I’m just back from a great vacation in Italy, and one of the highlights of the trip
was the Marino Marini Museum in Florence. Marini is the only artist to have an entire museum dedicated to his work in the city. It is located in what was one of the oldest churches in Florence, San Pancrazio, and opened in 1988. Hardly anyone seems to go there. A guide I know said no one has ever asked her to go there, and two Italian friends of mine, both in art related fields, didn’t even know it was there. Even more unusual, in a city that venerates the old and eschews anything modern, the interior of the museum was redone in the modern idiom-steel, glass, and concrete. Not only is it a gorgeous space, but the collection is fabulous. And Marini, along with Henry Moore, are my two favorite modern sculptors.

Marini was born in 1901, and was trained first as a painter, in Florence, at the famous Academia di Belle Arti. However, rather than draw his inspiration from the Renaissance and classical sculpture and painting, he was drawn to the Etruscan, pre-Roman style. He considered it more direct and honest. His own style his a highly unique and original blend of the ancient and the modern. Although he continued painting and drawing throughout his career, sculpture by the late 1920′s became his preferred medium. What is so unique about his oeuvre, is that he primarily focused on only three icongraphic images. His most famous was was the horse and rider (or knight). The other two were “Pomonas” or single figures, primarily female, earth mother type forms, and circus-acrobat figures, that also included pugilists. He also did quite a few portaits, most notably of famous artists like Oskar Kokoschka, Mies Van Der Rohe,  Igor Stravinsky and Jean Arp, all of whom sat for him.

The image, however, that preocupied him the most was the horse and rider. These evolved from a fairly classical pose that implied a dignity, calm and balance between horse and rider, to an increasingly strained, thrashing, even tortured relationship where the two have lost all semblance of harmony together as the beast strains in the torment of what seems an existential agony. Here are some examples of this evolution as taken by my wife and I on our visit there.

“Little by little, my horses become more restless, their riders less and less able to control them. Man and beast are both overcome by a catastrophe much like those that struck Sodom and Pompeii.” Marini was profoundly effected by the insanity and cruelty exhibited in both World Wars. He spent several years in Switzerland during WWII, rather than be engulfed by the storm into which his beloved homeland had fallen.

“If you look back on all my equestrian figures of the past twelve years, you will notice that the rider is each time less in control of his mount, and that the latter is increasingly more wild in its terror, but frozen stiff, rather than rearing or running away. This is because I feel that we are on the eve of the end of a whole world…”

” In Antiquity, one always thought that the man on horseback was a public figure destined to lead and command. Today, we have a more tragic sense of things, an idea of destructineness so acute that my last sculptural elements of man on horseback were reduced to disconnected, free forms.”

” Everything must be left at the level of infinite meaning.The idea behind The Miracles is that of their own destruction. It is a fiery idea, the poem of a rider who, at a certain point, destroys himself. Like Icarus, he wants to fly to the heavens, but he is as uneasy there as he has been on the earth. He wants to pierce the earth’s crust or even get out into space. He cannot be fulfilled among other men, who are falsely fulfilled. He tries to escape, and goes away or ends up destroying himself.”

Marini, despite his despair at the state of the world and it’s political direction, as well as his tapping into the existential feeling of the times, apparently had a keen sense of humor, and though serious, was personally quite warm. We see something of the other side of him in his “Pomonas.”

One can clearly see the different sides of Marini’s impulse, on the one hand, to engage in an ideal generalization of form, and on the other hand, a brutal, expressive exageration, in these two portraits. One is based, I believe, on his wife, the other a portrait of the famed German Expressionist painter, Oskar Kokoschka.

Marino Marini was a complex man and artist. He yearned for a an idealized, symbolic world that celebrated the best of the human spirit, but was also deeply aware of, and effected by, the bleakest horrors and deepest loneliness this world of flesh has to offer. His work for me, is among the most moving I have ever seen.



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  1. kathy says:

    What a surprise and total delight this museum was. As David mentioned, it’s not a popular attraction in Florence at all, and we were virtually alone in this gorgeous space with spectacular art. Quite a contrast to the very overcrowded and tiresome Uffizi Gallery. Every Marini piece was spectacular, nothing second rate, and the architecture was perfect. I could move in there happily. He’s also one of my favorite sculptors as well – so it was really a perfect visit.

  2. David Leeds says:

    I was shocked as well by the Uffizi. I hadn’t been there in forty years. What a bad place to see art. And I must, say, although it maybe controversial, other than a dozen or so great pieces, it is filled with material that does not move me.

  3. David Leeds says:

    The Academia, however is another story. That will be my next post.

  4. Helen says:

    Really enjoyed the post and seeing the work. Thanks!

  5. David,
    thanks for this post…even though I am one of the people who knew about the museum and visited it more than once, I was surprised and moved by your comments. Some years back I designed a little restaurant across the street and would stop by every so often.

    • David Leeds says:

      You are definitely not one of those people!
      Nor are you in an “arts related” profession.
      You are an artist for sure.
      I’ll fill you in more by message.
      Loved seeing you and Bethanie.

  6. David, this artist is so interesting, and what a discovery for you to make in Florence, an entire museum devoted to his art. I was fascinated by his reaction to the horror of the two world wars and how it was expressed in his sculpture. For some reason lately I am fascinated by artists, writers especially, creating art that was influenced by the big wars, and this was an artist I had not heard of. Thank you for sharing your great discovery in Florence. And welcome home!

    • David Leeds says:

      It was really such a treat to find this museum. I made a decision to only use photos we took, so his stylistic arc was maybe not as well documented as i might have liked. but I’m glad to hear from you that it comes through anyway. When you were talking about writers reactions to big wars, I immediately thought of Pat Barker. Do you know her novels .It’s contemporary work, looking back, but she has an unusual and affecting way of dealing with those times. English, of course. I can’t thank you enough, again, for your wonderful guest post! …and why aren’t we all living in either Italy, London, or Paris…?

  7. metscan says:

    Thank you for showing us this museum and the art it contained.
    To be honest, ( carrying my strength to say this ), I don´t like the horse, one of the most beautiful creatures in animal kingdom, worked out in a way like in these pictures.
    Ok, there is a tale behind this all, but the statues don´t appeal to me.
    I´m happy to read that your vacation was a successful and an inspirational one : )!

    • David Leeds says:

      Mette, I remember from talking before that this style didn’t appeal to you. It’s definitely an abstracted aesthetic that can be uncomfortable at times. I certainly do agree about the horse being one of the most beautiful creatures ever created. I think the Michaelangelo in a couple of days will be more to your taste. All best.

  8. Ida says:

    I believe in the WW1 over a million horses were killed and the British army shot theirs’ at Dunkirk before the evacuation.

    Grim times of which MM capture the ethos in his sculptures.

    Pleased you both had such an interesting holiday. Ida

  9. Ana Marini says:

    Thank You so much for posting this review. I have been learning about his work for years, but when I had the chance to see it in the museum, I wondered the same thing, how come this place is not advertised as one of the gems of Florence? At the time I purchased a wonderful book that I browse through very often.

  10. such sensitive emotional and powerful feeings . i will never look at a stone or a rock the same way thank you for shareing these.

    • David Leeds says:

      I think it’s extremely difficult, Margaret, to combine that amount of power and sensitivity in the same piece. It’s one of his unique qualities, I believe. Glad you do too.

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Sculptor, painter, poet. Currently living in Los Angeles and Martha's Vineyard