Every city has its share of public sculpture, and its citizens often rely on a particular sculpture as a landmark or definer of place. They may not, however, always appreciate the particular style of a sculpture, nor necessarily grasp its cultural significance and meaning. In terms of style, much of that sculpture will be rather traditional, representational and figurative: generals on horses, soldiers standing at arms, rulers and politicians seated or giving an address. Other sculptures, particularly those made over the last half-century, may well be abstracted or completely non-objective. Regardless of formal style, however, we can expect that every work of public sculpture has some relevance to the history of its place (country/city/particular spot of location), reveals something about the culture of the people, and enhances the space in which it has been placed.
Of course, these expectations may not always be met–or easily met–given the often complicated process of determining the subject of the art, the form of art, the artist(s), and the specific placement of the art. Public sculpture, after all, is the result of some rather wide, collective, community action. Among the groups involved might be civic leaders, community residents, politicians, wealthy individuals (often a donor), funding agencies, governmental and neighborhood approval agencies, and various design professionals.
In the case of Milan, I have no idea who the actors might be behind the selection and placement of the eighteen sculptures I have selected below, but I (and you) can certainly draw some inferences as to the meaning of these works in their Milenese context and to the success of their specific placement.
Let’s have a look at the sculptures which caught my eye as I wandered Milan’s streets. I have organized them in a straightforward, chronological manner.
Emperor Constantine is placed in front of the entry loggia of the Basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore. He stands in contrapposto, aligned with the loggia’s center arch. His raised right arm most likely once gripped the shaft of a spear or a staff with scepter. Drapery hangs over his left arm and partly conceals a short sword he is holding. He wears full military parade armor, in particular the anatomical (or heroic) cuirass covering his torso. There is a long, ancient tradition for such a cuirass, the intention of which is to idealize the subject’s human physique.
Locating Constantine here makes sense for two reasons. First, the earliest San Lorenzo building dates back to Roman times–very likely originally serving as an Imperial Roman basilica before becoming a Christian church. It also was important in being the largest building with a central plan in the West.
More significantly, in February of 313 A.D., Constantine (as the ruler of Western Rome) and Licinius (as the ruler of Eastern Rome), met in this city (then called Mediolanum) and signed the Edict of Milan. This Edict established religious toleration for all Christians living in the Roman Empire.
Leonardo stands as a robed sage atop this monument, flanked below by standing figures of four of his pupils, all of whom were either born in Milan or nearby in this region of Lombardy. They are Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Andrea Salaino, Marco d’Oggiono, and Cesare da Sesto. The pupils bracket reliefs which depict four of Leonardo’s major talents–talents which contributed to the glory of the city and its Duke, Ludovico Sforza, whom he served from 1482-1499, the years he lived there. The talent shown in the above relief is that of painting. In it, Leonardo and the Duke examine a painting of the Madonna; the horse sculpture in low relief behind his studio curtain alludes to Leonardo’s unfinished equestrian statue.
This Monument to Leonardo da Vinci is located adjacent to the northern entrance of the recently completed Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (see my earlier blog post, Milan Architecture II: Five Major Buildings). This location is significant because, just as Ludovico Sforza brought the modern style of art (the Renaissance embodied by Tuscany/Florence/Leonardo) into Lombardy, so the Galleria (named for the new King of Italy and its first since the 6th century) was a major embodiment of modernity and exemplified this new, modern, unified Italy.
By the way, Christo and Jeanne-Claude thought highly enough of this sculpture to wrap it and one other Milan sculpture in 1970.
Italians, in general, are much more likely to erect public sculpture in honor of an artist or architect that we Americans are. But what is this curious bust of some architect, fronting a shell, wreathed in laurel, and rising out of an irregular outcrop of porous, volcanic stone?
A little research informs us that one section of this public garden situated north-east of Milan’s center lost its formal, French garden style in the late 1850s when Balzaretti–the architect–redesigned it into a more informal English-type park of winding paths, artificial hills, ponds and rocky outcrops.
Surprises are an expected part of this English garden aesthetic, so why not have a surprise encounter with the designer of this section who–more surprises–took his training in mathematics at the University of Pavia?
