Naples Police Arrests Unhoused Man Suspected of Setting Fire to Artwork

A suspected arson attack in Naples destroyed a work from Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Venus of the Rags (1967–1974) series yesterday, Wednesday, July 12. The piece was unveiled two weeks ago in the city’s central Piazza Municipio as part of a city-wide initiative to bring art into public spaces.

Italian police announced last night that they arrested a 32-year-old unhoused man in connection with the incident. The authorities identified the suspect through security footage and traced him to a soup kitchen.

Pistoletto is one of Italy’s most famous contemporary artists, and iterations of “Venus of the Rags” are on view in museums worldwide. The nearly 23-foot-high artwork depicts the Ancient Roman goddess of love and beauty picking through a heap of fabric scraps, with only her back visible to the viewer. Pistoletto was a leading member of the late 1960s and early 1970s Arte Povera (“impoverished art“) movement, which rejected traditional mediums and offered anti-establishment commentary on Italy’s reigning industrial and political powers. Arte Povera emerged alongside student protests in the nation, and Pistoletto has described the series as a statement on consumerism.

The blaze on Wednesday melted the polyurethane statue and incinerated the pile of rags, reducing the avant-garde installation to a burnt metal frame. In an interview with Italy’s Corriere Della Sera newspaper, the 90-year-old artist said that “the world is going up in flames anyway.”

“The same spirits that are waging war are the ones that set the Venus ablaze,” Pistoletto told the paper. He also posited a more optimistic view, explaining that Venus of the Rags “calls for regeneration, on the necessity to find a balance and harmony between two minds that are represented on the one hand by beauty, and on the other by consummate consumerism, a disaster.”

Naples Mayor Gaetano Manfredi said in a statement that the local government would reinstate Pistoletto’s work, and fundraisers are circulating online to gather financial support for the project.

Online, some commentators are pointing out the irony of raising money for the rebuilding of a sculpture that is suspected to have been destroyed by an unhoused person.

“Cherry on the cake: Instead of organizing a fundraiser to buy clothes for the unhoused man who burned it to put his desperate situation out of sight, we raise funds for ‘poor’ Pistoletto to do it again,” one user Tweeted.

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