VATICAN CITY — Modern art has achieved a slightly higher profile at the Vatican Museum these days (relatively speaking, of course): among other offerings, the recently opened Borgia apartments — the rooms decorated by the sometimes underwhelming, sometimes wonderful painter Pinturicchio for the notorious Pope Alexander VI (aka Jeremy Irons) — are currently filled with sometimes pedestrian, sometimes exceptional selections of mid-20th-century Italian sculpture.
One of the rooms is devoted to the work of Marino Marini (1901–1980), whose signature image is a bareback horse and rider, a stripped-down version of the magisterial equestrian tradition signifying authority and heroism from Ancient Rome through the Risorgimento.
Marini was a gifted artist with a murky political past. As a young man he joined the Fascist Party and participated in the Mostra della Rivoluzione Fascista (1932), the first major exhibition of Fascist art. He fled to Switzerland in 1942 (his wife’s native country) to escape the bombardment of his adopted city of Milan, and returned in the spring of ’46, resuming his professorship at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera.
He also began to exhibit widely. His rapid ascent in the postwar period could be taken as a sign that he had abandoned his Fascist affiliation before the war, though available information is sketchy on this point. His unadorned horses and riders have been understood as anti-imperialist, and during his wartime exile he reportedly accessorized a few of his riders with helmets, supposedly in mockery of Mussolini.
Among the works on display in the Borgia gallery is a six-foot-tall column of plaster in the form of an armless man, nude but for a short garment tightly covering his genitals. With his head and neck hyperextended forward, and his legs pressed tightly together, the figure could for all intents and purposes be the crucified Christ — this is the Vatican after all — but the label at the sculpture’s base reads “Giocoliere” (1946).
A giocoliere is a juggler, and if we are to take the title at face value, the missing arms — the most instrumental parts of a juggler’s body — are significant in their absence. Are they Marini’s acknowledgment of modernism’s anti-illusionism, which would preclude any attempt to fashion a sense of movement from stationary materials?
Maybe, but there’s another issue: juggling requires the performer to keep tabs on the spinning balls, torches or chainsaws as they reach the apex of their orbit. The head stays straight or arches slightly backward. In contrast, the head on Marini’s figure is thrust so far forward that it could conceivably get in the way of the flying objects.
Also, a juggler’s legs are often spread apart, with feet planted firmly on the ground, establishing a wide center of gravity for the sudden shifts of the torso needed to maintain the objects’ trajectory. Not only are the giocoliere’s legs squeezed together, as mentioned above, but the angle of the ankles (the feet, like the arms, are missing) suggests that he is standing on on tiptoe.
The juggler is a theme Marini treated in a number of works, but while some of the other examples are missing arms, they appear quite different — much more agile and playful — than the somber, ramrod-straight character in this version. And it is worth noting that in a monograph on the artist edited by Pierre Casè and published by Skira in 1999, there is a photograph of Marini standing beside an armless statue that’s described in the caption as “his much loved wooden medieval Christ,” whose form is a dead ringer for that of the juggler.
All of which supports the original impression that the figure is in fact a Crucifixion sans arms, feet and cross. If that’s the case, then an historicist impulse is at work, in that the figure takes on the fragmentary state of the Romanesque remnant in the photo — an association that would be in keeping with the strain of nostalgia running through much early- and mid-20th-century Italian modernism. For many artists who came of age between the wars, the creation of bold, new forms was predicated not on burning down the museums, as the Futurists recommended, but through a revival of simplified elements from the past.
This pursuit became a roots-oriented primitivism that shared its archaizing inclinations with Picasso’s Iberian paintings (an interlude that followed the Rose Period and quickly transitioned into the proto-Cubist, African-influenced work, capped by “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” in 1907), which were based on ancient carvings and populated with thickset, stylized nudes.
The Italian movement was known as Valori Plastici, or Plastic Values, based on a magazine of the same name, which was published between 1918 and 1922. The movement was part of the so-called “return to order” that swept European art after the chaos of the war (for which Picasso’s post-Cubist neoclassicism was a touchstone).
Placing a premium on volume and space at the expense of verisimilitude, the artists aligned with Valori Plastici exalted painters such as Giotto, Cimabue and Masaccio, whose uncluttered compositions laid bare the principles of geometric structure. Valori Plastici’s humility of means (the paintings were routinely done in subdued earth tones) and subject matter (often blocky, deliberately awkward Everyman figures) did not sit well with some Fascists, who favored a heroic, reactionary realism in line with official Nazi art; even so, its undisguised nationalism was of a piece with Mussolini’s goal to restore the lost gloria della Patria.
“Giocoliere” was made in the immediate aftermath of the war, with Fascism’s murderously overweening ambitions freshly come to ruin. It would make sense for the grief and futility of such a time to be expressed through the iconography of the Man of Sorrows, and Marini’s version is particularly apropos: the straining neck is an expressionistic trope for extreme distress; the missing arms could be a signal of impotence against the forces of history.
But why then did he assign it a name alluding to the circus? From a contemporary perspective, the transmutation of the crucified Christ into a juggler can be seen as a surrender to the absurd, a concession to the reality of a godless world. Would it be reading too much into the image to suggest that the term “giocoliere” is a j’accuse toward a deity who could no more prevent the catastrophe of the war than an armless performer can juggle bowling pins? If so, it would be an odd thing to find in the Vatican.
But meaning is ultimately contained in the form, and the sculpture’s pillar-like strength exhibits neither exhaustion nor powerlessness. Its contours are streamlined, and the figure could just as well be identified as a swimmer as anything else. Its manifold connections to history — the formal links to trecento and quattrocento painting as well as Etruscan and Romanesque sculpture; the shadowy associations with Fascism; the artist’s redemptive postwar ascent as a practitioner of modernist humanism — combined with the patches of black and green paint smeared across its legs, endow it with the persona of a battered survivor. Stripped, chastened, scarred, this juggler, a divine wreck, has made it through, but just barely, carrying within its eroded body the debris of a shattered society and the glimmer of a fresh start.