‘Living art’ stabled behind Italian museum

As it turns out, the 14 donkeys that live behind Magazzino in Philipstown are a long-term exhibit at the Italian art museum.

“They are a piece of living art,” said Giorgio Spanu, the Garrison resident who founded Magazzino with his wife, Nancy Olnick.

“Having the donkeys here brings us back to the idea that art can be for everyone, even the donkeys,” added Vittorio Calabrese, executive director of the museum, which is located on Route 9 just south of its intersection with 301.

Calabrese said the animals, which are endangered Sardinian donkeys (Asinelli Sardi), highlight the museum’s focus on the anti-establishment movement known as Arte Povera, or “poor art,” that started in the 1960s. Its artists use non-traditional materials such as soil, rags, twigs and even live animals.

Indeed, one of Arte Povera’s celebrated practitioners, Jannis Kounellis, wowed the Italian art world in 1969 with a work called “Untitled (Cavelli)” that consisted of 12 horses tethered in temporary quarters in an underground garage in Rome.

Donkey cuddles are common.
Donkey cuddles are common. (Photo by Alexa Hoyer/Magazzino)

Unlike Kounellis’ horses, the Magazzino donkeys live in a barn that has a certificate of compliance from the Town of Philipstown.

In the middle of the donkey corral, atop the hay feeder, is a gold-colored sculpture of a hand holding a sphere in its fingers.

Entitled “Trevis Maponos,” it was created by Tuscan artist Namsal Siedlecki. Spanu said that when Siedlecki visited the museum in 2018 to discuss a commission, he became a fan of the donkeys. “I want my sculpture to be part of the daily life of the donkeys,” he told Spanu.

Siedlecki said in an interview from his home in Italy that he made the piece from coins that tourists tossed into the Trevi Fountain in Rome, after he melted them down. The Vatican uses most of the money collected from the fountain to feed the poor but Siedlecki said unusable coins are sold in bulk.

The sculpture, Siedlecki said, is meant to speak to how people cast things into water to make wishes. The hand is a replica of a centuries-old wooden votive offering to the gods found preserved in water in Clermont-Ferrand, France.

“The donkeys are offered food by an offering,” he explained.

The donkeys eat a lot of hay.Photos by Alexa Hoyer/Magazzino
The donkeys eat a lot of hay. (Photos by Alexa Hoyer/Magazzino)

The donkeys themselves were an offering from Spanu, a native of Sardinia. “I have seen these donkeys since I was born,” he said. “They were our pickup trucks. They would grind olives to make olive oil.”

In the early 1990s, Spanu decided to import a few donkeys. But they were nearing extinction, with fewer than 100 remaining on the island. So he turned to Texas, which he learned had more Sardinian donkeys than Sardinia.

He had two donkeys — Chip and Voyle — loaded onto a truck with horses bound for Millbrook. When the truck couldn’t get down Avery Road in Garrison to the Spanu home, the donkeys were unloaded in the parking lot near the Home Depot in Fishkill.

By 2018, the Spanu herd had grown to a dozen and their braying was irritating the neighbors. So Spanu started moving them to Magazzino. The loud males went first.

During a recent visit to the stables, one donkey was braying at others in the pen.

Jay Nicholas, a Magazzino driver known as “the donkey whisperer” Photo by J. Asher
Jay Nicholas, a Magazzino driver known as “the donkey whisperer” (Photo by J. Asher)

“That’s Max,” said Jay Nicholas, who works for Magazzino shuttling visitors to and from the Cold Spring train station. “What he’s saying is: ‘Why am I here? The females are all over there in that pen. What is this barrier between us? It’s very frustrating.’ ”

Nicholas is known as “the donkey whisperer” at Magazzino. “I make sure that the backs of the donkeys’ ears are well-scratched,” he said. “They’re charming and serene animals.”

Nicholas often serenades the animals with guitar or harmonica, improvising songs such as “Glad You’re Still Fluffy” and “How’s Your Day?”

During the pandemic quarantine, Nicholas said that the donkeys became bored and lonely. “I would come up here and practice guitar,” he said. “They would listen for a while and then go about their business. When I’d stop playing, they would look up at me. ‘Why’d you stop?’ ”

Editor’s note: The reporter and his wife, Johanna Costa, live uphill of the donkeys; she had a different reaction to the braying than neighbors on Avery Road. “I love hearing them when I garden,” Costa said. “They’re my donkey friends.”

Behind The Story

Type: News

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Joey Asher is a freelance writer and former reporter for The Journal News.

One reply on “The Donkeys of Philipstown”

  1. Fairly recently, Harvard conducted a study to determine whether animals have feelings. It’s beyond my comprehension that such a highly reputed university invested time and money to tell us the obvious. As animals themselves, shouldn’t they know? Please treat these lovely and happy donkeys with loving care.

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