The unpredictable art of Francesco Vezzoli: spectacle, sex, celebrity — and antiquity
The Italian artist and filmmaker has gone from making video art with Hollywood stars to reimagining classical relics. Following the opening of a new exhibition in his home town of Brescia, he talks to Harry Seymour about this radical creative shift
In October 2014, the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli unveiled an exhibition consisting of five repainted Roman busts placed around a dark room at MoMA PS1 in New York — and it shocked the art world.
The controversy wasn’t about Vezzoli’s right to renovate ancient statues. Instead, people wanted to know why the successful filmmaker, who had built his career on spectacle, glamour, sex and celebrity, was turning to the comparatively lifeless world of antiquities.
‘I never wanted to be a movie director,’ he recalls when asked about this shift. He suggests that his early career might have been a kind of compensation for not being one of the YBAs.
Vezzoli graduated from Central Saint Martins in 1995 — the annus mirabilis for the London art scene, when Damien Hirst’s pair of bisected cows, Mother & Child (Divided), won the Turner Prize.
‘I was seeing the YBAs blossoming and all the hype around them,’ he explains from his hotel room in Puglia. ‘I felt the celebrity phenomenon was stronger than ever. So I started making these videos where I was present and the celebrities were present, like a rudimental selfie. It was a discourse about the power they hold.’
The most famous of these videos is Vezzoli’s 2005 trailer for a fictitious remake of the 1979 cult movie Caligula, the screenplay for which was written by Gore Vidal. When the work — featuring an A-list line-up including Courtney Love, Helen Mirren, Gerard Butler, Benicio del Toro, Milla Jovovich and even Vidal himself — premiered at the Venice Biennale, critics were impressed by how a relatively unknown artist had managed to persuade some of the world’s biggest stars to work with him.
‘It happened in very rocambolesque ways,’ he laughs. ‘But basically, the trick was always the prestige of the institution or Biennale that invited me.’
The five-minute-long film was followed by Sharon Stone’s spoof presidential campaign for the Italian pavilion at the 2007 Venice Biennale, a parody perfume advertisement featuring Natalie Portman at Gagosian, and a live ballet performance with Lady Gaga at MoCA.
Meanwhile, at auction, Vezzoli’s flat artworks — mostly canvases featuring bygone celebrities embellished with precious metallic-thread (sometimes conspicuously framed like the stars on Hollywood Boulevard’s ‘Walk of Fame’) — started to sell for five- and six-figure sums.
The artist himself became something of a personality, photographed on the front row at Paris Fashion Week together with Kate Moss, Mario Testino and Claudia Schiffer, and at Venice Film Festival with Franca Sozzani, then editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue, and Marina Abramović. The media anointed him the ‘true rock star’ of art.
Then, in 2013, almost overnight, the artist stopped working with celebrities and instead pursued his interest in archaeology.
It began with the purchase of the ruins of a 19th-century church (below) in the southern Italian town of Montegiordano for around $100,000. Vezzoli’s intention was to rebuild it brick-by-brick in the courtyard of MoMA PS1 — until the Italian authorities halted the plan in order to investigate whether the artist was exporting items of cultural value without the necessary permits.
‘It was a ruin that belonged to a private citizen,’ says Vezzoli. ‘Everything had been established legally. There had even been another church built close to it so that people could still practise their religion.’
Happily, the authorities’ case against him never got off the ground. ‘It compromised the exhibition, but it granted me the front page of The New York Times, so it was OK,’ he says philosophically.
When MoMA PS1 invited Vezzoli back the following year, his response was Teatro Romano, the aforementioned show consisting of five redecorated marble heads of Roman emperors.
‘I felt the artistic debate was turning towards the market,’ explains Vezzoli. ‘So I wanted to focus on what makes an artwork and what makes an artefact.
‘Where are the boundaries to rework art in a creative way?
‘I thought bringing the conversation back to Greek and Roman sculptures was a way of fuelling an interesting discussion — and for me that is what art should do.’
The busts had been purchased at auction, and the repainting was supervised by a team of academics and conservators to ensure it was historically accurate.
‘Within that context, I can be the bad boy,’ says Vezzoli. ‘But, as an artist, I am all for contamination.’
He insists he would never alter a piece of historic importance, adding that he prefers to work with more damaged specimens.
‘What is a flaw for a collector is for me a quality,’ he says. ‘A missing part is a sign of the statue’s history. If a piece was flawless, it wouldn’t need me. I feel entitled as an artist to re-contextualise works from antiquity.’
There is a thread that connects the ancient statues the artist works on now to his earlier work: the cult of personality.
Vezzoli reminds us that after Hadrian’s lover Antinous drowned in the Nile, the emperor commissioned hundreds of sculptures in his likeness. ‘It was an early example of what Warhol did centuries later with his Marilyn images,’ he says.
Vezzoli’s current show, Archaeological Stages at the Brescia Museums Foundation, contains another work that underpins this idea. It consists of an enlarged bronze replica of the 25,000-year-old Venus of Willendorf — a figurine famous for its large breasts and hips. Vezzoli’s version is called Portrait of Kim Kardashian (above). ‘It’s really archaeo-celebrity,’ he says.
The exhibition contains seven more of Vezzoli’s ‘curatorial interventions’ dotted around the site’s archaeological complexes and galleries.
Among them are a reproduction of the Louvre’s Winged Victory of Samothrace (above left) adorned with a gold head inspired by Giorgio de Chirico’s Surrealist mannequins, and a bust of the ancient Greek warrior Achilles (above right). The sculpture, which was acquired at Christie’s in December 2018, has been painted to evoke the make-up worn by the British model Twiggy on a famous 1967 Vogue cover shot by Richard Avedon.
‘These works are studies in the history of icons,’ he says.
Between purchasing and exhibiting the sculptures, Vezzoli spent time living with them, ‘until they took life in my mind’. So would he call himself a collector?
‘Not of antiquities,’ he demurs, ‘but I do collect vases by Giovanni Gariboldi. He was the right-hand man of the architect Gio Ponti and is totally unknown and unjustly forgotten.
‘But I keep this very separate. In this field, I am a collectors’ collector. I want every piece in every colour — I search, I sneak, I steal, I bid higher.’
Francesco Vezzoli, in collaboration with the Azienda Speciale Palaexpo and Museo Nazionale Romano, presents VITA DULCIS: Fear and Desire in the Roman Empire, a major new exhibition at the Palazzo Delle Esposizoni in Rome from 22 April to 27