There is a superb prospect from the Forte di Belvedere in Florence. Below lies the jewel of the renaissance: a mass of brick and stone, churches and palaces, walls and towers. At any time this view attracts tourists snapping selfies, Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome looming behind them. But this spring there are other figures on the terrace, too: silent iron bodies. This is the site of Human, an exhibition by Antony Gormley.
When the invitation arrived to show his work in Florence, Gormley confesses, “It was a huge honour, to put it mildly, and a challenge I could not refuse.” For a sculptor this city is, after all, one of the most significant places on earth, the home of Donatello and Michelangelo, Cellini and Giambologna. What Gormley has produced is a sort of personal commentary on Florence, and on the ideas and ideals that it still stands for.
Gormley’s metallic people have colonised the Forte. On the lower terrace, a sequence of figures is arranged in a line – much like those illustrations one used to see of the ascent of man from ape to Homo sapiens. It begins with a man crouched over, face pressed to the ground and progresses though sitting, kneeling and standing. The final sentinel stands, as if to attention, with the city spread out beneath him.
These are components of Critical Mass (1995) which comprises multiple figures in 12 basic postures, all derived from plastic casts of Gormley’s own body. This was the manner in which many of his earlier sculptures were made; in recent years, he has tended instead to use computer scanning and different people as a starting point for his figures (one of his early proposals for Florence called for 100 works based on the physiques of volunteer citizens and placed on the city’s skyline).
On the other side of the Forte’s terrace, a pile of Gormleys are jumbled together like the victims of some disaster. Elsewhere in the fortress, Gormley people are placed here and there. One huddles in the entrance tunnel, like a homeless person imploring passers-by for spare change. Others are “crying” – to use Gormley’s word – against a wall, slumped in corners or sitting idly swinging their legs.
“The idea of the show,” Gormley tells me, “is to ask: what does it mean to be human today?” This question troubled the humanists at the court of Lorenzo the Magnificent. One, Count Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, wrote a celebrated Oration on the Dignity of Man in 1486. Its conclusions were later echoed by Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” This was an ideal that took visible form in Michelangelo’s David.
For Gormley, as for all sculptors, Michelangelo remains a crucial point of reference. He read The Agony and the Ecstasy, Irving Stone’s fictionalised biography of the master, when he was 12, “and that made a huge impression”. But as far as Gormley is concerned, the hopes and aspirations of the Florentine humanists have failed. “Renaissance thinking could be said to be the basis of the Enlightenment that happened over the following centuries. The idea was that through rational principles we would end up not only with a working technology but also with the social mechanisms for justice to happen. But it hasn’t.
“So in this show you have some figures that allude to progress or the perfectibility of man, an idea of evolution towards something better. Then opposite it, I’ve put an abject pile of the same figures, talking about the failure of that view.” Gormley is a pessimist who wants to “call into question what the human project is: us and our habitat that has cost the planet so much”.
Out of all Michelangelo’s marbles he singles out the last, unfinished Rondanini Pietà left in the great man’s studio when he died at the age of 88. The stark and moving carving – of the dead Christ suspended in the arms of Mary – could hardly be further from the triumphant, athletic David. Gormley sees it as a “meditation about life and death, and supporting each other in the inevitability of our demise. The whole thing becomes the question: whose body is it? Who is supporting whom? It becomes about gravity and the inevitable fashion in which all matter falls back to earth.”
He continues: “That’s in my work too: the idea that we are briefly earth above ground, but can’t escape the inevitable return to it. But that means something different in a time of global warming, in which we understand that we are upsetting seasonal time.”
The Forte di Belvedere itself is a symbol of what went wrong with the Florentine renaissance. In the middle ages the city was a republic, endlessly torn by factional quarrels, but birthplace to an astonishing number of outstanding writers, artists and thinkers. In the 16th century – after a siege in which Michelangelo acted as military architect for the Republican forces – the Medici family definitively took over, and cracked down.
