A statue of the Pope John Paul II is under attack for its purported resemblance to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. “How could they have given such a kind pope the head of a Fascist,” asked one distraught observer.
The 15-foot bronze statue by Roman artist Oliviero Rainaldi, was unveiled May 18, 2011 on what would have been John Paul’s 91st birthday. The statue is displayed outside Rome’s Termini train station.
The Fondazione Silvana Paolini Angelucci, a charitable organization, donated the sculpture to the city to celebrate the beatification of John Paul II. Mr. Rainaldi, the artist, was chosen because he had worked on several ecclesiastical commissions, and the foundation was confident that he could interpret the pope’s spirit. It was designed for the square in front of Termini, Rome’s main train station, which was dedicated to the pope in 2006, a year after his death.
While the statue is hardly as inflammatory as “La Nona Ora”–Maurizio Cattelan’s 1999 sculpture of Pope John Paul II getting hit by a meteor–some people are steadfast in their criticism of Rainaldi’s new artwork, with one Roman cleaning woman pointing out that the sculpture raised practical concerns as well as artistic ones. “With the shape of the cape, sooner or later the homeless people at the station will sleep inside it, and in no time it will be full of bottles of beer,” she said.
“A giant cow bell,” noted one critic referring to its cylindrical shape. “Mussolini,” said others noting the big bald head perched on top of the work, much like that of the fascist leader of Italy in the early 20th century. A few history buffs seemed to see the features of the Emperor Vespasian, the first-century sponsor of the Colosseum. Vespasian persecuted Christians as subversive to the state, and martyred a few at the Colosseum, mostly by hungry lions. A few were shot full of arrows.
But the most scathing review came from the Vatican’s official newspaper, Osservatore Romano. “The statue’s sin
,” the Vatican stated, is that it’s “hardly to be recognized.”
“You know, in Italy everyone thinks they’re the coach of the national soccer team. Now, we have a nation of 66 million art critics,” said Umberto Broccoli, head of the city’s Cultural Heritage Department. “We were happy to accept a statue that cost the city zilch.”
For now, Mr. Rainaldi is taking the criticism in stride. “Usually, I get more compliments,” he said in a telephone interview. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have survived in this business for 40 years; they would have stopped me earlier.”
“That gesture seemed to me to be representative of the entire spirit of his pontificate: the meeting of cultures, the idea of dialogue, of offering a hand,” he said. “And if that hand is wrapped in a cloak, it takes on ulterior symbolism, like shelter and protection, an embrace towards and of people.”
Francesco Buranelli, secretary of the Vatican Fine Arts Commission, said the debate should not be reduced to a question of liking or not liking the statue. Contemporary art, regardless of when it was created, “shouldn’t be judged by subjective parameters,” he said. By that measure, he added, an infinite number of works now considered to be masterpieces, like Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” or Caravaggio’s “Virgin of the Pilgrims,” would have been whitewashed or destroyed.
Via blog sites, a few of the faithful have weighed in on the statue. Here are a few representative comments:
- “Ah! A statue worthy of his pontificate.”
- “This almost makes me want to become a Protestant.”
- “Are they trying to say he was an empty shell of a man? Perhaps they are saying that he was full of hot air?”
-”Please tell us this was a joke; either it is a refrigerator with the door opened or a busted portable toilette, with a disembodied head perched atop. Sad. Or maybe I just do not appreciate “art.”
-”I find the enormous scale of the statue unseemly, to be honest. It reminds me more of Mussolini than it does John Paul II; it has that sort of bleak, intimidating fascist quality about it. I understand the artist’s need to express, somehow, this man’s enormity in history, and this statue certainly does that, but it doesn’t seem to also express anything about the subject that caused the world to love him: the pope’s warmth, humour, compassion, piety, and so on.”
-”If someone said Pope John Paul II liked chocolate, there’d be some bitter fruit here chiming in, trying to make a link, any link, on how he was a bad pope and responsible for every bad thing in the Church today.”