It’s 8.30am and the late summer breeze is blessing the onlookers drawn to piazza di San Lorenzo for a photo op. Rome-born, Pietrasanta-based Emanuele Giannelli’s Mr. Arbitrium is causing quite a stir.
On show until October 31 (now extended to November 30) beside Florence’s former cathedral, the statue is quickly becoming a “must-snap” attraction. Even though it’s still early morning, a tour guide is pointing out the resin, plastered and hand-painted marble effect artwork and a American couple in their thirties are enjoying a selfie three-way with the binoculared figure. As with almost all contemporary art in a historical public setting, the interaction makes for fascinating observation. I’d love to linger over a cappuccino across the piazza and watch the spectacle unfold. In our office WhatsApp chat, a colleague shared a photo of two female tourists reaching out to touch the artwork’s (inexistent) genitalia and The Florentine’s IG reel gathered many an opinion on the piece: “A breath of fresh air in the neighborhood”, “I love the contrast of the old and the new”, “Impressive and pointless, pushes both ways”, “Stretching your muscles after running is good for your muscles”. Neighbourhood locals have gone one step further, affixing an affectionate, tongue-in-cheek notice to the left of the artwork: O’ Giannelli, let’s hope it doesn’t fart, or we’ll end up at Careggi [ed. Florence’s main hospital]…Wouldn’t it have been better if, instead of holding up the door at San Lorenzo, you’d taken it to Pisa to straighten the crooked tower…
Giannelli’s sculpture stands just over five and a half metres tall, the whiteness resonating against the brown tones of the basilica and the blue sky. Some visitors to Italy might have seen the artwork before. Prior to the statue’s arrival in Florence, the piece spent time in Seravezza’s Palazzo Mediceo and beside Milan’s Arco della Pace, San Michele Church in Lucca and Fortino dei Lorena in Forte dei Marmi. The spot where Giannelli’s artwork now stands is believed to be the early seventeenth-century burial place of the only marble column that Michelangelo succeeded in having brought to San Lorenzo from the quarries around Seravezza. Intended for the ambitious façade commissioned by the Medici Pope Leo X, the pillar had long been abandoned outside the place of worship.
Designed to support or boldly push Basilica of San Lorenzo with all his muscles strained, Mr. Arbitrium embodies the artist’s ambivalence as he asks himself, and therefore us, the question of whether this might be the right time to tackle the dilemma faced by religion: is this the juncture to sweep away the Church with all its symbolism, culture and impact on society or is now the moment to defend religion, the millennia-old history of Christianity and western culture? For Giannelli, this is the time to act on how we would like our world to become. His artwork exhorts onlookers to support and push forward. When faced with indecision, we must all act according to our own conscience and capabilities. In so doing, the statue we see in piazza di San Lorenzo is no longer the star; the central character is humanity as a collective while we make big, difficult decisions together. As the artist puts it, “In my view at least, the future and humanity will pass by here.”
Organized by the church’s governing body, Opera Medicea Laurenziana, the statue beckons us into the basilica complex where the artist’s nimble works, I Sospesi (The Suspended), add animation to the peaceful cross-vaulted cloister. Hanging from their ankles, the life-sized resin figures elicit contemplation about the precariousness of present-day society. Undeniably enticed, you are almost averse to walking beneath them.