John Paul II Statue: Honor or Betrayal?

One Work’s Failure, Another’s Success

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MAY 26, 2011 ( When the first clouds of controversy started gathering around the new statue of Blessed John Paul II unveiled at Rome’s Termini train station on May 18, I didn’t pay much attention.

Panning new monuments is as ingrained into the Roman psyche as cheering for soccer. Denizens of the Eternal City have sharpened their wits critiquing everything from Richard Meier’s new museum for the Ara Pacis in 2006 (dubbed a gas station) to the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica by Carlo Maderno in 1612 (called St. Peter’s palace). So when the Romans started describing Oliviero Rainaldi’s new statue of John Paul II as «papa duce» or Pope Mussolini, it just seemed yet another pasquinade.

The 15-foot bronze statue, a gift of the Silvana Paolini Angelucci Foundation, had been unveiled pleasantly enough, in the presence of Cardinal Agostino Vallini, the vicar of the Diocese of Rome, on what would have been John Paul II’s 91st birthday. The cardinal graciously expressed the hope that the work would always remind Romans to welcome those who come to their city. Rome’s mayor Giovanni Alemanno described Rainaldi’s piece as «a modern work that stimulates the imagination and in which each person will find his own vision.»

It certainly stimulated the Roman imagination. «A giant cow bell,» noted one critic referring to its cylindrical shape. «Mussolini,» said others noting the big bald head perched atop the work, much like that of the fascist leader of Italy in the early 20th century. Others thought it resembled the more corpulent Pope John XXIII, while a few history buffs seemed to see the features of Emperor Vespasian, the first-century sponsor of the Colosseum.

Art critic Sandro Barbagallo summed up the problem in an opinion piece published in L’Osservatore Romano, noting simply that the work doesn’t look like the beloved late Pope. «For those exiting the station,» wrote Barbagallo, «it seems more like an enormous indistinct monument than an unmistakable homage to John Paul II.»

From there the storm broke. Accusations of Vatican ingratitude, administrative finger-pointing and the mayor back peddling at top speed. «Vox popoli, vox Dei» (The voice of the people is the voice of God), said Alemanno in the face of the Roman outcry. And sure enough, yesterday, May 25th, representatives from Rome’s city hall, the ministry of culture and the Vatican formed a committee to evaluate whether the work should be removed.

The designer, Oliviero Rainaldi, a 55-year-old native of Emilia Romagna, has garnered a certain success both in Italy and the United States. His works focus on the human form, but the briefest of glances at his Web site makes it clear that Rainaldi’s work follows more the stone age Venus of Willendorf than the Grecian Apollo Belvedere. Rainaldi explains the new statue as the Pontiff opening his protective cape to welcome all to him. The idea was apparently inspired by a photograph of John Paul II playfully enveloping a child in his mantle. Rainaldi said he hoped the work «would take us toward the world of Pope John Paul, a man who was burdened with work, faith and the wind.»

At this point I had to see it myself. As the bus pulled into the Termini station I saw a crowd of people standing around a green cylinder, a funny place for a missile silo, so I thought. Sadly the silo was indeed the effigy of Blessed John Paul II. I spent almost an hour with the work trying to understand.

The open tear in the heart of the monument can indeed be read as the protective embrace of his open cloak. It could also refer to the Pope’s role in tearing down the Iron Curtain. It also bears an unfortunate resemblance to a portable toilet.

Capping the work is a big round head with no distinctive facial features. The round softness could be seen as the warmth of the late Pope, and the lack of a distinguishable physiognomy could refer to how John Paul II was so many things to so many people. Unfortunately, those of my generation will be tempted to view it as the «Stay Puft Marshmallow Man» from the 1984 film «Ghostbusters.»

The color varies from deep to acid green interspersed with silver. After a while it seemed that the olive patina might allude to John Paul II’s deep attachment to the ancient traditions of the Church while the bright lime could capture his surprising modernity, and the brief glimpses of steel would be the iron determination of this complex man.

This was when I decided I was putting more work into interpreting this statue than the artist had to make it comprehensible.

