The Vatican Museums are one of the jewels if not the leading attraction of ‘must see’ sites in Rome. It’s on everyone and their Jack Russell’s ‘to do’ list. Rome is extremely well endowed with historical sites and one could spend weeks if not months trying to unearth most of them. The Vatican Museums are of course most famous for the Sistine chapel as well as the Rapheal rooms containing his frescoes and a large Pinacoteca featuring a treasure trove of landmark works of art. As a consequence of such riches, it is supremely popular and the crowds can be overwhelming.
However the Vatican Museums are an enormous place with a breath-taking collection of art impossible to digest in just one visit. As most people make a b-line for the highlights, lots of work gets overlooked. Interestingly, within the museum complex there is a museum of modern and contemporary art featuring works by Rodin, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Dali, Francis Bacon and several Italian modern artists including Giorgio Morandi, Alberto Burri and Lucio Fontana. Yet it was the handful of bronze sculptures by the Italian sculptor Francesco Messina, which caught my full attention.
Messina is considered one of the most important Italian sculptors of the 20th century. His sculptures remind me of Donatello’s when it comes down to their core fundamentals. The most important of these is tapping into the soul and spirit of the subject. Donatello had an immense talent for achieving this and this is what distinguished and separated him from his contemporaries and competitors. What’s more incredible was that Donatello was creating such human and soulful sculptures at the beginning of the Renaissance and several years before Michelangelo. Most of Donatello’s contemporaries had at least one foot still in the Medieval ages. Donatello, on the other hand, was streets ahead. For Donatello it was not just about recreating and resuscitating the great sculptures of the Classical period, it was also about executing feelings and creating sculptures of his subjects in a way where he understood and connected to them.
Messina is a true student of Donatello. His sculptures of Adam, John the Baptist and David all have their roots in Donatello’s David. They are very sensitive and delicate sculptures. Messina, like Donatello, creates his subjects warts and all without any traces of exaggerated mannerisms. Messina’s sculpture of David is far closer to Donatello’s sculpture of David as opposed to Michelangelo’s. Michelangelo’s David for all its dexterous skill is almost too perfect. Donatello’s David is closer to the source and projects a David that is more real and less idealised. Messina’s 1953 bronze sculpture of David is an exceptional creation. His David is like a feral tearaway street urchin from a Jean Genet book. Messina’s David tries to act in a tough ‘too big for his boots’ way carrying a large sharp knife but its all a front and it shows. He’s really a lanky, scared and lost little boy with twig-thin arms. Messina has created a true David with all his strengths but also all his frailties and vulnerabilities.
Messina’s sculpture of a youthful John The Baptist is another gem where he deftly captures his tenderness and humanity; that of a pure and virtuous being. The gaze of the face of Christ in his Ecce Home sculpture is hypnotic and visceral. As is the face and figure of his Mary of Magdalen sculpture. And this is where Messina’s genius as an artist lies; in his ability to crystallise emotion.
The Rising of Lazarus (1951) – bronze
The Young St John the Baptist (1955) – bronze
Doubting St. Thomas (1951) – bronze
Ecce Home (1953) – bronze
Adam (1939) – bronze
The Magdalen (1953) – bronze
Pius XII (1963) – bronze
St. Catherine of Siena (1961) – bronze
Pieta (1950) – bronze
Davide (1953) – bronze
Text and photographs by Nicholas Peart
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