mirrors and things. He was always changing his ideas while he worked and tearing down what he wasn’t satisfied with and starting over again, so pinnacles tall as a two-story building would rise up and disappear and rise again. What was there yesterday mightn’t be there next time you looked, but then another lacy-looking tower would spring up in its place.”

Like Forestiere’s neighbors, who mostly ridiculed and belittled him, Rodia’s neighbors did do the same, but his main problem wasn’t so much being mocked, but being harassed. Given the incredible height of the towers and their extraterrestrial nature, many locals were rather suspicious about Rodia’s work and often tried to prevent him from carrying it out, sometimes with means of direct interference. We must remember that while Rodia began construction in 1921, he worked on his project for over thirty years, meaning that it must’ve looked much more intimidating during and after WWII than when he started building it—and not just from the material standpoint, but also from the psychological one. At some point, the US government even thought the towers were being used for espionage, possibly to establish communication channels with the Japanese—all kinds of wild assumptions circulated.

Hence, it’s highly likely that the communist scare played a large part in how locals perceived not only Rodia’s project, but also the man himself. Tired of being harassed and having his work vandalized, Rodia left Watts and never returned. He died eleven years later, abandoning his masterpiece for good. The site was scheduled for demolition in 1959; by that time, however, the towers had become world-famous. Still, the city wouldn’t budge. Pressure, nevertheless, also grew from the other side—countless artists, scholars, and architects pleaded to have the towers preserved, but in the end all that their efforts were able to achieve was force the city to carry out a so-called demolition test against the foundation for the purpose of testing its strength (Los Angeles is after all prone to earthquakes and the structure might pose a hazard). Just look at those things: The highest tower is almost one hundred feet high (just over thirty meters). Again, all done by hand and no mechanized tools.

Ultimately, the city decided to attach steel cables to each tower and exert a force of 10,000 pounds (roughly 4500 kilograms) in order to see whether the famous masterpiece could withstand it—if yes, Los Angeles would allow it to remain; if no, then authorities would get what they wanted just the same. What ended up happening is nothing short of a miracle because the towers were barely affected by the pull; that’s not the whole story, however—when the devastating 1994 Northridge Earthquake struck Los Angeles with a magnitude of 6.7, the towers, once again, suffered very little damage.

How could this uneducated tiny man, under five feet, build such a thing? Even engineers marvel at it to this day. I can think of no other way to conclude this article but with the following, timely Sicilian proverb: Not every bad thing comes to harm you. We may encounter difficulties—we may even believe that life has presented us with unsurmountable odds, but the lives of Forestiere and Rodia have shown that there’s always a way out; there’s always a way to rise from the depths of defeat and despair, and you don’t necessarily have to reach for the sky in order to make your escape.


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