American Death Row Inmate Show in Siena

Until June 4: Ten Years and Eighty-Seven Days; An International Eye at the Cruelty of the American Death Penalty.  Santa Maria della Scala Museum, Siena.  Open Monday – Thursday 10 am – 7 pm, Friday 10 am – 10 pm, Saturday/Sunday 10 am – 7  pm. Tickets at

The American justice system struggles with a harsh reputation based on the controversial use of the capital punishment for felons who have been convicted of especially egregious crimes.

At the moment, Arkansas is in the international spotlight for the recent executions of two inmates in one night after realizing their supply of midazolam (one of the drugs in the lethal injection) would expire in late April – despite the knowledge that the active ingredient in the three drug cocktail may not correctly sedate inmates before execution, and therefore administer an unconstitutionally painful death.

Struck down by the Federal Supreme Court in 1972, the death penalty made a swift reappearance in state legislation of over 29 individual states by 1976. Since then, over 7,800 defendants have been sentenced to death, over 1,400 executed, and more than 2,900 people still await their fate on death row.

Tucked into the corner of the historic Santa Maria della Scala Museum in Siena’s Piazza Duomo is an extraordinary exhibition by Italian photographer Luisa Menazzi Moretti documenting the limbo period for inmates on death row in Hunstville, Texas – a state that ranks first in the number of executions.

The title of the show, Ten Years and Eighty-Seven Days, refers to the average time a person in the Unites States has to wait in solitary confinement before his or her sentence is executed.

Moretti was inspired by the words and experiences of the inmates, mixing highly contrasted black and white photography with passages from letters and interviews by real people who lived the experience of death row in Texas. Needless to say, Moretti’s exhibition packs an emotional punch to visitors as they wind in and out of each nook and cranny of the gallery encountering one chilling story after the other.

Perhaps the most eerie piece in the show is the 2m x 3m “cell” illuminated by LED lights in the ground. Visitors can step into this tiny rectangle, the size of the solitary confinement cubicle that inmates are kept for sometimes over 3,000 days without anything but books, a radio, and the legal proceedings as a momentary escape.

As one understands the density of the space around them, directly in front of visitor’s eyes is a collage of mug-shots of inmates who have met their fate waiting on death row. Spaces are left empty at the top of the piece to symbolize that there will most certainly be someone else’s picture there soon.

When asked why the artist wanted to bring the show to Italy, specifically a small city like Siena, Moretti responded that the support she had received from Daniele Pittèri (director of the Santa Maria della Scala Museum) for this grueling and tendentious subject matter made the museum a perfect inaugural space, as she hopes to one day take the show to America.

As an American, the knowledge of these grim proceedings is all too well known. The exhibition seems to hit the emotional cortex of the foreign audience – the shock and awe on their faces a reminder of the fragility of human life, and how fleeting it can be.  (tessa lucia debole)