Born in Brescia in 1971, Francesco Vezzoli is one of the most quoted and beloved contemporary artists in the world. In his early twenties, he studied at Central St. Martin’s School of Art in London, the institution that spawned some of the most iconic designers of our time (Alexander McQueen, John Galliano, Stella McCartney). His works have been exhibited at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York, Fondazione Prada in Milan, Whitechapel Art Gallery in London, and the Larry Gagosian Galleries in Beverly Hills and New York. He participated three times in the Venice Biennale, where he once presented a ‘Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula“a star-studded spoof trailer of the 1979 sword-and-sandals sex romp produced by penthouse magazine owner Bob Guccione, featuring Helen Mirren and Adriana Asti from the original cast, as well as young stars, from Milla Jovovich and Courtney Love to Benicio Del Toro and Gerard Butler, wearing costumes by Donatella Versace.
Over the years, Vezzoli has collaborated with Sharon Stone and Natalie Portman, Lady Gaga and Bianca Jagger, Damien Hirst and Frank Gehry.
As an artist and intellectual, craftsman and academic, Vezzoli has for many years been committed to creating a dialogue between the pop art of films and fashion and the classical tradition, by presenting an easily accessible and universally understandable, yet highly original language of his work. to create. .
His latest exhibition, currently on view at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, is entitled “Vita Dvlcis: Fear and Desire in the Roman Empire.”
Vezzoli arrives for our interview in his “work outfit”: shorts, T-shirt and sneakers, all black. He smiles and takes us through his latest work, with the quiet modesty and pride of a landlord showing off the new house he’s just built.
Where does this title come from? Vita Dvlcis (the sweet life?
It is of course a tribute to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. A tribute to Rome, the Great Mother. It stems from the need to change our point of view and thus approach classical culture without fear and worship. Read it for what it is.
When we talk about classical art, we think of amphitheatres, white marble statues frozen in formal poses. But that’s the view that has stuck with us into the 20th century, when the nation-state’s great identity crisis drew on our ancestors’ histories and bowed to their own needs for order and superiority. But the truth is that these works were completely free. They were colorful and irreverent. They depicted moments from everyday life. It was we, over the decades, who saddled them with the meaning we wanted to give them. But let’s face it, the ancient Romans were sleazy. They lived lives of excess. They drank wine in abundance and ate rich food. They used drugs, their banquets were euphoric. They devoted themselves to the pleasures of the flesh, to sex, without limits of age or gender. Everyday life was like that, the proof is in the images.
They were even junk?
Indeed. What we see are representations of the popular culture of the time, the marbles staged exactly this expression of desires and fears, which would have been easy for the subjects to understand. But then, over the centuries, regimes seized them and bent those images around their need for consensus. Classical culture became civilized, remote, vaguely threatening and oppressive. Still, it was actually colorful and free. Throughout history, there has only been one medium that could continue to express this kind of freedom: cinema. Cinema is the perfect bridge between these two seemingly distant languages. The art of two thousand years ago and contemporary film art. So Fellini’s La Dolce Vitabut in this case we are not looking at the Rome of the sixties, but at the equally spectacular Rome of the second century AD, the Vita Dvlcis.
How did you set up the exhibition?
It consists of seven rooms and a central space. I had access to the storage rooms of the Roman Museum, a treasure trove of never-before-seen, never-seen treasures. An incredible privilege. A gold mine. I associated each piece with my own work that I had painted and decorated over the years. I chose film clips from different eras, from the early twentieth century to the present day, to project in each room, which would show the world through the eyes of different directors and reflect back on Roman art. So in the first room, titled Para Bellum (Prepare for War) we have a statue of a torso of Emperor Domitian dressed as a fighting Hercules (from the National Museum of Rome), which evokes a composition of mine on the myth of Achilles and Penthesilea, queen of the Amazons, whom Achilles falls in love with only after he kills her. In the background there are film fragments of Robert Siodmak The last Roman (1968) and that of Ridley Scott Gladiator. It shows us as we were then and as we are now.
And you connect David Bowie with Emperor Hadrian
Featuring a beautiful bust of Emperor Hadrian, whom I painted with his eyes wide open and beaming, obsessed with love. He stands in front of six busts of Antinous decorated with David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust’s iconic lightning make-up. Behind them, relegated to a corner, is the bust of Sabina, Hadrian’s wife and helpless witness to the Emperor’s fascination with this very young boy, Antinous, who was perhaps 12 years old. The Emperor wanted statues of Antinous to be replicated throughout the Empire, the first amplification of the object of love. It is the first evidence of what we now call viral content. There was nothing but marble back then: there were no images on screens, there was no other way to share, but the principle is the same. It was the need to show everyone something. Today we discuss queerness and gender. We erect barriers and set rules. We generate stigma. Two thousand years ago, love was what it was, for everyone.
Vezzoli finishes the tour, turns around and adds self-deprecatingly, “I hope I haven’t bored you.” Behind him, on a huge screen, images of Tinto Brass flash Caligula, the so-called Roman epic, written by Gore Vidal, featuring the top Hollywood stars of the moment who were attracted by this story of an Imperial Rome much like the world we know today, with its star system, its sex and commerce , the gender fluidity of love and desire. Antinous was Ziggy Stardust, Ziggy was Antinous. We all knew this, but we forgot. It takes art to remind us. After you leave the exhibition, you are filled with the desire to return to the beginning and start again, as if you want to watch a movie again right after you leave the cinema.