Another profession not so often encountered (at least in America) among urban public sculpture is the engineer. But as we ascend from the Moscova subway station into daylight and a small park, we are greeted by this statue of the seated Giovanni Battista Piatti. Piatti was a civil engineer; he died in 1867. He never attained (nor ‘earned’) the level of fame of his contemporary engineering colleagues like Gustave Eiffel, Isambard Kingdom Brunel or John A. Roebling, but he did invent a rock-drilling machine powered by compressed air in 1853.
Let’s keep in mind that the decade of the 1850s was when Milan actively promoted itself to become the economic and cultural capital of Italy. It could have never achieved this status without first developing much more rapid and efficient transportation across the Alps to the rest of Europe. Piatti’s pneumatic rock-drilling machine (even if patented by Germain Sommeiler, and not him) made this possible with the tunnels at Mont-Cenis (1857-1871) and Gotthard (1872-1882).
And so why shouldn’t we emerge from a much later rail tunnel under the city and greet one of the first men who enabled such underground travel?
This towering equestrian monument, certainly in scale with the vast expanse of the Piazza del Duomo, is placed at the other end of the Piazza from the Cathedral and in line with the church’s central nave. The King is shown leading his troops into battle during Italy’s Second War of Independence (1859). This would result in the liberation of northern Italy, defeat of the Austrians, and soon also to Italy’s unification. The bronze frieze on the base depicts the Piedmontese soldiers entering Milan in victory (Vittorio Emanuele II was then only the King of Piedmont-Sardinia).
Here we see lions flanking the base (cut off in the lower corners of my photograph), a frieze of marching warriors, classical architectural elements like those triglyphs, metopes and dentils above the soldiers: all these elements subordinate to and culminating in a grand equestrian statue. This is public sculpture at its most traditional.
The next two monuments, figurative representations of heroic warriors situated at heads of important streets, might appear traditional, but actually diverge in interesting ways.
Guiseppe Dezza was a general under Garibaldi, a patriot of the Risorgimento, and–as we should expect–born in Lombardy. He is shown standing, hands on the hilt of his sheathed sword, overcoat draped casually over his shoulders. The high relief directly above us shows him meeting Garibaldi after their victory at Maddaloni (known as the Battle of Volturno, October 1860). On the opposite side is a relief of an earlier battle, known as the “Expedition of the Thousand,” in which a handful of rag-tag volunteer Garibaldians, known as Red Shirts, entered Palermo, Sicily (May, 1860). This would become the most celebrated victory of the Risorgimento, which contributed to the unification of Italy.
The depiction of this “Expedition of the Thousand” is actually allegorical, however, as the Red Shirts are led by Liberty, the female figure shown in highest relief. It is she who protrudes the most in my middle photograph, taken at a raking angle. It may be that that Cassi, the sculptor, turned to allegory under the inspiration of Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People of 1830.
Neither of the two reliefs adhere to the traditional categories as friezes or metopes. Rather, they look like jagged cut-outs inserted into the stone base; thus they break with traditional monumental sculpture and seem, almost, to anticipate a twentieth-century artistic concept of collage.
Felice Cavallotti, a politician, poet, playwright and journalist, fought in Sicily under Garibaldi as a member of the “Expedition of the Thousand.” He also was a leader of the Italian radical left-wing and was nicknamed Italy’s “Poet of Democracy.”
Curiously, what we see in this monument to him is–below–a ring of high relief sculpture of people in contemporary dress who relate in some way to episodes in his life. But there is no Cavallotti here. The nude warrior above, wearing a Greek helmet, is the Spartan warrior-king, Leonidas, a subject of one of Cavallotti’s poems. In 480 B.C., during the Second Persian War, Leonidas and a small band of Greeks held a last stand against the invading Persian army under Xerxes in the Battle of Thermopylae.
So here we have a monument to a writer in which the writer is nowhere depicted.
In both of these fountain-sculptures, we are looking at the preaching saints with the entrance to the church behind us, almost as if the saints’ preaching should carry past us to resound within the church proper. Saint Francis stands outside of the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, while Saint Anthony faces Sant’Antonio di Padova. I am guessing that both churches are associated with the Franciscan Order, as are both these Saints.
What I like about these two examples is how the statue of the Saint and the pool of the fountain to which he is intimately connected is liminal to the actual church. In other words, Saint and Fountain act as a threshold, even a vestibule, to the church proper.
What in the world is going on here?
Many people must ask this question when encountering this sculpture.
