The artist joins Document to dissect ‘VITA DULCIS,’ his exhibition of multimedia fantasias decontextualizing antiquity for modern contexts

What constitutes the “classical” in its various modes of cultural production, if not the hypostatized fiction of a Golden Age, apogee, or timeless ideal? Of the wholesale creation and imposition of a universalizing norm? What are the stakes of classicism in a moment when “normality” itself seems like a distant memory? VITA DULCIS, Francesco Vezzoli’s dazzling new show at Rome’s Palazzo delle Esposizioni, manages to confront the legacy of the classical head-on by making its familiarity strange or uncanny, breathing new life into its dusty, changeless repose. His polychromatic, multimedia fantasias offer a high-camp riposte to Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s famous praise of the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” of ancient marbles, and their pristine whiteness in 18th-century aesthetic theory. Vezzoli’s antiquity—presented through his own works, major loans from prestigious collections, and scenographic tableaux of films set in ancient Rome—is shot through with color, sex, and filth: the grimy patina of the passions, not the idealized plane of reason.

It would be a mistake to confuse Vezzoli’s recontextualization of the classical with its decontextualization. In his 2004 essay “The Future of the Classical,” Salvatore Settis takes aim at the depthlessness of postmodernism—not out of some reactionary, hidebound conservativism, but rather for the way it contributes to a state of historical amnesia: “The spread of superficial and persistent ‘classical’ references (particularly apparent in advertising and the cinema) is not preventing the expulsion of classical culture from our shared cultural horizon. Quite the opposite, it is accentuating and accelerating it. