Oliviero Rainaldi, Conversazione, 2011


Everyone loves a good car crash in the art world where no one really gets hurt. Last year we thrilled to the saga of Beast Jesus. The previous year this statue of Pope John Paul II became infamous.

Critics said it looked like Mussolini. The artist reworked it to produce the version you see here. But then critics said it looked even more like the Italian dictator.

It seems that in Italy, papal portraiture comes under a similar level of scrutiny to royal portraiture in this monarchical island of ours. Who will ever forget the first official picture of “Kate”?

What the photos don’t prepare you for is the location of this high profile piece of public art. It is out front of an unlovely bus station, more of a municipal than an ecclesiastical gesture.

Personal first impressions of the work were not too bad. The former pontif looks kindly at least. His robe is embracing. It welcomes you as surely as the arm-like colonnades of St Peter’s Square.

But if you stop to consider it, there’s a mysterious darkness behind the drapery. We cannot avoid the impression of secrecy, the hint of that horrendous cover up of which many accuse the church.

An awestruck visit to the Vatican does much to dispel any accumulated cynicism, mind you. Here you will find evidence of an ongoing patronage of the arts without which Catholicism might not be what it is.

The expression broad church surely comes to mind as the tiny state’s museum includes a study for Francis Bacon’s screaming pope and more than one statue to the Egyptian god Thoth.

In the ethnography department, you come across a photo of John Paul II with a koala no less. A previous holder of the highest office in this faith could not look more cuddly if he tried.

But had Rainaldi chose this image, it would surely have been hailed as the epitome of religious kitsch. So he went for something abstracted and paid the price.

You realise it would have taken some miracle to escape from Michaelangelo and Bernini in this city. They too are waiting in the heavily draped wings here, casting their shadow over the present.

You can read more about the unenthusiastic reception of Conversazione in Huffington Post here.

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