This is undoubtedly one of the more curious examples of public sculpture I have ever seen. It consists of a reinforced concrete wall at least twenty feet high. The wall, at its top, has been breached or penetrated by a large, jagged fissure which descends on a diagonal. On its north side and just below the fissure, we see male warriors, abstracted and minimally detailed, descending as a group on a similar diagonal to that fissure. The foremost warrior carries a flag. As warriors, they show little cadence or regularity of a disciplined army. Arms and legs flail, and from their heads we see what appear to be spiky growths (or explosions) of something that does not resemble hair.
On the south side, we see two similar figures, somewhat larger in scale, who seem to have broken a chain–a demolition crew, perhaps. We also see similar spiky growths from their heads, but now also see that those “spikes” emerge from wide-brimmed hats. With the help of the emblem in the upper right of the north side, we can begin to decipher this unusual monument.
The emblem is that of the Bersaglieri, a fast-moving, elite unit of Italian sharpshooters which was first established in 1836. A part of their uniform, which separates them from all the other fighting units, is a wide-brimmed hat decorated with the tail feathers of a male wood grouse (or capercaillie). That accounts for the spiky “explosion” on the north side, since that group is too tightly packed for the artist to include its hats; all we see are the distinctive feathers.
The Bersaglieri first served only the Kingdom of Sardinia and the Piedmontese Army. But with the unification of Italy in 1861, they became elite troops of the Royal Italian Army–sort of like the American Green Berets and Special Ops–a high-mobility, quick-moving, light infantry, shock corps.
The style of abstracted and elongated figures is understandable, because the sculptor, Robaudi, was a pupil of the Italian sculptor, Marino Marini, who settled permanently in Milan at the end of WWII. Still, I can’t help wondering if Robaudi might also have “channeled” that well-known, prehistoric cave painting of Marching Warriors from Spain as he was composing the warrior group descending the north side wall (see below).
This house, which is not near the monument, is known as the House of the Bersaglieri. It is a private town house, not some military clubhouse. But, because it was built soon after the unification, its owner or its architect chose to flank its front door with statues of two Bersaglieri as a patriotic gesture. Also, above the windows of the piano nobile are reliefs celebrating mounted generals leading soldiers into battle: on the right, Garibaldi; on the left, Vittorio Emanuele II.
Mére Ubu (“Mother Ubu”) was donated to the city of Milan by its famous maker, Joan Miró, in 1976, and placed here in front of the Palazzo del Senato. Given the subject of this piece, its location in front of the Palazzo del Senato is most appropriate. Although the Palazzo today simply serves as the State Archives, in the late 18th century it served as the government offices of the Habsburg Austrian Empire (defeated, you may recall, after Italy’s Second War of Independence in 1859) and it also served as the Senate House for the Kingdom of Italy between 1805 and 1814. In other words, it has been a building closely connected to state governance.
Miró’s sculpture is a typical example of Surrealism, of which he was a major practitioner. The style of Mére Ubu is what would be called biomorphic, an image whose form alludes to something life-like, but clearly does not represent anything recognizable from the natural world. Her legs are elephantine. Her bulging eyes most closely resemble those of a dragonfly or a mantis shrimp. Her beak-like mouth in proportion and form is most like a South American toucan. In other words, she would appear to be part mammal, part insect and part bird.
What associates this surreal creature to a building of state governance is the famous play by Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi, which opened in Paris in 1896. Its main protagonist, Ubu, was a burlesque antihero. Ubu has been described as “fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil,” a characterization uncomfortably close to certain present-day political figures, maybe. In the play, Ubu’s wife shares his greed for power and prods him into starting a revolution in which he kills the King of Poland and much of the royal family. Chaos ensues before Ubu and his wife flee to France.
Here his wife stands before us, greedily eyeing the Senate building.
Let me just add that the South African playwright, Jane Taylor, wrote a play in 2007, Ubu and the Truth Commission, in which she broadened Jarry’s play to encompass the political issues of her own country. In her play’s Program Notes, Taylor further describes Ubu in a way that will only increase our discomfort with our own political present: “The central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification….[he] acts out our most childish rages and desires, in which we seek to gratify ourselves at all cost.”
We see here a partial torso, well-proportioned in accordance with classical tradition, yet rendered incomplete and seemingly damaged. Within a square cut-out in its thorax appears a human head; below that, a woman’s torso emerges from its abdomen. I think this sculpture’s siting in front of Santa Maria del Carmine is quite effective and powerful. However, I find no clear interpretation of this work.
