In the summer of 2016, I went to Lago d’Iseo in northern Italy to experience Christo and Jeanne-Marie’s latest art installation, The Floating Piers. A modular dock system of 220,000 high-density polyethylene cubes, covered with saffron-colored fabric, allowed me, along with a whopping 1.5 million other pilgrims (during its sixteen day lifespan), to walk across the lake. The only other time I’d seen one of their works was more than thirty years ago.
I have to confess that I never ‘got’ what these artists were up as they wrapped buildings and monuments in synthetic fabrics (and even a shopping cart in plastic – huh?) or wandered around the world hanging miles of billowing nylon across stretches of deserted land, until . . . . . until I walked across the Pont Neuf, Paris’s oldest standing bridge, on an exceptionally sunny day in early October 1985. Swathed in a polyamide fabric that looked and felt and smelled like canvas, I strolled from one end of the bridge to the other and I finally understood.
By then I’d lived in Paris for three years and had crossed the Pont Neuf dozens of times but I didn’t ‘know’ the bridge. I didn’t realize that there were really two parts to it with a sort of a lull in the middle; I really hadn’t ever followed its path – how it joined the left and right banks of the Seine by slicing through the western tip of the l’île de la Cité; I really hadn’t noticed how it embraced an impressive Place crowned by Henri IV atop a spirited stallion.
And I’d never taken the time to cross that small place and peer down onto the Square du Vert Galant, the dainty park that brings the l’île to its pointed conclusion. I simply hadn’t paid attention to any of this until I could see the bridge as a whole, thanks to the 450,000 square feet (41,800 square meters) of cloth that covered every square inch (or square millimeter) and united it into a single, architectural marvel.
During two weeks, it became a playground of sorts that drew three million people, a piece of sculpture that changed color depending on the light of the day, and another proud Parisian Grand Boulevard to walk down.
I now live in Rome and since the Floating Piers were a mere high-speed train ride away, I was itching to check out the latest of Christo and Jeanne Marie’s wrap-ups (Jeanne-Marie, Christo’s wife, passed away a few years ago yet anything he does carries her name).
I jumped at the chance in spite of news reports that highlighted the tons of people who waited up to five hours daily to walk on the piers for three kilometers (1.8 miles).
Friends, who’d been or hadn’t, either encouraged me or told me I was crazy for attempting to brave the heat and withstand the bleating crowds.
And I was wary because TV coverage had been polka-dotted with journalists in flapping rain parkas barely hanging onto their microphones as they described sporadic shutdowns due to inclement weather. Get the picture? I’d, however, recently taken a course on angel power so I decided to test out the lessons and ask St. Michael, the Archangel, to clear my path.
I set out early and zoomed up to Brescia on the Frecciargento (the silver arrow train). So far, so good. From there, a local would take me to Sulzano where my walk would begin. Scores of us lined up for a train that was sitting idly in the station. Four Italian women cut in front of me but I only cursed their rudeness to myself. When the train was ready, the local police cut the line off right behind me. I even (miraculously) found a seat amongst throngs of people who were all standing. So far, St. Michael was batting a thousand!
As I exited the train, I looked down on a sea of people divided into at least a dozen holding pens — two to three hundred in each. Watching this madness on TV was one thing but seeing it live, quite another.
I knew there had to be another way to avoid the bullpens, and ferreted out a ferry that crossed from the mainland to Monte d’Isola, a dot of an island that was connected to the mainland by one of the piers. There were no more than ten people waiting to take the five- minute trip.
From there, I skipped joining the herds skirting the island to get to one of the other piers and instead took a staircase to the upper town and came upon none other than a 17th century church named for St. Michael.
I dropped in, sat down, and glanced over my left shoulder. There he was, sword in hand, looking straight at me. I winked his way, then walked down the hill and hit the other floating pier after an uncongested, ten-minute walk along the shore.
I expected to have some sort of epiphany walking on water but I have to admit that I wasn’t spirited away. Rather I was bowled over by the sheer engineering feat of it. Here were people of every age and many nationalities taking an afternoon walk, a passeggiata, as it’s called in Italian, on a lake cradled by a stunning mountain range. The communal aspect, however, was transcendent. Surprisingly silent or murmuring to one another, thousands of us walked under a searing sun and a cloudless sky.
We weren’t really going anywhere but all of us, identical strings of walkers, seemed to be captured by the stretch of blindingly yellow-orange cloth before us and the mammoth bubble of lake and sky around and above us. We even got a glimpse of Christo, himself. He passed by, high atop a boat, for his daily inspection. For me, this all amounted to an inimitable journey and a once-in-a-lifetime happening.
When I landed back in Sulzano, it became clear that I wouldn’t reach the Airbnb I’d booked on another of the other sides of the lake. All water traffic had been either reserved or cancelled. And taxis? Well, the drivers were either on strike or in hiding because I never saw even one. I returned to Brescia and found the last room in a B&B that had been reserved by someone else but the receptionist gave it to me. (St. Michael worked until the very end of my trip.) So, for those of you who don’t believe in calling on the intervention of angels, I suggest you try it (no specific religious affiliation required).
These two installations were incomparable and incomparable. Both so startling, both so different. The ingenuity behind both and the novel way of encountering, on the one hand, a 400 year-old, stone monument, and on the other, something as fleeting as water, bound them together. So my huh? of once upon a time decidedly turned into an aha!
To learn more about the history and technology of The Floating Piers and to take a look back at the Pont Neuf and see more photos, follow these links:
For a more complete look at Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work, please follow this link: