by Paolo Mattei
“I can almost see him: a twelve-year-old kid dangerously climbing up the scaffolding, carving the triglyphs in the frieze of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo…”
Francesco Rutelli, Co-President of the European Democratic Party, is talking about his ancestor, sculptor Mario Rutelli (Palermo, 1859-1941).
The former mayor of Rome from 1993 to 2001, Minister of Culture, and Vice President of Italy’s Council of Ministers from 2006 to 2008 knows many details about his great grandfather’s life, and gracefully answers our many questions about him.
He says he was “very talented, and after working in his father’s construction business – which at the time was probably one of the biggest in the Mediterranean – attended Palermo’s Fine Arts Academy and studied under Giulio Monteverde in Rome and Auguste Rodin in Paris.”
We met Rutelli, born in Rome in 1954, in his office in the Prati district. He is happy to talk about his famous progenitor, and obviously has a genuine passion for the story of this artist, whom “Federico Zeri described to me as ‘the greatest caster after Benvenuto Cellini’”.
“People often point out to me new sculptures that are more than likely works of his; I have compiled a very long list of his works waiting to be examined by experts.”
Mario Rutelli was active throughout Italy, as well as in Germany and the United Kingdom.
In Rome, he left a strong mark with the monument dedicated to Anita Garibaldi on the Janiculum, the Fountain of the Naiads in Piazza della Repubblica, one of the Victories on the monument for Vittorio Emanuele in Piazza Venezia, the marble sculpture group representing Dante’s “wrathful” in the National Gallery of Modern Art, and the monument to Nicola Spedalieri in Piazza Sforza Cesarini. In Palermo, he created the Quadriga of the Politeama Garibaldi; in Catania, the equestrian statue of King Umberto I. There are traces of a statue of Wolfgang Goethe he made in Munich; in Aberystwyth, Wales, there are a monument in memory of British sailors and one to the future King Edward VIII. The list could go on, well beyond the scope of this article.
Let’s start with your great-grandfather’s most famous work: the Fountain of The Naiads in Rome.
The fountain has a particular history. Pius IX had re-inaugurated the Acqua Marcia aqueduct in 1870, a mere ten days before the capture of Rome. The final ‘mostra’ was only a hundred meters or so from the current location of the Fountain of the Naiads, near Termini train station and Palazzo Massimo.
Then what happened?
When the Church lost its temporal power, designs to build a “new Rome” emerged. In 1888, the ‘mostra’ was moved to the square where it is now. The project was to build concentric basins decorated with four Egyptian lions. But something was missing: the scene needed something more striking and memorable.
Because it was supposed to be the modern gateway to the city. For centuries, people had had two options to reach Rome: from the North, they took the Via Francigena and could see the city from Monte Mario as they arrived; from the South, they took the old Appian Way, following in the footsteps of Saint Paul, according to the Acts of the Apostles. In the 19th century, people could take the train to Termini station. So that area had to have a strong impact and innovative feel. Gaetano Koch’s Piazza dell’Esedra – now Piazza della Repubblica – was designed to face the great street of the capital’s modernity, Via Nazionale, where carriages and the first cars traveled to and from the Quirinal Palace, Piazza Venezia, and Capitoline Hill. It required a fountain with great character.
And Mario Rutelli won the competition for the monument’s design.
He did. I still have the original contract, which initially mentioned a marble sculpture, worth 25,000 lire to be paid in two installments. The fountain was ready to be inaugurated on February 8, 1901, but by then the city hall had started fighting over its decency. Once the central group with the statue of Glaucus was put in place for the fiftieth anniversary of Italy’s Unification, the naked bronze women right at Rome’s entrance, in their “obscene” poses, caught the eye of famous folk singer Sor Capanna; his funny ‘double entendres’ about the fountain became hugely popular all over the city: “Quant’è bello quer gigante, / lì tra in mezzo a tutte quante: / cor pesce in mano / annaffia a tutt’e quattro er deretano…” (“How beautiful that giant is, / there in between all of them: / fish in his hand / he drenches all four of them from the back…”).