So how did this happen? The preliminary sketch seemed innocuous enough to the Pontifical Council of Culture headed by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, and Umberto Broccoli, the Superintendent of Culture in Rome. Somewhere, however, perhaps for lack of supervision or for lack of clarity about how a few strokes of pencil would translate into 8,000 pounds of bronze, Romans now look aghast at this megalith that greets visitors arriving into Italy’s busiest train station.

Regrettably, the statue resembles neither the handsome 58-year-old who charmed the Romans by speaking their dialect, or the suffering 83-year-old who inspired them with his courage. It evokes neither the warm sparkle in his eye seen during his 331 visits to Rome’s 337 parishes nor the determined set of his face when he sternly denounced the mafia preying on the Italian people.

Mostly, the indistinctness of the work seems to be a betrayal of the man. John Paul II was clear and outspoken, never ambiguous. This is the man who restored the Sistine Chapel to return beauty to the world and the best Rome can offer is a befuddling bronze blob? For a city that immortalized Augustus with the Prima Porta statue, where Michelangelo left us Moses, and Bernini’s sculptures seem to speak, Oliviero Rainaldi’s efforts make one wonder where the proud tradition of art has gone.

Suddenly Pope Julius II, micro-manager of the arts, breathing over Michelangelo’s shoulder or overworking Raphael, seems like a patron devoutly to be desired.

* * *

Homage done right

Thankfully, Blessed John Paul II has not received such short shrift everywhere in Rome. When three custodians of the Vatican Museums recently made a point of telling me to visit the new exhibit on Blessed John Paul II in the Charlemagne wing of St. Peter’s Square, it leapt to number one on my priority list.

These custodians, 10-year veterans of the splendors of the Vatican Museums, had promised that the exhibit was astounding, extremely well-arranged and profoundly moving. They didn’t let me down.

No doubt that this is homage done right. The show is small — just a few rooms to recount John Paul II’s richly textured life of 84 years, crowned by 26 years of the papacy — yet every space, every step is packed with meaning. As a tribute to a man who made every moment count, this exhibit is perfect.

The first room brings us into the world of Karol Wojtyła. The round space is the color of a faded photograph, filled with images of his infancy, his youth and his family. A tablecloth embroidered by his mother and the scapular he wore as a young man are physical testimony to young Karol’s faith and family. His still-familiar voice fills the room speaking of his love of his homeland.

The following section looks like pages of a resume: Karol the actor — with his playbill and the photos of his fellow actors; Karol the student — with his books and papers; Karol the worker — with the uniform and clogs worn at the stone quarry where he labored; and finally Karol the seminarian.

Inspired by St. Adam Chmielowski, a painter
who abandoned his brushes to serve the poor, the future Pope gave up his dreams of acting, and defied the Nazi regime by preparing for the service of the priesthood.

From priest to bishop to cardinal, the next section races through the cursus honorum of the Polish priest. Glass cases contain his bishop robes, a black hat and briefcase all on display much like the up-and-coming churchman. At this point, one might realize that the exhibit is arranged on a ramp sloping upward, just as the mission of the future Pope begins to take off.

Then, an echo from the past that still feels present — the voice of John Paul II calling out «Be not afraid.» The exhibit catapults into the beginning of his pontificate with that gentle, reassuring voice of a man who knows God’s love and is ready to transmit it to the world.

Drama is never lacking in any great Roman event and this show is no exception. The manner in which the organizers handled the attempted assassination of John Paul II is simply unforgettable. A must see.

A whirlwind section on publications, apostolic voyages, synods, saints and the myriad other feats of John Paul II leaves one almost breathless as one enters the final section simply titled «Suffering.» The video clips of John Paul II during his final years transfix everyone who passes, especially his last appearance when a voiceless Pope tried in vain to address the crowds in St. Peter’s Square. Here, so many tears have fallen that perhaps the organizers should have provided a box of tissues.

The famous Gospel that lay on John Paul II’s casket with its pages blowing in the wind closes the show. Then visitors step into the bright light on St. Peter’s porch to enter the church and see how John Paul II’s great journey has ended in eternal life in heaven.

The show, which will end July 24, is open from 9:30 A.M. to 7.30 P.M. every day except Wednesday when it opens at 1:30 P.M.. Admission is free.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and at the University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program.

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