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Italy’s Top Conceptual Artist Flips Off High Finance

A giant marble middle finger by Italian art star Maurizio Cattelan is finding a home right in front of the Milan Stock Exchange. But some power brokers are not amused.

Alessandro Barbera

MILAN - Giuseppe Vegas, the president of Italy's securities market regulator Consob, just can't bear the 11-meter Carrara marble sculpture that points towards the temple of Italian Finance, the Milan Stock Exchange. But art is regulated by very different forces.

The "digitus impudicus' ("indecent finger") has a long history. It had a role in The Clouds by the Greek comic playwright Aristophanes; and Roman Emperor Caligula used it to humiliate his subjects. The artist of this marble middle finger, Maurizio Cattelan, called his sculpture L.O.V.E., as in Libertà (Freedom), Odio (Hate), Vendetta (Revenge), Eternità (Eternity).

On Valentine's day, a group of artists adorned the sculpture with a giant engagement ring. For Vegas, it didn't help. While known to have a sharp sense of irony, he reportedly cannot stand the idea that next May -- when he will present Consob's annual report for the first time – he will be photographed, along with Italy's financial and entrepreneurial elite, government ministers, and the President of Republic, under that huge, defiant sculpture flipping the proverbial bird.

So to try to avoid being seen in front of a giant "F-you," Vegas has taken action: he has threatened to relocate his annual report presentation if the Milan city government does not remove the marble finger from Piazza Affari, site of the Stock Exchange.

Over the past 10 years, Consob's annual report has been presented in front of the building. But if the sculpture remains, Vegas has been considering a less embarrassing, and more evocative place: Palazzo delle Stelline (Palace of the Little Stars). It would be the perfect alternative for a man who so values sobriety and respect in public life. Indeed, at the beginning of the 17th century, Palazzo delle Stelline housed the Society of Obedience for nobles and cardinals, as well as rooms for "little stars' -- orphan girls -- that were called so after the former monastery of the Benedictine nuns of Santa Maria della Stella (St. Mary of the Star).

It seems the right place to gather bankers, and to speak about rules, ethics, duty, and responsibility. But it is hard to predict if Vegas's determination will actually convince Milan's mayor, Letizia Moratti, to take down the finger sculpture. Up until now, every criticism on the matter has been ignored. This past January 4, a poll conducted by the financial newspaper Milano Finanza revealed that many bankers oppose the presence of the sculpture. But on the same day, Milan's town hall granted a third extension for the finger to stay in the square, making it all the more permanent.

The sculpture, valued at two million euros, was installed on September 24, 2010. It was only supposed to stay in Piazza Affari for a couple of weeks. Now, it is unlikely that the sculpture will be removed before the end of September. "It is not a finger anymore. It is an open hand to contemporary arts," argues Massimiliano Finazzer Flory, Milan's Councilor for Culture. He added, "The extension of the finger's stay will strengthen the program of summer events."

The management of the Milan Stock Exchange has not officially spoken about the big marble finger that looms outside their windows. Residents of Milan, not surprisingly, are split. The mayor finds herself in the middle, and may be resisting calls to dismantle the sculpture because of a public pledge from Cattelan, one of the world's top-paid and most celebrated conceptual artists. After its stay at the Stock Market was initially extended, he had said, "I will give my sculpture as a gift to the city only if it will be respected. It should stay in Piazza Affari at least 20 years."

Cattelan thinks that the Finger is where it should be, pointing at the right target, flipping off the headquarters of the stock exchange, Italy's singular symbol of globalized finance. If the artist could decide, the sculpture would become the permanent, ironic icon of Piazza Affari, like the Bull on Wall Street. But he may first need the Ok from Vegas, Italy's top financial market regulator. That too is a concept rich with irony.

Read the original article in Italian

photo - (Viola Scintilla)

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