The Polish/French sculptor, Igor Mitoraj has been described as embracing a “concept of broken beauty,” and he has described his work as embodying the dichotomy of “mesmerizing perfection attached to corrupting imperfection.”
Nevertheless, who is The Great Tuscan? What is the iconography of this piece?
I don’t know the answers, but here is a guess. We do know that Michelangelo, a great Tuscan artist, produced a set of sculptural Slaves, incomplete torsos understood to be struggling to emerge from the stone from which he carved them. Because they had not fully emerged, Michelangelo referred to them as non finito (unfinished). His Slaves struggled to free themselves from the material (stone) which imprisoned them. Maybe Mitoraj carried this concept further to reveal in this work emerging aspects of an intersex personality. Given that Michelangelo’s homosexuality remains a likely possibility among scholars of him and his art, I’ll stick my neck out and connect Michelangelo to this particular Great Tuscan.
I’ll just leave this large, stainless steel sculpture of two circles and a wedge as an interestingly-sited piece at the edge of the Parco Sempione. Nowhere does it have any identification.
In a piazza just outside of the new City Life section in western Milan, we see another monumental abstract sculpture of two circles. Only this time, the effect is not one of weighty, volumetric mass but of open space and a void that separates the circles. This difference between these last two works of art would be reinforced by the fact that Cappello’s sculpture was somehow motorized and could move (although I was not aware of any movement when I saw it).
It’s siting at a piazza from which bus and trolleys deposit riders just south of the new City Life urban project–a project designed around three modernist skyscrapers by Zaha Hadid, Arata Isozaki and Daniel Liebeskind–makes it an appropriate introduction to this newest, and most important urban regeneration project in Milan.
This monument to Sandro Pertini, Italy’s 7th president, a socialist, and an enemy of totalitarianism, organized crime and political corruption, was designed by one of Milan’s and Italy’s most famous modern architects, Aldo Rossi. Pertini was imprisoned twice by the Fascists and then by the German occupiers of Italy, but rose to power after 1945, when the war ended.
Rossi designed this monument as a cube, measuring 26 feet on each side. It opens into a set of steps on one side to serve as a place for public gathering. On the opposite side, its sheer wall of marble is penetrated by a triangular duct from which water falls into a stone trough. Its marble is the same pink Candoglia marble that was used in the building of the Milan Cathedral. By this reference to the city’s past through his selection of stone, Rossi has designed a monument which enables the city to remember its past and which triggers the “collective memory” of the Milanese. Here is Rossi on the function of urban design: “One can say that the city itself is the collective memory of its people, and like memory it is associated with objects and places.”
I think that we can all agree as to the simplicity and elegance of this monument. But if I refer you to my middle photograph with its raking view, we see just how elegant and fine this ashlar stonework is. Could this also be a reference to the fact that, when Pertini escaped to France between 1924-1926, he worked there as a mason?
Finally, if this isn’t going too far, one might even elaborate on this monument’s elegance through mathematics by considering its dimension of 26 feet, because 26 is the only integer that is both one more than a square (25 = 5^2) and one less than a cube (3^3 = 27). And we mustn’t forget that 26 also represents the total number of letters in our alphabet. Given the fact that Aldo Rossi was as much a philosopher as an architect, it is not so far-fetched to seek such hidden meanings to his design.
Another large-scale public sculpture whose meaning, if not hidden, still demands some synthesis, is this late work of Pop Art by the husband and wife team of Oldenburg and van Bruggen. Typical of this particular genre of art, in which everyday objects are distorted through an enormity of scale, we see a needle and thread penetrating the sidewalk while, across the road the knotted thread has yet to be pulled taught in the basin of a fountain. The implication is that the two distant parts of this broad, open area are being stitched together by this sculpture.
It’s a clever concept and it is appropriate to this wide-open space. Needle, Thread and Knot are not random everyday objects, because in this location they serve to unify–or sew together–a challenging, open square which contains a railway station (Cadorna Station), a Metro station of the same name, two trolley lines of the Milan metro network, three wide roads, none of which meet at a right angle, and a pick-up point for shuttle busses taking travelers to the main, Malpensa airport.
The top photograph shows a distant view with the entire sculpture and the low-slung Cadorna railway station behind it. The middle photograph shows the green and red trolley line stops in the foreground. The bottom photograph shows a close-up of the needle and thread to give a sense of the enormity of scale and the suggestion of knitting.
