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. diana says:

    I draw and sometimes sculpt horses and am searching for wider context and exploring why I am fascinated by them. I did not know much about Marini and thank you for your excellent post which makes his identification with the horse and rider theme and its changing meaning so clear.

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