The artist who took away an Italian town’s church

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.

The artist who took away an Italian town's church
Artist Francesco Vezzoli has ruffled a few feathers in a small Calabrian town. Photo: Gabriel Buoys/AFP

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.

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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IN MAPS: A brief introduction to Italy’s many local ‘dialects’

Are the Italians around you speaking a completely different language? Why are local dialects often so far removed from modern Italian? Here's what you need to know.

IN MAPS: A brief introduction to Italy's many local 'dialects'
A man wearing a t-shirt reading ''100% Venetian''. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

It's the problem italian language learners have faced for as long as anyone can remember. You've diligently studied your Italian grammar, and carefully practiced your phrases ahead of your first visit to Italy, only to realise upon arrival that the Italians around you seem to be speaking a different language entirely.

READ ALSO: Ten of the most common Italian language mistakes you should avoid

Italy's dialects are far more than just heavily-accented Italian. They seem like totally different languages because, in fact, that's exactly what they are.

It's not quite correct to call them “dialects”, which are actually variants on a standard language. These are different languages which evolved separately from Latin – or, in some cases, other languages.

And even when they switch to Italian, speakers of these dialects or languages often speak with a heavy accent, much to the dismay of anyone still getting to grips with with basic Italian. Even in a big city like Florence or Rome, Italian spoken in a thick local accent can be hard to decipher – even for native Italian speakers from other areas.

As the map below shows, every region and often province has its own local language. Some have more than one, and each town may also have a variation.

Many of these are part of language “families” and some are more closely related to Italian, or to Latin, than others.

The map below classifies them further and also shows how languages in different regions are connected.

Map: Antonio Ciccolella/Wikimedia Commons

This might look complicated, but anyone who lives in a small italian town will no doubt still be thinking that a more detailed map is needed, as there are actually many more, smaller variations within these categories.

Do people in Italy really still speak all of these dialects?

The language we call Standard Italian derives from 13th-century Florentine. Until then, there had been no written rules, and the languages of what is now Italy had mainly evolved by being spoken.

When Italy was unified in 1861, only 2.5 percent of the population could actually speak the Italian language. All spoke their regional languages. Now, that figure is in the high 90s, though around five percent still speak only or predominantly in their regional language.

While you might imagine that these dialects or languages are mainly used by older people and are slowly dying out, that's not usually the case. 
While they'll also speak standard Italian, you'll find young Italians proudly speaking their local lingo everywhere from central Naples to the valleys of South Tyrol.
Some are far more widely used than others. In fact the most widely spoken is Neapolitan, with over five million speakers today.
The least widely-used is Croato. This dialect is used by an ethnic minority from a region corresponding to present-day Croatia and is spoken in the southern region of Molise. Today it only around 1,000 speakers.
In the southernmost parts of Italy, such as Salento and Calabria, Griko dialects are thought to derive from ancient Greek.
Meanwhile, Sardinian is classified as an “endangered” language by Unesco,  Like Italian, Sardinian has roots in Latin – in fact, some linguists argue that, of all the modern Romance languages, Sardinian is the closest to Latin – but it also displays much older influences. Today, particularly younger people on the island speak a mix of both languages, a sort of “Sarditalian”.
For more details, here are our guides to getting started with some of Italy's regional languages: