View of Sfera di San Leo, 1996–2000. Bronze, 555 cm. diameter. Photo: © Paolo Mussat Sartor, Turin

Movement in Progress: A Conversation with Arnaldo Pomodoro

Novecento, 2000–02. Bronze, 21 x 7 meters diameter. Photo: © Alberto Piovano, Milan.

Laura Tansini: How did it happen that the City of Rome commissioned Novecento?

Arnaldo Pomodoro: It was in 1998, when Francesco Rutelli was mayor of Rome, at the re-installation of my work Sfera Grande in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after its restoration. The Foreign Minister and the Minister of Culture gave speeches, and when it was Rutelli’s turn he asked me for a new sculpture for Rome. In addition to the Sfera Grande, I have another work in the Vatican Garden (the Cortile della Pigna). I was extremely happy and honored to be asked for a new work for the Eternal City.

It has been a long and very difficult work to realize—I practically did it twice. I erased many details from the maquette and simplified others. For me, it is always difficult to transfer my works from small to monumental size: in small scale, my signs are very close and strong, but when I enlarge them five, six times, or more, they risk becoming meaningless. So, for Novecento, I created sculptural signs that could be “read” easily from a distance. Once I did that it worked, but it was a struggle.

LT: What ideas inspired you?

AP: Since I was commissioned to do a monumental sculpture to celebrate the
continuity of the Eternal City and its passage from the second to the third millennium, I spent a week wandering around Rome to better grasp the spirit of its architecture and monuments. For the first time, I noticed certain details in Bernini’s sculptures in Piazza Navona—bracelets and brassards, arrows and buckles—sculptural elements familiar to me and my stylized language. And not only Bernini, Borromini too—his Church of S. Ivo della Sapienza has a spiral movement that becomes thinner and thinner. The ascending movement of Novecento and its sculptural details pay homage to the inventions of these extraordinary artists and architects of our past.

LT: The ascending and turning movements of Novecento communicate a strong feeling of elevation and speed.

AP: The spiral is a form in constant growth, in circular movement and also always narrower, holding a feeling of continuous progress.
This upward-spiraling ribbon is emblazoned with a sequence of sculptural reliefs, while the construction of the tower insists on a “minimum emptiness” that encircles its mass and gives force and clarity to the whole movement of growth and spiral ascension. I stressed that feeling with the water. I wanted my sculpture to rise from a sheet of water because water is not static—it adds movement to the sculpture. Novecento wants to express the constant growth and the evolution of our civilization, and I wish that it might be for everyone, as it is for me, a symbol of our dreams and our experiences.

View of Sfera di San Leo, 1996–2000. Bronze, 555 cm. diameter. Photo: © Paolo Mussat Sartor, Turin

LT: Novecento is not the only public work you have installed recently. You have also completed Sfera di San Leo at Santa Giulia and a new project in the restored industrial district near Milan.

AP: That’s right. The work at Santa Giulia is an important project to upgrade a very large, almost abandoned ex-industrial area. Architect Sir Norman Foster is in charge, together with an Italian urbanist. This is the area where Montedison built its factories and offices, where Redaelli built its steel mills. Parts of the old office-buildings will be restored and kept as a memory of Milan’s development; they stand in what will be the main square of Santa Giulia. I was asked by the owner and the developers (Risanamento S.p.A.) to erect a monumental sculpture in the square. I suggested my Sfera di San Leo. Foster approved it, and we—Foster and I—planned to install it in a sheet of water in the middle of the square.

LT: How did you know that Sfera di San Leo would be good for that square?

AP: Foster and I checked everything virtually. We enlarged the image of Sfera di San Leo to the right proportion with the square and the existing buildings, and only when we were convinced that it was the right form and the right size for the site did we continue with the project. We created a sheet of water that slightly overflows the edge of the interior basin, which gives the perception that Sfera di San Leo is overflowing. Reflections from the water glint against the dark patina, making it more alive. I usually polish the smooth outside parts of my Sfere with a gold patina, but I did not do this for Sfera di San Leo because it pays homage to the Duke of Montefeltro and the Rocca di San Leo and has to look as if it will last through centuries.

