Francesco Vezzoli Icons

In Brescia’s busy train station, the giant poster of a faceless winged figure lures me to the heart of Brixia, the ancient city. There in front of the Capitolium (73 AD) I find the pictured sculpture atop a pink and green checkered plinth. A cross between the Louvre’s Winged Victory of Samothrace, whose body she recalls, and the featureless head of a Giorgio de Chirico mannequin, she is Nike Metafisica, one of eight installations, “misfits or footnotes of great archaeology,” the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli conceived for the Archaeological Park of Brescia Romana and Santa Guilia Museum complex. Later that day in the Bar Rivoli in Milan drinking coffee with Vezzoli, who is wrapped up in his warm jacket, I learn that he placed her at the foot of the stairway to greet playfully an older Victory, the bronze Vittoria Alata (1AD) when she returned from restoration work to her location in the temple’s eastern hall.

Achille!, 2021. Vezzoli has used acrylics to paint the 19th century marble bust he positioned in the Capitolium’s central hall.
Detail showing the make-up the artist applied to evoke the 1967 cover of Vogue.

A group of tourists accompanied by their guide boisterously enter the temple’s central hall to admire the marble bust of AchillesThe black lacquered plinth beneath him reflects the movements of their bodies and gives the inanimate figure some liveliness. I hear their guide say that the warrior was placed there to echo another powerful male mythological figure that used to decorate the hall, Jupiter Optimus Maximus. He points to the few marble fragments behind Vezzoli’s Trojan War hero, but everyone’s attention is drawn to Achille’s face and the floral motif painted over his right eye and the teardrop under his left eye. Vezzoli reveals that the inspiration behind Achilles’s make-up is Richard Avedon’s 1967 Vogue cover featuring Twiggy. “Some people say I am queering up classicism. Some are even saying that I am giving back the real color, but the primary point is that they were colored in the beginning.”  To illustrate his point he recalls his recent trip to Sicily. “Piazza Armerina was like Pompeii,” he says in his voice with the strong Italian melody running through it. “The floors there have mosaics that are 2000 years old and it’s all color! So this idea of washed-up classicism is something we do have to move away from.”

Lo sguardo di Adriano, 2018, a Roman marble head (117-138 AD) with the eyes painted blue as displayed in the western hall of the Capitolium.

In the western hall next door, four spotlights light up four marble heads, three found during the 19th century excavations and permanently installed and one that is Vezzoli’s ephemeral intervention. He chose the marble head of Emperor Hadrian to display here and painted the eyes blue to give him a restless gaze. Vezzoli probably wanted to show Hadrian’s preoccupation with the death of his young lover Antinous, who is said to have drowned in the Nile while accompanying Hadrian on a tour to Egypt.“This person dies and as a celebration of the love he carried for him, he invaded the entire south of Europe with icons that portrayed him.” Vezzoli often recounts the love story of Hadrian and Antinous which he sees as relevant today because it breaks so many taboos about age, desire, and sexuality. “There is an Hadrian and an Antinous in every museum of the world. They are more important as icons than Marilyn Monroe. But they were a couple. They were in love. They were homosexuals and probably had relationships with other women. They were fluid; they were everything.”

God is a Woman (after Constantin Brancusi), 2019, as displayed in the Roman Sanctuary.
A gilded bronze head, inspired by one of the Romanian artist’s iconic sculptures, placed on a Roman marble statue of Jupiter (circa 1st century AD).
The colors of the plinth echo the colors of the frescoes found in the cult chamber.

A museum staff member accompanies me underground to the Republican Sanctuary. She explains that the frescoes are unique and points to the painted drapery that runs along the lowest register of the wall painting in the fourth chamber. There Vezzoli has installed his sculpture God is a Woman (after Constantin Brancusi), but because the mosaics are quite fragile, an alarm system has been activated and, like the Mona Lisa, she can only be admired at a distance. I read that the sculpture has a marble body of Jupiter (circa 1st century AD) and a gilded bronze head inspired by Constantin Brancusi’s The Sleeping Muse. The pronouncement, “God is a woman,” in the enigmatic title could be the slogan from “an American feminist march from the ’70’s,” or it could be a reference to Vezzoli’s childhood.  Growing up as an only child in Brescia, he was surrounded by women. “But in the end, there are moments in history when God is a woman. And there are moments in history when God is a man,” he says with overwhelming certitude. Putting things into perspective is what matters to Vezzoli. Besides he is drawn to elevating famous women actors into deities.