So the inauguration was delayed out of public decency…
Yes, the fountain was ready but the inauguration had to wait. Some considered its sculptures completely scandalous, and the city council seemed to debate about it forever. The clergy were against it, while modernists rooted for this symbol of a new Rome… which at the time, by the way, was shielded from view by a fence…
My grandmother always said that queen Margaret of Savoy, on her way through the square one night, had the carriage stop to peek through the fence. Once she returned to the vehicle, she exclaimed “Il y a des grandes coupoles!”
Then what happened?
One day, a few students got tired of the deadlock and went to pick up Mario Rutelli from his hotel, only a few hundred meters from the fountain. They carried him in triumph to the square, and convinced the technician working for Acqua Pia Antica Marcia – the company in charge of managing the fountain – to turn on the water. Then they dismantled the fence. The fountain was inaugurated by overwhelming will of the people.
A few years later, the central group was added…
Yes, in two separate steps. The 1911 group was harshly criticized and widely unpopular, so it was removed immediately and moved to the Piazza Vittorio gardens, where it still is today. Locals had nicknamed the bizarre composition “il fritto misto di Termini” (translator’s note: best translated as “Termini’s pupu platter”, although ‘fritto misto’ is a typical Italian dish consisting of various deep fried food items). Indeed, it included three tritons, a dolphin, and an octopus interlocked in a peculiar fight. In 1912, the final group was placed in the fountain.
The one with Glaucus and the dolphin…
Yes, and there is a story about that too. The face of the god was actually a portrait of Trilussa: my father told me it was meant to commemorate the great Roman dialect poet, whom my great-grandfather knew. They used to take short excursions to the countryside, as many artists did at the time.
All’s well what ends well. Did the controversy over the statues’ decency subside right after the inauguration?
Let’s say that, for a while, controversy was replaced by quiet unease. My father Marcello told me another fun story about this. He went to school at Istituto Massimo, near Piazza della Repubblica, and since the structure did not have a gym the students had to go outside for their hour of physical education. When they went past the fountain, the priest who walked them along the way instructed them to face the other way. My father thought it was very ironic, considering how many models he had seen at home and the fact that he could access sketches of the statues any time he wanted…
So models were used…
To be precise, my great-grandfather drew inspiration from a number of them. He was considered a heartbreaker, and apparently led a few ladies to believe that they were the only Muse of his work. In fact, he made up anonymous faces for these statues. But for Anita Garibaldi – of whom he had no reliable reference – he decided to portray my grandmother.
No, his daughter-in-law, Graziella Marini. Her father Ottavio was an authoritative Fine Arts Inspector, whose career led him to work also for the Calcografia Nazionale, S. Cecilia, and the Academy of Fine Arts. I own the terracotta model of her portrait, and have seen the beautiful models of the monument on the Janiculum, which Mussolini inaugurated in 1932. That was another “thorny” inauguration, in a way.
Mario Rutelli was very upset because the statue was downscaled by one third compared to his original design. He was told it was to save bronze. However, the statue is incredibly complex…
What do you mean?
It was a difficult to make because it is a large equestrian statue with a rampant horse on his hind legs.
The Brazilian heroine is also represented in a peculiar pose…
She is doing three things at once: riding, holding her gun, and holding a baby. Apparently, Mussolini insisted on the third in order to include women’s role as mothers too.
The statue is not just a monument: it’s Anita’s grave…
Five former soldiers from Garibaldi’s army carried her body, wrapped in the Italian flag, from Piazza Venezia to the Janiculum. We can only imagine what an effort that must have been for those old veterans…
Going back to inaugurations, we know that the fountain in Piazza Esedra was not the only one to have a difficult start…
No, the monument to Nicola Spedalieri now in Piazza Sforza Cesarini did too, at the time of its inauguration on Corso Vittorio Emanuele.
Tell us more about it.
My great-grandfather had won the competition to create the statue of the 18th-century Sicilian abbot and poet, an important figure in Italy’s cultural history as the author of a 1791 essay titled “Dei diritti dell’uomo”, in which he highlighted the concept of popular sovereignty as a foundation of State. Late 18th-century reactionary groups opposed to the book, and its Rousseau-inspired ideas; indeed, a century later it was a Sicilian committee with a strong Freemason background that supported the plan for his statue. They obviously thought that celebrating a priest who championed freedom of thought in Rome was intriguing and provocative.