I dedicated the sculpture to the city of San Leo, a medieval citadel close to the town of Urbino in the region of Montefeltro, where I was born. It was built by Francesco di Giorgio Martini of Siena (1430–1502) with minor contributions by Bramante. Later Giuseppe Valadier (1762–1839) pulled down the drawbridge and connected the citadel to the village of San Leo. The sculpture is my homage to the capability of the brilliant builders and architects of the past and a sign for the future. It is strong, dynamic, full of signs, and its interior hides another sphere—an intact perfect sphere, a promise for the future.

Radiant Crown, 2001. Collaborative work for the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee. Photo: © Alberto Piovano, Milan

LT: You describe your sculptural signs and their erosions as “the drama of erosion as active contradiction.” Do you mean that erosion and destruction are ineluctable passages to re-creation and rebirth?

AP: In both Sfera di San Leo and Novecento, you will find destruction and erosion. Together, they form a summa of my sculptural signs and marks through 50 years of work. Sfera di San Leo is full of arrows, rising elements, tie beams—it may look aggressive. It is as complex and contradictory as daily life. We are living in a very difficult time, but still it is our time, and we have to learn to live with contradictions. In Sfera di San Leo some parts are about to blow up, but it contains a perfect sphere. People think I am always tense. But how could I be relaxed? Artists represent and anticipate the world around them—that is our job. Sculptors are asked to celebrate the spirit of a site, of an event, of their time; we create testimonials of our time. My nature is optimistic and positive, I stick to myself and my work, and I always try to avoid compromise.

LT: What does it mean for you to compromise?

AP: For me, to compromise would be to accept a commission for a work I do not feel. Some years ago, through Marlborough Gallery in New York, I was asked by the Archbishop of Milwaukee to make a work for the Milwaukee Cathedral, a radiant crown of thorns with a crucifixion inside. Now, to create a six-meter-diameter crown of thorns was something I was prepared to do—there is nothing more abstract than a crown of thorns—but I was not prepared to do the crucified Christ inside. But I had an idea: I asked a sculptor-friend, Giuseppe Maraniello, to work with me. I did the crown of thorns, and he did the figure of Christ. We prepared a model that I submitted, and we realized the commission. Inside my abstract crown of thorns, Maraniello did his Christ, whose open arms make the cross.

Project for the New Urbino Cemetery (maquette), 1973. Bronze, 20 x 152 x 177 cm. Photo: © Antonia Mulas, Milan

LT: I would like to understand better your relationship with architects. You never complain, but I remember that you once said: “Contemporary architects do not need sculptors because their architecture is sculptural. The maximum I could obtain is to have the opportunity to locate one of my sculptures in a site which the architect planned without involving me in the project.” Architects are going more and more in that direction; still, I know that you have always been willing to collaborate.

AP: I believe that architects and sculptors should work together, even though it seems to me that architects’ prevalent tendency is to get hold of sculptural forms for their buildings. Germano Celant, at the opening of a beautiful exhibition about architecture and sculpture that he curated in Genoa, said that it is time we stop calling architecture the mother of all the arts. Today architecture has the power of form and image just like painting and sculpture; it is the image that matters.

LT: Last September in Trento your sculpture Centenarium Ferrari was inaugurated. Could you tell me more about it?

AP: I was commissioned by the Lunelli family (owner of Spumante Ferrari, the classic Italian sparkling wine) to create a sculpture celebrating the company’s centenary. It is installed at the front of their property in Trento. Centenarium Ferrari is an “open spiral” bronze sculpture that takes the form of a fountain in recognition of Spumante Ferrari.

LT: I heard that the Lunelli family asked you to become their architect.

AP: Yes, they asked me to build the cellar at their new wine-making facility in Bevagna (in Umbria). I am planning to build it in the form of a monumental tortoise, with a metal roof, in copper if possible. Of course, I do not dream of doing everything by myself, I will share my project with engineers and technicians; each of us will do his part.

