NEW ORLEANS — The Piazza d’Italia generally isn’t high on many people’s lists of Things To See And Do In New Orleans; in fact, I’d guess that most of the tourists who stumble across it do so while getting lost on their way to or from the nearby Harrah’s casino or Hilton Riverfront. And they probably have no idea that this gaudy urban ensemble, designed by Charles Moore and opened in 1978, represents one of the seminal pieces of postmodern architecture in the country. For all intents and purposes, it looks like a splashier than average outdoor food court … maybe one attached to or operated by Harrah’s casino or the Hilton Riverfront.
Despite a comprehensive renovation a few years ago that restored the Piazza d’Italia to its original dazzle, it remains mostly unvisited and unappreciated by the throngs who crowd the nearby French Quarter and Riverwalk. Many of those who do make it there these days are unlikely to realize that the curiously attenuated golden sculpture of Sophia Loren clutching a pile of classical pillars and pediments to her bosom standing smack in the middle is the work of a major contemporary artist and part of a freshly minted international art biennial, so seamlessly does it fit into the Piazza d’Italia’s tacky magnificence.
Francesco Vezzoli’s “Portrait of Sophia Loren as the Muse of Antiquity (after Giorgio de Chirico)” (2011) is his contribution to Prospect 2 New Orleans, which opened here on October 22. Like the larger exhibition itself, it is a seemingly modest affair that becomes more engaging the more one spends time with it.
Barely larger than life size, the sculpture almost gets swallowed up by the roaring fountains and swooping arcs of neon-rimmed architectural elements that surround it. Then you start noticing its high degree of polish, and its allusions to works by Italian metaphysical painter Giorgio diChirico (more on those here), and how La Loren somehow manages to preserve her dignity amidst all the silliness.
Most of all, however, I was struck by how right it all seems: where better to place an earnestly tacky monument to the queen of Italian cinema than in this glitzy faux amphitheater, itself intended to serve as a simultaneously ironic and sincere celebration of the glories of Italian high culture?
Of the several site-specific installations in both editions of the Prospect biennial, this pairing between art and setting is one of the most fortuitous.
This isn’t the first time, of course, that Vezzoli has layered high-gloss celebrity sculpture upon a classical antecedent: his perhaps best-known work remains the star-studded (and still hysterical) “Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula,” starring Courtney Love as the mad Roman emperor.
Working in a three-dimensional medium this time around instead of film, Vezzoli accomplishes the not inconsiderable task of adding an extra layer of kitsch to the Piazza d’Italia that its renovation somehow neglected. Like Prospect 2 as a whole, which I’ll be writing more about over the coming weeks — not to mention the city of New Orleans itself — Vezzoli’s homage is a glorious mix of the ridiculous and the sublime.
Prospect 2 runs through January 29 in various locations around New Orleans. Visit www.prospectneworleans.org for more information.