What problems did they encounter?
The poor Spedalieri was “orphaned” at the last minute. The clergy was outraged to see a priest immortalized as an enlightened layman. At the same time, the supporting committee suddenly realized that their plan could backfire: the Abbot was a man of the Church, and celebrating him could highlight the elements of openness and liberalism in their bitter enemy, the Church…
Then what happened?
The statue was placed in the space on the left of the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle, with a hood over its head. Nobody wanted to take the responsibility of removing the hood and inaugurating the monument. Finally, the police commissioner took charge – but at midnight, when nobody was around, to avoid arguments or outbreaks. Later, the poor Abbot had to relocate to his current site because carriages could not move around the statue in that small square. Its difficult start was finally over… And I think it found a very pleasant home in the tree-lined square off Corso Vittorio.
Speaking of the clergy and its enemies. Can we say your great-grandfather was one of the latter?
He was a Freemason, like many bourgeois in his day. I have part of his correspondence with sculptor Ettore Ferrari, grand master of the Grand Orient of Italy and author of the famous statue of Giordano Bruno in Rome’s Campo de’ Fiori. However, his laic ideals did not get in the way of religious works, such as some very fine Madonnas or the Baptistery for the Church of the Annunziata in Comiso. Speaking of religious-theme works of his, there is one mystery I still haven’t solved…
What is it?
I am sure my great-grandfather worked on the composition of an important monument to the pope. I have the photograph of a model for Benedict XV’s funerary monument inside Saint Peter’s Basilica. I asked the Fabric of Saint Peter for details, but I still have not received an answer.
You mentioned Mussolini just now. What was Mario Rutelli’s relationship with the regime?
He never joined the Fascist party: as historian Franco Grasso has written, he refused it. Any relationship he had finally fell apart after he was offered to make a monument to Latin spirit for Monte Mario, which initially was supposed to revolve around a large-scale face of Dante Alighieri; later, his clients insisted on transforming the project into a huge, muddled tribute to Mussolini. The Duce’s countenance would have towered over the Foro Italico. Rutelli refused to go through with the project, and some say he was so outraged he shattered the terracotta model he had made in Palazzo Venezia for Mussolini’s portrait. I still have a photograph of that model.
Was that when Mario Rutelli finally returned to Sicily?
Yes. He retired to the island, and refused to be appointed Senator for life. His biographer writes that, leaving Rome, he angrily shouted, “Keep your Canonica!”, referring to the Piedmontese sculptor Pietro Canonica, who created mostly institutional works, celebrating or commemorating public figures.
Your great-grandfather was able to go beyond Rome.
Certainly. His works are scattered all over Italy and even abroad. For example, there was a statue of Wolfgang Goethe that was brought to Munich for an exhibition – of which only some sketches are left – and a monument in memory of the British sailors who died in the First World War in Aberystwyth, Wales, with a statue of the Winged Victory over twenty meters high. In the same city, there is also a statue of the future King of England…
Edward VIII, who ruled for less than a year. Rutelli sculpted his portrait at Buckingham Palace when he was Prince of Wales. It was all before he married Wallis Simpson and gave up the throne. Many of his former subjects resented his decision, especially because of the pro-Nazi views the couple seemed to express. That is probably why the statue was decapitated…
Yes, after he abdicated in favor of his brother George VI, in December 1936. The head was later found in a ditch. The stitches from when it was put back on can still be seen on the back of the statue’s neck.
From Palermo to Rome, to the United Kingdom… that twelve-year-old kid on the scaffolding of Palermo’s Teatro Massimo really went places…
Yes, and as I mentioned there is so much more of his work to discover in Italy. People still don’t know many of his sculptures: in Palermo there are a monument of Francesco Crispi, and a bust of Edmondo De Amicis in the English Garden; there is a grand fountain in Monreale and various public monuments all over Sicily; in Rome, the effigy of David Lubin at the entrance of the FAO headquarters, and the busts of Domenico Morelli and Giuseppe Maielli… many more of his works are inside palaces and belong to private collections. Over time, also thanks to my political and cultural engagements, I have had the pleasure of seeing more and more pointed out to me.
It sounds like an invitation to discover a great artist.