Alberto Burri first painted on old burlap sacks in 1944, when he was held as a prisoner of war in the United States. A convenient substitute for canvas – as well as a cheap and durable material for tents, sandbags, and camouflage netting – the sacks’ texture and weave appealed to Burri, and he brought several of them back to Italy upon his release in 1946. Hung on the wall in the form of a relief, these Sacchi (sacks) sag and peel away from their base, their inherent abjection further emphasized by Burri’s inclusion of holes, stains, and seams in the final composition. Bruised, battered, and stitched, the sacks may relate to his earlier role as a physician in the Italian army.
By focusing on the painting support itself and nearly bypassing the act of painting altogether, works such as Sacco e oro (1953) short-circuited the furious debates concerning realism and abstraction that were occurring within Italy during the postwar period. In this work, Burri’s focus on the physical properties of the painting’s support recalls the use of the canvas weave as a textural element in paintings by Rocco Marconi (1420–1529). Burri’s emphasis on materials is seen again in the traces of gold leaf visible here and there from behind the burlap, recalling the luminous gilded panels of thirteenth-century Italian art. Many have understood this concealing of the gold to allude to Italy’s recent wartime trama, the scars of which are mimicked by the frayed and patched burlap sack.