Finally, we can determine two levels of meaning in this sculpture. First, the red, yellow and blue colors of its reinforced fiberglass threads are not arbitrary. These are the colors of the subway and trolley lines that have stops at Cadorna. Second, needle and thread are sartorial tools, the tools of tailoring, and Milan is one of the four recognized fashion capitals of the world. Therefore, this particular Pop Art sculpture celebrates the essence of this city.
I’ll let the artists have the final word on their sculpture and its meaning: “Our concept began with the metaphor of a train as a needle and thread, its insertion into fabric compared to the train entering an underground tunnel….Contributing to the rightness of the concept was the subject’s reference to the fashion industry, for which Milan is known. The needle and thread might be seen as a paraphrase, in contemporary terms, of the city’s civic emblem — a serpent coiled around a sword.”
From one of the most open of Piazzi, we go to one of the most enclosed, as we can see from the first photograph. In it, we barely can make out Cattelan’s distant sculpture, L.O.V.E. The letters stand for “Freedom” (Libertà), “Hate” (Odio), “Vengeance” (Vendetta), and “Eternity” (Eternità), but the sculptor is reticent to offer us much in the way of further interpretation.
This 36-foot high sculpture–its hand (ca. 13-feet high) of Carrara marble–was placed here temporarily as part of a Cattelan retrospective show of 2010 entitled Against Ideologies (Contro le Ideologie). However, two years (and much controversy) later, Milan accepted the artist’s donation of L.O.V.E. for a period of 40-years, given that it remain in this location. Maurizio Cattelan has been described by the curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art as “one of the great post-Duchampian artists and a smartass, too.”
Consider three aspects of this work: the hand itself; where it has been sited; what it might possibly mean.
First, the hand, which has been made with its thumb and three fingers cleanly ‘sliced’ off. Thus, it is not really ‘flipping the bird.’ Thumb and fingers are not flexed. They simply don’t exist.
Second, its siting, which is on the central axis of Milan’s stock exchange, the Palazzo delle Bourse (or Palazzo Mezzanotte, named after its architect). This grand neoclassical building was commissioned by Italy’s Fascist government and dates from 1929-1932.
Third, its possible meanings. If viewed in absolute profile, it could be the fascist open-hand salute, hailing the stock exchange, but actually intended for today’s audience as an anti-fascist statement. Conversely, if viewed as in my third and fourth photographs, as if all fingers flexed behind the palm, it could be understood as the hand of the bankers/brokers who work in the exchange demonstrating their disdain for the common citizens who gather in the piazza outside. More generally, considering the years of its creation and its siting, it could be a commentary on capitalism and the economic crisis that its unregulated practice brought on the world’s economy (on Italy in particular) after 2008.
Finally, to further confuse its meaning, Maurizio Cattelan has said that, prior to naming it L.O.V.E., it was to be called Omnia munda mundis (“To the pure, all things are pure”). This Latin clause comes from the New Testament, from the Epistle of Paul to Titus: “To the pure all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure, but both their mind and their conscience are defiled.”
But let’s step back from such obscure interpretations, embrace the sculpture’s public and controversial nature, and allow the local citizens to have their say on social media:
Jesus Christ. this is what art has turned into?…gimme a break. Art is dying fast if this is what it is today. Rodin is rolling over in his grave, and Michelangelo is puking.
Only a moron, or a liberal could think that’s art.
Michelangelo is not puking and Rodin is not rolling over because they’re dead. Your conversation is older than even they are.
Wrong direction? It’s the banker’s middle finger facing towards the viewer.
I believe it should be “rotated.”
I think this makes allusion to the rude attitude brokers have de facto towards victims of capitalism. They have no sense of responsibility for the society they live in….So I presume the direction is right.
I don’t know what it means, but I like it a lot.
This dancing chile pepper was a joint purchase of Eataly and Arte Contemporanea Italiana. The artist, Giuseppe Carta, first showed five examples of his Capisca Red Light sculptures in the Chinese Pavilion at the 2015 Expo Milano, in recognition of the pepper as the symbol of the Chinese city of Chongqing. This example now dances permanently before the Milan Eataly mega-market and food court, which opened in 2014.
Capisca means “understand” in Italian, but I have no idea what the word means in this context. Might it refer to the specific red color of this polychromed bronze? Maybe someone can enlighten me.