Venus of the Rags is a sculpture by contemporary Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto. It consists of a classical-style sculpture of the Roman goddess Venus standing before a pile of discarded clothing. Two weeks ago, Pistoletto erected a large-scale version in the Piazza del Municipio in Naples as a part of the city’s efforts to support the arts called Napoli Contemporanea. But last Wednesday, passersby were surprised to find the work engulfed in flames. Someone had set it on fire.
Venus of the Rags (or Venere degli stracci in Italian) was first created in 1967. Since then, Pistoletto has made several versions of the sculpture, including those at the Tate and Washington DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. The work is full of dichotomies. There’s the plain, pure white against a multicolored heap; the hard, sturdy statue against soft, pliable clothing; the ancient alongside the modern; the meticulously preserved with the easily discarded. It is an example of Arte Povera, or Poor Art, an Italian artistic movement popular during the late 1960s and early 1970s, of which Pistoletto was a central figure. The point was to create art using simple, everyday objects. But even the statue of Venus is as modern, available, and disposable as the rags. Though Pistoletto based the Naples version on Bertel Thorvaldsen’s Venus with the Apple, the original 1967 version used a simple concrete Venus statue he found at a gardening store. But publicly displaying a version in Naples is appropriate since many have interpreted the work as a commentary on the city’s history and current status. Naples has always been far poorer than its northern counterparts like Milan, Turin, and Venice. Despite its great history, persevering throughout the millennia since its foundation as an ancient Greek colony, poverty, organized crime, and political corruption are still serious problems that plague Naples today.
The day after the incident, police arrested a 32-year-old homeless man on suspicion that he may have been involved. His motivations are not known. The mayor of Naples, Gaetano Manfredi, stated, “I have already heard from Pistoletto, the work will be redone. Violence and vandalism will not stop art, regeneration, and culture in Naples.” Meanwhile, local politician Piercamillo Falasca has called for a public fundraiser to fund these efforts.