All of my sculptures have a strong architectural side. When I was a student I thought of studying architecture, but technical problems bore me to death—what fascinates me is creating new forms. On many occasions, I tried to work with architects to realize my projects because I am not interested in the technical solutions.

When I was asked to design a memorial for Giovanni Falcone (the magistrate killed by the Mafia in Sicily, his car and those of his escorts blown up by a bomb attack in 1992), I did a model of an arrow entering the road at the point of the bomb attack. The part of the arrow under the road would have been the memorial to preserve the memory of Falcone and his anti-Mafia colleagues. I asked the architect Vittorio Gregotti to share my project and to solve the structural problems.

Piramide della mente (Mental Pyramid) (maquette), 1986. Bronze and fiberglass, 55 x 90 x 90 cm. Photo: © Studio Boschetti, Milan.

LT: What happened to that project?

AP: At that time in Italy many key people in the administration were replaced, and the project was abandoned, as were many others during my long career. I call them utopian projects. One day, I will maybe publish all of them in a book.

More recently, Renzo Piano asked me to create a stylized cross for a church dedicated to Padre Pio, at San Giovanni Rondo, that he was commissioned to build. He also invited me to study the altarpiece, a wedge driven into the ground as if it were a meteorite. The church was unveiled last July.

LT: You have spent most of your time recently in Europe, especially in Italy, and have abandoned teaching in the U.S.

AP: I never abandoned Europe and Italy, even when I spent most of my time in the U.S. In 1984, I was offered a permanent chair at Mills College, but I declined the offer. I like teaching, but I felt that I wanted to spend more time in Italy.

LT: When you went to the U.S., did you simply feel the need for new experiences?

AP: At that time it was very important for any young artist. Then came the teaching experience, which I greatly enjoyed. When I was at Stanford and Berkeley, my real problem was the lack of a foundry where I could cast my sculptures with the lost-wax process. There was only one foundry in Berkeley, and they were so busy I had to wait six or seven months to cast a small sculpture. In Italy, it would have been done in one or two months. Besides, to cast sculptures it is necessary to have very good and experienced craftsmen: in the U.S. they are few, and their work is much more costly than in Italy—the casting problem was another good reason to come back to Italy.

Were you offered a teaching chair in Italy?

AP: Not really, I give lectures from time to time.

LT: Do you miss teaching?

AP: I love teaching, which is why about 10 years ago we started a school where we teach the artistic treatment of metals. This school is in Pietrarubbia (near Urbino). In the summer we hold a 10-week workshop for no more than 22 students. Money to run the program and to host the students comes from the EU and the Marche Region, so every other year we panic, waiting to know if we will receive the necessary funds to carry on.

LT: Since students do not have to pay for the course or for their living, it is a kind of a grant. How do students have access to it?

AP: We send notices to art schools. To be admitted, students are required to have a degree and to be interested in the artistic treatment of metals. The problem is not how to find students but how to select them. We receive requests from 50 or 60 students each year, and we cannot accept more than 22.

LT: Do you teach yourself?

AP: I am president of the school now, but for more than six years I was director and a teacher—it was exhausting. During the
workshop we also have visiting lecturers.

LT: In this way you continue teaching and sharing your experience with students. I know that you will also do this for your foundation once the new space in Milan is ready.

AP: Yes. The Arnaldo Pomodoro Foundation is moving from Rozzano to Milan, on via Solari. It is a very large space (about 3,500 square meters). Part of it will host my sculptures and my private collection, part will host temporary exhibitions, mostly of young sculptors. We will also have a library, a coffee shop, and a conference hall. It is a space for young artists and students, giving them a chance to meet, to exhibit their works, and to have the opportunity to learn from visiting guests. The new space will be unveiled at the end of September 2005, with an exhibition dedicated to 20th-century Italian sculpture.

Laura Tansini is a writer based in Rome.