Italian sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro made a vow in 1953, standing in the Sala Cariatidi before a Picasso, to devote his life to art. In the decades since, his futuristic, geometric sculptures have made him Milan's most renowned sculptor. His work appears to seamlessly blend futurism with a monumental quality that makes it appear as though it rose from the ground millennia ago. This intersection—of old and new, man-made and natural, and as he puts it, "monstrous and pure"—is what makes his sculptures some of the best to ever emerge.
Like a crucible for the Italian city of Milan, the Sala Cariatidi has registered its peaks of glory and its fateful scars. Once the grand ballroom of the region’s medieval rulers, it became a fascist garrison in World War II; its ornate silvered mirrors and stone statues were then firebombed into marred ruins by the Allies. Post-war, the Sala Cariatidi became the largest gallery of the Palazzo Reale, when the entire palace was reborn as Milan’s principal art museum. Only the roof was rebuilt in the former ballroom, leaving the Sala Cariatidi a public specter of war’s ravages, of beauty and civilization tendered to destruction.
In 1953, Arnaldo Pomodoro entered this disfigured room and, profoundly affected as he stood in front of Pablo Picasso’s massive anti-war painting, Guernica, the man who would become Milan’s most renowned modern sculptor determined to tender his life to the pursuit of art. Now, as part of a citywide exhibition, 30 of Pomodoro’s geometric bronze monoliths will occupy the Sala Cariatidi until February 5th. Grouped together, the sculptures, alternately gleaming and eroded, are futuristic in their Euclidean perfection, archaic in their shrine-like monumentalism and their cryptic messages—like an archeological discovery of a society from thousands of years after ours. Colossal spheres and cubes, monumental columns and obelisks, giant disks and wheels crowd the floor, their insides bursting through the fissures in their glossy surfaces to reveal chaotic rows of toothy nodes between machine-like cogs and long-lost cuneiform messages.
“I wanted to cast doubt on the perfection and the symbolism of every absolute form,” the sculptor has said of his works. And as he and I sat together in his Milan studio among some smaller bronze pieces and several towering columns, he gestured towards the largest: “This cylinder is eroded as if by nature, but it’s my hands that have eroded the cylinder,” he said. “My hands, one can imagine, work like nature,” simultaneously conjuring creation and decay, beauty amidst the presence of destruction.
Pomodoro moved to Milan soon after his experience with Guernica, departing his native region of Marche on the Adriatic coast with his brother and fellow artist Giò—both in search of the post-war frenzy that made the metropolis the birthplace of Italy’s modern culture. “Milan is a city that starts things, that accepts new things,” he says, and there he and his brother shared an art studio and frequented Bar Jamaica, where other young artists including Enrico Baj, Ugo Mulas, Piero Manzoni and Ettore Sottsass gathered, along with the more senior Lucio Fontana, who first placed Pomodoro’s work in a momentous Triennale exhibition in 1954.
As a young man, Pomodoro gazed at Brancusi’s idealized sculptures and, enraptured and disturbed by the beauty of their smooth bronze surfaces, decided that “this perfection of the form in our time is inappropriate and it has to be destroyed.” It was 1960 and the devastation of World War II was still pointedly visible across Italy—a fresh wound on the entire country that rendered all ideologies, politics and human enterprise into something suspect, culpable, bruising. They were “years of tension,” Pomodoro said. “Everyone was in search of new values.”
The artist had begun his working life as an engineer surveying public buildings destroyed by the war in the Marche town of Pesaro. Those visions of a crumbled, broken society materialize in the fissures of his immense sculptures—the bronze masses a shattered reference to Brancusi, but also to the outsized and autocratic perfection of the fascist era.
Born in 1926 but still avidly prolific, Pomodoro has cloudy blue eyes and a smooth, sun-blotched pate surrounded by hair a sandy shade of pewter; his speech is trilled with the inflections of an older generation, yet his energy is unbounded as he describes his ideas and speaks of the future. He still works morning till night in his studio—the only change he notes in these later years has been the crisis, compelling him to size his monoliths “slightly smaller to save on metal.” Using cuttlefish and clay to craft full-scale models for casting his behemoths in bronze, he painstakingly hand carves every shard and nook of his furrowed sculptures. “Each little piece has its own vitality, its own significance, its own vibrations,” he said, shaping the imaginary figures with his fingers. “Sculpture animates the material. If the material isn’t animated, it’s just a pile of junk.”
Pomodoro grabbed the world’s attention in 1964, when he was awarded the Venice Biennale’s top sculpture prize for a series of surreally perfect spheres with rough-edged cracks, their insides leaking out those disconcerting ancestral messages.
“They are magic, perfect forms,” he said of the spheres in an interview preceding that triumphant Biennale show. “And I split them apart in order to discover their interior fermentations, mysterious and alive, monstrous and pure. I thus set up a contrast to their shining, polished surfaces, a disruption, a completeness that derives from incompleteness. With the same act, I also free myself from an absolute form. I destroy it.”
Seated in an armchair in his studio, Pomodoro described his search: “Obviously, I want to see the energy inside the shape,” he said, as he pulled at the air with his hands, plumbing interiors visible only to himself. The entrails of the sculptures expose a deeper, darker reality beneath the lustrous exteriors, but they also permit a duality in a single sculpture, uniting the cycle of creation and destruction in “zones of active contradiction,” as he has said: the erosion of perfect shapes as existential commentary on post-war humanity.
The exhibition’s catalog calls Pomodoro a “creator of a universal language,” and in the teeming rows unfurling in his sculptures’ crevices, messages resonate but evade clear symbolism—alluding abstractly to the long-lost alphabets of the Hittites, Sumerians and Ancient Egyptians, and to monuments dense with storytelling like Trajan’s Column and Ghiberti’s bronze doors for the Florence Duomo. But Pomodoro’s is an indecipherable story told without figures, a story for every human witnessing the acute cycles of nature and civilization, of birth, growth and death.
Milan’s exhibition, an homage to the maestro at 90, encompasses his wide range of work—sculpture, bas-relief, his visionary architecture and theater sets—but a single message repeats, if obliquely, throughout. “It’s the mystery of the internal,” he says, as clanging church bells near his studio signaled the falling of evening. “No one really knows what is inside the earth, or even our own heads, but I would love to find out.”
Photography:Rossano B. Maniscalchi/Getty Images