The artist who took away an Italian town's church

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Artist Francesco Vezzoli has ruffled a few feathers in a small Calabrian town. Photo: Gabriel Buoys/AFP
18:30 CET+01:00
Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli ruffled a few feathers in a small Calabrian village this week after dismantling its church. Why? Because he wants to rebuild it and put it on display at a top museum in New York.

So who is Francesco Vezzoli?

Vezzoli has been described as a “popular” artist and filmmaker who likes to cause a stir with seemingly outlandish projects. Born in Brescia, northern Italy, in 1971, he honed his skills at London’s Central St Martin’s School of Art and has since exhibited in a myriad of top museums, including the Tate Modern and the Guggenheim. He currently lives and works in Milan.

And why is he in the news this week?

Well, he bought a church, once a place of worship for churchgoers in the small Calabrian village of Montegiordano, on the Internet.

He then had it carefully taken apart and wrapped up, stone by stone. The aim is to rebuild it as part of his “Trinity” project on art, religion and glamour - a series of exhibitions being shown at the MoMA PS1 in New York, the MOCA in Los Angeles and the MAXXI in Rome.

The plan is to project his video works onto its rough stone shell.

But needless to say, the village of 2,000 is not impressed, so much so they’ve complained to the local cultural superintendent in Cosenza, claiming the building is national heritage.

So what happened after that?

The locals’ really did manage to throw a spanner in the works, with the superintendent blocking the project.

The dismantled church now lies in a hangar in the local port of Gioia Tauro ahead of its shipment to New York, pending settlement of the dispute, of course.

Vezzoli insists he has all the correct paperwork and permits to proceed. He argues that the church was lost on a “piece of scrub land” and would look much better in New York’s classy MoMA museum.

What’s this about him using the church to explore links between “art, religion, sex and divas”?

Well the church forms one of the strands of Vezzoli’s retrospective Trinity project, which combines celebrity, glamour and sex with religious and historical imagery. Ninety of his works will feature before the second installment, called The Church of Vezzoli, at MoMA. But only if the church makes it to New York, of course.

"Art is definitely a religion," Vezzoli told the Wall Street Journal in September. "You can't deny that people who believe in art believe in something you can't see."

Vezzoli has used plenty of ‘divas’ for his work in the past, including singer Lady Gaga. But we’re not so sure the folk of Montegiordano will be too gaga about imagery of her being displayed on their pretty church.

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So has he sparked controversy in the past?

He’s certainly been provocative. His big break came with a glitzy video in 2005 featuring celebrities including Helen Mirren, Courtney Love, Milla Jovovich and Benicio Del Toro in a trailer for a non-existent remake of Caligula, Gore Vidal’s erotic film.

Is the feud over the church likely to end amicably, or could it ruin plans for the New York part of the exhibition?

That remains to be seen. But Vezzoli has tried to make amends with the people of Montegiordano by saying they’ll get their church back after his show. He’s also offered to rebuild it as it was, or even restore it. 

Editor's Note: The Local's Italian of the Week is someone in the news who - for good or ill - has revealed something interesting about the country. Being selected as Italian of the Week is not necessarily an endorsement.

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