Portrait of Sophia Loren as the Muse of Antiquity (after Giorgio de Chirico), 2011, bronze sculpture located in the ancient Roman theatre that dates to the time of Augustus.
Detail showing the bronze Portrait of Sophia Loren as the Muse of Antiquity (after Giorgio de Chirico), 2011.

Outside the windy sky is racing with clouds and a few tourists leisurely wander around. A sign points in the direction of the ancient theater. I walk there to find the glowing Portrait of Sophia Loren as the Muse of Antiquity (after Giorgio de Chirico).Vezzoli imagined the Oscar-winning actress as an immaculate gold almost cyborgian figure swathed in classical drapery holding a temple close to her heart. “We transformed her into a de Chirico muse,” says Vezzoli who often goes back to de Chirico’s work because in a specific historical moment de Chirico put a reinterpretation of Classicism at the center of his work. “Is that what you do?” I ask. “In my own way, yes,” he replies. Although, Sophia Loren was created in 2011 for Prospect 2 New Orleans, she looks at home here. And, the tall yellow plinth designed specifically for this site accentuates her mythical status. “For the normal audience, actors are like Greek gods.” Vezzoli has worked in film with actors the likes of Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau and Eva Mendes and is familiar with a star’s seductive power, but for him the dynamic is different. “I think that if I contextualize their public identity maybe a little bit outside of their comfort zone, something interesting happens. Does it make sense?”

Walking on via dei Musei amid tall honey-colored houses standing golden in the sunshine, I head to the Museum Santa Giulia, a former monastery. A darkly lit maze-like complex leads to the Basilica of San Salvatore, a space bathed with diffused natural light. Vezzoli has installed a 20th century garden sculpture in the church’s bell tower in front of a Romanino fresco. Under a guard’s gaze, C-CUT Homo ab homine natus rotates 360 degrees. One turn reveals an original Roman marble head emerging from the figure’s gilded mantle. I set my camera there to capture Vezzoli’s most signature statement, faces streaked with tears. The face in the front has a gold sculpted tear; the face in the back a blood painted tear. “Tears are like the color you know… It’s obvious. It’s like when you give back the color to a sculpture you give back the emotional aspect… But let’s talk about history now! The more we study history, the more we can put things in context.”

The more we study history, the more we can put things in context.

Francesco Vezzoli
Portrait of Kim Kardashian (ante litteram), 2018, as displayed in Domus dell’Ortaglia.

The Venus of Willendorf, a pocket size limestone figurine from the Paleolithic period, is the main inspiration behind Portrait of Kim Kardashian (ante litteram). Vezzoli adorned an enlarged bronze reproduction of Venus’s voluptuous body with a 3rd century Roman marble head to portray one of today’s biggest media phenomena. Vezzoli thought Kardashian would look at home in Domus dell’Ortaglia, one of the best-preserved ruins of a sprawling Roman architectural complex flawed now but evidently once opulent. And indeed as the sole resident, she instantly becomes a sacred object. “I took the first curvy icon and I called her with the name of the last curvy icon.” The message? “Stop being in a rage about curvy. Curvy was there and then curvy went away.” Vezzoli has a moment of reflection. “I think true artists look for archetypes, which is a very Greek word. And I am trying to study the archetype to understand the truth. It’s a search for the truth.”

La Colonne Avec Fin, 2021, a bronze column with a Roman marble head (Antonine period, circa mid 2nd century AD) and a herm dated to the 2nd century AD as displayed in front of a Roman mosaic.

Back on Vezzoli’s trail, I am led to the monastery where his last intervention is. The map indicates a large Roman mosaic, in front of which an ancient monolithic column rises. Puzzled, I look for the museum label. The stone pillar, dated to the 2nd century AD, once supported a detailed portrait head of the Greek god of travelers, Hermes. The head may no longer be there, but Vezzoli has placed to the left a modern counterpart to give us an idea of what the original might have looked like. Standing on a pink and black checkered plinth, La Colonne Avec Fin is a bronze wiggly column with a Roman marble head on top. Together, the two herms seem to produce a world history timeline and illustrate how working on the future or working on the past could be the way to describe the present. “It’s like when I was working with some of the hottest young stars in Hollywood. They are the future and then I just go back 2000 years and I try to deal with the icons of 2000 years ago. And I guess what fascinates me is the power of permanence. What makes a story? What makes an idea? What makes a behavior eternal? You look for that either in the eyes of Lady Gaga or in the eyes of Agrippina,” he declares, drinks his last sip of coffee, nods his head, and says ‘grazie’ for the interview. I watch him walk into the old-fashioned bar, where the waiter greets him like the regular customer that he is, an archetype in his own right.

Brescia, 2021. All photos © Alexia Antsakli Vardinoyanni