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Mitoraj in Pompeii

28.11.2016. Naples & around

The massive, fragmented Classical heads, torsos and limbs crafted by the late Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj feel like an elegant lament for the decline of Western civilization, an ode to the end times. Topical, some would argue.

But the sense that we’re living on the edge of the apocalypse is not a modern invention. In the first century BC, the lurid misrule of emperors such as Caligula or Nero led commentators such as Tacitus, Suetonius or Seneca to develop, in plays, histories and prose works, a narrative about the decadence of the Roman empire which is still a potent legend. A film like Fellini’s Satyricon, or the HBO TV series Rome, both reflect the same jaundiced view of a once-great civilisation that was imploding due to a moral vacuum created by the blind worship of power.

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Pompeii is the ultimate symbol of this implosion, despite the fact that its destruction was a purely geological event. Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s racy, sensationalist novel The Last Days of Pompeii drew an explicit causal link between the town’s supposed moral decline and the eruption of Vesuvius. Written in 1838 but never out of print, it would go on to spawn no less than eight feature films – the most recent a 1959 sword and sandal romp directed by a young Sergio Leone.

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So when Pompeii’s Sovrintendenza heritage department invited Mitoraj to place thirty of his large-scale sculptures at key points inside the archaeological site, it was well aware of the cultural resonance that attached to the gesture. The Polish sculptor was able to select the works and choose their locations before his death in October 2014; when the exhibition ‘Mitoraj a Pompeii’ eventually opened in May of this year, the chief curator of the site, Massimo Osanna, talked eloquently of his "Mythological gods and heroes... emerging like dreams from the ruins”.

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In this “interrupted” city, Mitoraj’s fragmented bronze and marble heads and torsos remind us of the impermanence of empire. They evoke the spirit of Shelley’s sonnet Ozymandias, based on the account of a “traveller from an antique land” who stumbled on a broken statue of a Pharaoh in the middle of the desert, its “shattered visage” lying “half-sunk” in the sand. The inscription on the pedestal of the statue is a triumph of hubris: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”.

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But Shelley’s simple, eloquent poem, like Mitoraj’s sculptures, shows that time levels tyrants and their works, replacing bombastic gestures with tragic pathos. The sonnet ends with what the poet’s version of a cinematic zoom out: “Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away”.

Mitoraj a Pompei runs until 8th January 2017

Pictures: © Roberto Salomone

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