This stronghold – constructed in the 1590s for Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’Medici – was one of two built ostensibly to defend the city from, but in reality to menace its inhabitants. From the terrace, Gormley points out, you cannot only contemplate a superb view, you could also if necessary fire at the population below.
Gormley wants the visitors to his exhibition to “feel the power and the paranoia”. But he also appreciates the way the star-shaped bastions and fortifications have been formed out of a steep rise above the Boboli Gardens. “In the way this whole hill has been turned into a sculpture,” Gormley explains. Effectively, he feels, this structure is a piece of late 16th-century land art.
The context, he notes, is half the work – and in this case maybe more. Part of his success as an artist has come, precisely, from inserting his work into unexpected places. The fate of the sculpture, historically, Gormley has pointed out, is that it has lost its home. The statue used to stand on a plinth or in a niche. But now, “It’s like a hermit crab that doesn’t know where it belongs.” A great deal of Gormley’s work has turned on finding new locations for these homeless figures, such as half-immersed in the waves at Crosby beach.
Gormley’s Another Place – comprising 100 naked men spread out along 4km of shore near the Mersey estuary – has been standing in the tides for a decade. Initially, this installation was controversial. None the less, what was intended as a temporary installation has become a permanent feature of the landscape.
This year and next, to mark another anniversary – the 50th birthday of the Landmark Trust – Gormley has conceived a series of works placed on the watery edges of Britain. The trust preserves historic buildings which the public can rent for holidays and short breaks. From these he has chosen four around the coast – a Martello Tower at Aldeburgh, Suffolk, and others in Dorset, western Scotland and Lundy Island – where he will place “body-forms” on the shore or cliff. A fifth will be inland on the bank of a quiet canal in Warwickshire.
Although cast figures – seen in Another Place and on the terrace of the Forte – are what immediately come to mind when Gormley’s name is mentioned, he has produced a wide range of work. The Insiders (1997-2003) series, for instance, was made by reducing the volume of the human body to 30 per cent of its usual mass, while retaining dimensions such as height. The result was to produce spiky, spectral figures of a kind never quite seen before. To take another example, to make Quantum Cloud (1999) at Greenwich, a computer model was used to configure the mass of tetrahedral units into a 30m-high “cloud” in the centre of which the fuzzy form of a body seems to condense.
There is an echo of another Renaissance theme in a further series of works, which are also scattered around the Forte. He has long been fascinated by the idea of reducing the body to a sequence of geometric shapes; “pixilating” is the word he uses. The results suggest the Renaissance belief that all good architecture is derived from human anatomy. But Gormley reverses the process, turning bodies into something like architecture.
What all his sculptures have in common is that they refer to the human body, and – equally important – though at first it was derived from his own, it stands not for a god, ruler, general or saint, but for all of us. Of course, there is a fundamental difference between what Gormley does and what a Renaissance master did. They carved or modelled images of the body. Gormley has worked by casting, or more recently computer-scanning. As a result, he realises “for many people, I suppose I’m not making real art, I’m cheating”. But this goes to one of his basic tenets: “Why invent another body when you’ve got one already? I want something that is evidence of an event that happened in real time to a real body. It could be anybody; it could be you.”
That helps to explain why, despite taking an avowedly despondent view of the human condition, he is one of the most successful exponents of public sculpture in recent times. We are used to the notion that an emblematic building may help to transform the image of a place, but Gormley’s Angel of the North (1998) beside the A1 at Gateshead is one of the few pieces of contemporary art that can claim to have done so (equally, it is, perhaps uniquely for a work of sculpture, marked on maps).
Like all his works, it is not doing anything more than standing there, arms – transformed into aeroplane-like wings – outstretched. “Sculpture,” he believes, “is by its nature still. It’s like a standing stone that marks time and space, commanding us to witness and be witnessed.”
First published in the Daily Telegraph