Francesco Vezzoli. Portrait by Matthias Vriens (detail). © Francesco Vezzoli

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. With 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.’

Helen Mirren in the X-rated 2005 trailer made by Francesco Vezzoli to promote a fictitious remake of the notorious 1979 movie, Caligula. 35mm film transferred to video, colour, sound, 530 min. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli (Turin); Tate Modern, London and Ludwig Museum, Cologne. Photo Matthias Vriens

Helen Mirren in the X-rated 2005 trailer made by Francesco Vezzoli to promote a fictitious remake of the notorious 1979 movie, Caligula. 35mm film transferred to video, colour, sound, 5:30 min. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli (Turin); Tate Modern, London and Ludwig Museum, Cologne. Photo: Matthias Vriens

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.

Francesco Vezzoli (b. 1971), Is Veruschka in Paris, 2001. 
Laserprint on canvas with metallic embroidery. 52 x 45 cm. Unique. Sold for £156,500 on 15 October 2007 at Christie’s in London
Francesco Vezzoli (b. 1971), Is Veruschka in Paris?, 2001

Laserprint on canvas with metallic embroidery. 52 x 45 cm. Unique. Sold for £156,500 on 15 October 2007 at Christie’s in London

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.

Francesco Vezzoli (b. 1971), Suddenly Last Summer Walk of Fame (David Cameron as Young Blonde Intern), 2006.
Tempera on canvas with metallic embroidery. 78 x 84 cm. Unique. Sold for £43,250 on 1 July 2008 at Christie’s in London
Francesco Vezzoli (b. 1971), 'Suddenly Last Summer' Walk of Fame (David Cameron as Young Blonde Intern), 2006. Tempera on canvas with metallic embroidery. 78 x 84 cm. Unique. Sold for £43,250 on 1 July 2008 at Christie’s in London

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.

Vezzoli’s attempts to transport this ruined church to New York were thwarted by the Italian authorities. Photo Studio Francesco Vezzoli

Vezzoli’s attempts to transport this ruined church to New York were thwarted by the Italian authorities. Photo: Studio Francesco Vezzoli

‘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.’

Francesco Vezzoli, True Colours (A Marble Head of the Resting Satyr, Circa Late 1st Century AD), 2014. Ancient sculpture, pigments, casein, wax, varnish. 18 x 19.5 x 42 cm. Unique

Francesco Vezzoli, True Colours (A Marble Head of the Resting Satyr, Circa Late 1st Century AD), 2014. Ancient sculpture, pigments, casein, wax, varnish. 18 x 19.5 x 42 cm. Unique

Francesco Vezzoli, True Colours (A Marble Head of Isis, Eastern Mediterranean, Roman Imperial, Circa 1st Century AD), 2014. Ancient sculpture, pigments, casein, wax, varnish. 15.5 x 13 x 43 cm. Unique

Francesco Vezzoli, True Colours (A Marble Head of Isis, Eastern Mediterranean, Roman Imperial, Circa 1st Century AD), 2014. Ancient sculpture, pigments, casein, wax, varnish. 15.5 x 13 x 43 cm. Unique

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.’

Francesco Vezzoli, Portrait of Kim Kardashian (Ante Litteram), 2018. Marble portrait head (Roman Imperial, Severan, early 3rd century AD), bronze, chalk, tempera. 105 x 55 x 40 cm. Unique. Photo Alessandra Chemollo. Fondazione Brescia Musei, 2021

Francesco Vezzoli, Portrait of Kim Kardashian (Ante Litteram), 2018. Marble portrait head (Roman Imperial, Severan, early 3rd century AD), bronze, chalk, tempera. 105 x 55 x 40 cm. Unique. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo. Fondazione Brescia Musei, 2021

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.

Francesco Vezzoli, Nike Metafisica, 2019. Concrete and marble dust sculpture (XX century), bronze. 320 x 120 x 120 cm. Unique. Photo Alessandra Chemollo. Fondazione Brescia Musei

Francesco Vezzoli, Nike Metafisica, 2019. Concrete and marble dust sculpture (XX century), bronze. 320 x 120 x 120 cm. Unique. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo. Fondazione Brescia Musei

Francesco Vezzoli, Achillei, 2021. Italian marble bust (19th century), associated green marble socle, chalk, acrylic paint. 106 x 76 x 36 cm. Unique. Photo Alessandra Chemollo. Fondazione Brescia Musei, 2021

Francesco Vezzoli, Achillei, 2021. Italian marble bust (19th century), associated green marble socle, chalk, acrylic paint. 106 x 76 x 36 cm. Unique. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo. Fondazione Brescia Musei, 2021

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.

Francesco Vezzoli, C-Cut — Homo Ab Homine Natus, 2018. Concrete sculpture (XX century), bronze, marble head (50 BC-37 AD), alabastrine chalk, egg tempera, microcrystalline wax. 191 x 62 x 51 cm. Unique. Photo Alessandra Chemollo. Fondazione Brescia Musei, 2021

Francesco Vezzoli, C-Cut — Homo Ab Homine Natus, 2018. Concrete sculpture (XX century), bronze, marble head (50 BC-37 AD), alabastrine chalk, egg tempera, microcrystalline wax. 191 x 62 x 51 cm. Unique. Photo: Alessandra Chemollo. Fondazione Brescia Musei, 2021

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.’

Archaeological Stages: Curatorial Interventions by Francesco Vezzoli is at the Brescia Museums Foundation until 9 January 2022. A catalogue is being published by Skira in September 2021