The Villa Borghese gardens, a mile or so easy walk northwest of the centre of Rome, houses the Museo Pietro Canonica. This photo is of two sculptures made by Pietro Canonica that are displayed together as a “Monument to the Humble Mule and Alpino”. Alpino refers to a member of Italy’s elite mountain infantry – the Alpini.
Pietro Canonica was an Italian sculptor, painter and composer who died in 1959. He lived the last 20 years of his life in the Villa Borghese under an agreement where he would donate all of his works to the city of Rome on his death. A fire devastated the villa in 1919, and it was abandoned. Pietro and his wife repaired the building, decorating the living quarters in a sophisticated, eccentric style that remains today, much as they left it.
As an artist, Pietro Canonica was prolific. Technically skilled in pen, paint, stone and metal, he worked in the ground floor studio, which remains intact. He had an abiding interest in music, working as a composer as well as a visual artist. Canonica is regarded as a “fin de siècle” artist. He was deeply committed to the art style of the late 19th century, which embraced sophistication, escapism, extreme aestheticism, world-weariness, and fashionable despair. The fin de siècle movement itself was controversial, often being cited as a significant influence on the rise of fascism.
The bronze mule – named Scudela – was created in the 1940s and donated to the Alpini Regiment. The heroic figure of the Alpino soldier was cast in the 1950s when they were displayed together for the first time in front of the Museo Pietro Canonica.
Throughout Europe, public parks contain many sculptures portraying war. Some are celebratory like this one, while others speak of the horrors of war and the horrid effects it has on the morality of humanity. One sculpture I found in a small German spa town shows two starving, thirsty soldiers locked in a deathly embrace, fighting over the last drops of water from a canteen. Both soldiers were German.
The original photograph of Scudela and the Alpino was quite dull. Shot on an overcast day, it conveys no intensity or threat. Looking at the scene, I could imagine the alpine setting during the war, the poor mule struggling with a massive canon down a steeply sloping mountainside and the infantryman alert to dangers on every side.
So the rather obvious work done on the photograph tries to instil some of that into an otherwise very bland picture. Was it worth the effort? Probably not, but I am content enough with the outcome.
Is it a valid use of photography? Again, probably not, as the rather obvious technique seems a little cheap and clumsy. However, every attempt to go back closer to the original to soften off the technique resulted in an even less satisfactory image.
So it is what it is. For me, it captures what I imagined as I walked about the two sculptures in the Borghese gardens; that awful fascination of war, with life under threat, with injury a chance encounter away. A slip. A careless footfall, the snapping of a twig, maybe bringing a projectile of death from an alert enemy.