A vandal in Naples burned down a recently installed artwork by one of Italy’s most famous living artists, prompting outrage among residents along with a pledge by city officials that the piece would be replaced with a new version.
Just before dawn on Wednesday, a vandal set fire to a monumental version of Michelangelo Pistoletto’s “Venus of the Rags,” which had been inaugurated in a square in front of City Hall two weeks ago. It is a seminal work by the artist, a protagonist of Arte Povera, or “poor art,” the Italian avant-garde movement that emerged in the 1960s and often uses humble materials.
The nearly 23-foot-high work consisting of an oversized statue of a neoclassical Venus pressing lightly against a mound of bright, discarded clothing, burned quickly, the flames fueled by the art materials — and by temperatures so hot that the Venus, crafted from expanded polyethylene, melted. After the flames were extinguished, all that was left was the artwork’s enormous metallic frame, and mounds of ashes.
“We’ve lost the opportunity to show that we are a European city,” said Antonio De Iesu, the city council member with oversight of the police. “It’s done tremendous damage to the image of Naples.”
The work was unveiled on June 28 in a recently completed piazza between the port and the city center that for some two decades was a cacophonous construction site. It is one of three artworks at the core of a project funded by City Hall and meant to bring attention to little known areas of the city center, or, in the case of the Pistoletto work, to “show one of the most symbolic, most central places in the city in a different light,” said Vincenzo Trione, the curator of the project.
The artwork had become a selfie magnet, Mr. Trione said, and residents and tourists alike had braved the summer heat to see the work, which was scheduled to remain in the square until December.
But not everyone was so enthusiastic about the art. After the fire, some turned to social media to release their inner critic. “The venus of rags was so ugly that she set fire to herself,” wrote Twitter user Beata Scritta a Matita, just one variation of some of the good-riddance comments.
Mr. Pistoletto said Wednesday he was “appalled” and surprised by the attack. In his view, the work juxtaposed two apparently contrasting elements — classical beauty and discarded clothing — to bring them together and create harmony and regeneration.
The artist, who turned 90 last month, created the first iteration of this work in 1967, and it has been exhibited in many museums and countries since.
That the work in Naples was “of monumental proportions,” and positioned in a public place, in front of City Hall — a point of “tension,” the artist said — might help explain the attention it got, good and bad. But the artist said violent destruction was the last thing he had expected.
Danilo Eccher, the curator of an exhibition of Mr. Pistoletto’s work currently showing in Rome — which includes a version of “Venus of the Rags” — said that as far as he knew, it was the first case of vandalism against any iteration of the work.
“Pistoletto’s works are always acclaimed and recognized as great works of art, it’s never been a problem,” Mr. Eccher said. But, he added, public art was something else. “There is always an element of risk from the fact that it is placed within a social context and not behind the protective filter of a museum or gallery,” he said.
Still, Naples has a generally respectful relationship with contemporary art.
“Naples has always been culturally open and receptive,” said Lia Rumma, the owner of a contemporary art gallery in Naples. “It is a complex city, but it is not apathetic or indifferent, even in this gesture,” she said.
On Wednesday evening, officials at Naples City Hall said a homeless man in his early 30s had been detained on suspicion of having set the fire. The police had examined the recordings of video cameras in the square, which “made it possible to identify the likely perpetrator and track him down in a soup kitchen,” according to a statement.
The city’s mayor, Gaetano Manfredi, told reporters at the scene of the blaze on Wednesday morning that the installation was “a great symbol of regeneration,” representing “a new start of society.” It “cannot be stopped by vandalism or violence.” He said the installation would be remade.
Mr. Pistoletto said he “would be happy to be able to remake it, also to show that good things are not lost, that good initiatives are not lost.”