AP Interview: Pope sculptor gets second chance

ROME (AP) - He was pilloried by the Vatican for creating a sculpture of Pope John Paul II that some mockingly say looks more like Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini than the beloved late pontiff. Now artist Oliviero Rainaldi has a chance at redemption.

The sculptor recently agreed to carry out changes decided upon by a committee of art experts, culture officials and scholars.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Rainaldi accepted the bad press and said it was all part of the work of being an artist.

“Even Michelangelo was criticized” for his work in the Sistine Chapel, the sculptor told The Associated Press in an interview in his studio in a converted pasta factory in Rome.

“Criticism is inevitable.”

The unveiling last spring of the nearly 5-meter (16-foot) tall bronze outside the city’s main train station bewildered the public and triggered salvos of sarcasm from the Vatican’s art reviewer _ prompting Mayor Gianni Alemanno to appoint the committee.

The panel “suggested that a chance be given to the artist … to make it, as much as possible, similar to the original agreement,” Francesco Buranelli, a committee member and a top Vatican arts official told AP Television News in an interview.

Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, the Holy See’s usually restrained chronicle, critic Sandro Barbagallo lamented after the statue’s unveiling that it looked like a “bomb” had landed and likened the cloak the pope is depicted as holding open to a “sentry box.”

That few could recognize it as honoring John Paul was a “sin,” Barbagallo declared.

Asked what he tried to express in the work, Rainaldi told the AP the wide-open cloak was “a symbol of opening, of knocking down walls.”

John Paul “donated himself, emptied himself” in the name of dialogue, Rainaldi said in explaining the gaping space that the Vatican critic lambasted as “a gash.”

But the minimalist treatment of the statue’s roundish, bald head leads many passers-by to shake their heads as they wonder whom it depicts.

Mussolini?” ventured Pavel Michenko, from Moldova, who stopped to scrutinize the sculpture as commuters rushed to catch trains, taxis whizzed by and buses belched fumes into the early autumn air.

“(Former Soviet leader Nikita) Khrushchev?” suggested Russian visitor Dimitry Filimonov, when prodded to hazard a guess after being told it represented a historical figure.

Despite agreeing to changes, Rainaldi said the “makeover” on the 4-ton sculpture will be modest, saying a drastic rework is something he “couldn’t contemplate.”

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