Published May 20, 2011
ROME – A new, modernist sculpture of Pope John Paul II is turning into a monumental bust.
The Vatican on Friday slammed the giant artwork outside Rome's Termini Train Station, saying it doesn't even resemble the late pontiff.
Some Romans and tourists say the bronze statue looks more like Italy's wartime dictator Benito Mussolini than the widely beloved pope.
"How could they have given such a kind pope the head of a Fascist?" said 71-year-old Antonio Lamonica.
As he pondered the statue in the bustling square, his wife muttered: "It's ugly. Really ugly. Very ugly."
The artist, Oliviero Rainaldi, depicted the pontiff as if he is opening his cloak to embrace the faithful. But the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano said the effect of the nearly 5-meter (16-foot) statue bears "only a distant resemblance to the pope."
Artistic intent aside, "we find ourselves in the piazza before a violent gash, like a bomb, that ends up assimilating a cloak that almost looks like a sentry box, topped by a head of a pope which comes off too roundish," critic Sandro Barbagallo wrote in Friday's L'Osservatore.
"Altogether, the result doesn't seem to reach the intent," the newspaper said, noting that it wasn't alone in its criticism.
Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno, asked by APTN in an exclusive interview if the city might take down the statue, said public opinion would be considered.
"There's an ancient saying: 'Vox populi, vox dei,'" Alemanno said, using the Latin for "Voice of the people, voice of God."
"And from this point of view we cannot help but take into consideration the opinion of the public," he added. "If public opinion consolidates around a negative opinion, we'll have to take that into consideration."
L'Osservatore Romano acknowledged that the statue is a modern work and called the city's initiative to erect it "praiseworthy," but added that "the statue's sin" is that it is "hardly able to be recognized."
Rainaldi, in comments reported by the newspaper La Repubblica, said he was sorry his work had been misunderstood.
"I wasn't thinking about resemblance, but rather a work that was able to synthesize, in the posture of the head and body and in the draping of the cloak, the way the pope went out into the world," Rainaldi was quoted as saying.
The statue, paid for by a foundation at no cost to the city of Rome, was erected a few days ago to mark what would have been John Paul's 91st birthday on May 18.
Pope Benedict XVI beatified John Paul, the last formal step before sainthood, on May 1 at a ceremony that drew about 1.5 million admirers to Rome.
The website of the Silvana Paolini Angelucci Foundation, which is dedicated to humanitarian efforts and which donated the statue, makes no mention of the controversy. Calls to the foundation weren't returned Friday.
The city noted that Vatican culture officials had seen a sketch of the work and approved it.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican's spokesman, confirmed that the sketch "received a positive opinion by the culture commission" of the Holy See. He couldn't say what happened between the sketch stage and the final result.
Umberto Broccoli, Rome's superintendent of cultural heritage, agreed that a panel of experts from the city and Holy See had signed off on the work, but he said they perhaps didn't realize how big it would actually be.
"The sketches, let's say it clearly, are absolutely similar to the original statue. You could not appreciate the dimensions, of course, so perhaps the 'ohh' of surprise rather originated from the dimensions," he told APTN. "But dimensions were clearly declared."
Comments of passers-by in the square largely echoed those on Rome daily Il Messaggero's website, where most respondents told the paper's online questionnaire that they didn't like the statue.
The sculpture "doesn't speak to me," said Gracia Gonzalez Sanchez of the Spanish coastal city of Malaga.
"I can't recognize the pope. It could be a cardinal or anyone else. I think they should have put a crucifix or some other symbol related to him," she told The Associated Press.
Fausto Durante, who commutes to Rome twice weekly from southern Puglia, said the statue wasn't bad but it just shouldn't be in a public square.
"Millions of people pass by this place every day, and you need something you can recognize," Durante said. "If the artist wants to do conceptual art, he would aim for a museum, not a public place where the faithful want to recognize their pope."
As he started to walk away, he turned back and said: "I want to add that its profile looks like Mussolini."
Grazia Liberti ventured some practical — as well as artistic — objections.
"With the shape of a cape, sooner or later the homeless people at the station will sleep inside it, and in no time, it will be full of bottles of beer," said the 46-year-old cleaning woman.