When Cattelan wanted to replace the monument to Mazzini with a statue of Craxi

In 2010, Maurizio Cattelan imagined replacing the monument to Mazzini in Carrara's Piazza dell'Accademia with a statue of Bettino Craxi. It was a work that caused a stir and is still very relevant today.

In the last five minutes of lightning-fast and thunderous media celebrity to which the debate on monuments has risen (the karst flow of which has alternated between sudden emergencies, provoked by events of close relevance, and more more or less prolonged confinement between the pages of trade publications), few, if any, have remembered that this year 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of the last International Sculpture Biennial in Carrara, which was dedicated precisely to the theme of monuments and anticipated many of the solicitations to which we have tried to respond in the past few weeks. The important exhibition was scuttled because of wrong, improvised and self-defeating choices, which have been discussed at length on several occasions, the last of which was a series of meetings organized at the beginning of June, right in Carrara, by the gallery owner Nicola Ricci, with the aim of opening a reflection on a possible future of the event: nevertheless, before plunging into its lasting and mournful silence, the Carrara Biennial managed to impose itself with a last edition, the one curated by Fabio Cavallucci and entitled Post Monument, which came to bring order within a discussion that had already known different folds and inclinations: it will suffice to recall that, just three years earlier, Massimiliano Gioni curated the exhibition Unmonumental in New York, from which there has been more clarity about what the meanings of “non-monumental” and “anti-monumental” are in contemporary practice.

In Italy, we tend to remember the 2010 Carrara Biennial for the episode that marked it more than any other in the media, namely the resounding and problematic participation of Maurizio Cattelan, who for Post Monument designed a singular funeral monument to Bettino Craxi: singular not so much for its appearance, since it was a very modest tombstone, with vaguely symbolist accents, with two angels and two putti arranged frontally to hold the effigy of the first socialist prime minister. A work of insignificant funeral statuary, in essence. But singular because it is at the center of a refined conceptual operation orchestrated by Cattelan, who from the very first moment proposed to install a statue of Craxi, which was never realized, in the central Piazza dell’Accademia, in place of the imperious monument to Mazzini made in 1892 by Alessandro Biggi, a valid sculptor and a very ardent Mazzinian.

To grasp the terms of this operation, it is worth remembering that, although Carrara too does not escape that crisis of the idea of the sculptural monument defined as “irreversible” by Francesco Poli already some fifteen years ago, and caused by the other forms of monumentalization that characterize Western society, in few other cities is the relationship with monuments so alive and felt. There are no squares in Carrara that are devoid of statues, plaques, plaques commemorating or celebrating a character or event. In Carrara, on May 1 of each year, anarchists parade in a procession to pay homage to every single monumental presence, large or small, that at the corner of a street or in the center of a square recalls a fact or personality that is pregnant with significance for the history of the movement. In Carrara, monuments have been chosen as grounds for violent political confrontation: everyone in the city remembers the December 6, 1978, bombing that blew up the monument to Pellegrino Rossi, conceived by Pietro Tenerani in the 1850s and erected in Piazza d’Armi in 1876: the bomber, by devastating the image of a politician who was minister of the interior of the Papal States and was himself killed in an assassination attempt, thought he was sending a warning to Andreotti, who was to hold a rally in town a few days later. Carrara is also the town where it was decided to monumentalize an attack, the one that in 1981 brought down one of the five stelae that make up the monument to the victims of fascism, in one of the Marina pine forests: the stele was left lying on the ground, with the addition of an inscription in imperishable memory of what happened. Carrara is probably the only city in the world where there is a monument to Gaetano Bresci, which cost its sponsor a trial for apologia for terrorism, later concluded in his favor.

Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled (2010; marmo, 155 x 140 x 40 cm). Opera presentata alla XIV Biennale di Carrara
Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled (2010; marble, 155 x 140 x 40 cm). Work presented at the 14th Carrara Biennale. Photo Zotti, courtesy Cattelan Archive

And in a city where the memory of every inhabitant is represented by a monument, it is only natural that Cattelan’s proposal would ignite bitter discussions and fuel a climate of strong hostility toward him. For several weeks before the opening of the Biennale, nothing else was talked about, associations of Mazzinians from all over Italy mobilized to prevent the removal of the monument in Piazza dell’Accademia, the case even reached Parliament, and even the then minister of cultural heritage, Sandro Bondi, was inconvenienced, writing a letter to express his opposition. “Especially on the eve of the celebrations of the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Unification of Italy,” he was quick to point out. Of course, it would be nave to believe that Cattelan really thought he would be able to conclude a project that, even if it did not encounter any barriers, would have stopped in front of the superintendence’s predictable denial, which in fact arrived punctually and irrevocably, urged by everyone. Craxi’s statue, therefore, never saw the light of day, and was replaced by the miserable little funeral monument that Cattelan had installed at the Marcognano cemetery as the allegorical tomb of his project, which died even before being translated into marble.

But in reality Cattelan cared little about the sculpture: the real work of art was the situation he had been able to create, it was the content he had been able to bring out, it was the fierce and at times violent discussion he had provoked. With his statue of Craxi, Cattelan had managed to take Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s concept of “temporary monument” and their idea of hiding in order to affirm, which as is well known has its roots in certain experiences such asIsidore Ducasse ’sEnigma of Man Ray and Beuys’s Piano with Felt , to another level: Cattelan positioned himself as a direct descendant of this line. In the weeks leading up to the 14th International Sculpture Biennial, the monument to Mazzini was as visible as perhaps it has ever been in its history: “even in an all-too-cynical and disenchanted country like Italy,” Cavallucci wrote, “the project raised an uprising of republicans and Mazzinians. We are in an age turned all to burn in the present, but the humanistic sense of history resurfaces at critical moments.”

The same statements could describe the present moment: that Biennial anticipated many of the arguments of today’s debate, including those that usually oppose the wave of iconoclasm that has been raging in the Anglo-Saxon world for a few years now but has become more acute in recent months. Already in that edition of the Biennale the issue of the destruction of monuments had been raised: it will be necessary, therefore, to recall Cavallucci’s interview with Gorbachev, in which the former Soviet president sentenced that “it is anti-historical nonsense that amounts to pretending to erase the past.” And one wondered what forms monumentality was evolving toward: ten years later, one can therefore venture that there is a tendency to celebrate a more or less shared memory, linked to a fact rather than a character, and taking the forms of the memorial based on relational participation rather than those of the traditional sculptural monument: Adachiara Zevi identified its forerunner in the Mausoleum of the victims of the Fosse Ardeatine in Rome. An example of some note is offered by the memorial to the abolition of slavery in Nantes, a work by Krzysztof Wodiczko inaugurated in 2012, which has much to do with architecture, today much more capable than sculpture of expressing our never dormant yearning for monumentality, as was also noted in that Biennale.

It is difficult to predict whether similar experiments, which often remain on paper, will take the form of the monuments of the future. What is certain is that works such as Cattelan’s and those of other artists working on the theme of monuments, from Rossella Biscotti to Igor Grubić just to mention a couple of names, unequivocally demonstrate how our relationship with monuments acquires different meanings and how the very meaning of monuments is mutable over time, fluid, subject to know changes that vary according to the readings given of them. And they can offer us keys to trying to imagine what will happen to the monuments we inherit from the past.

On these issues, the author of the article will present the meeting with Fabio Cavallucci at the Con-vivere festival, entitled “Art and Power,” on Sunday, September 13, 2020 at 8 p.m. Click here for more information.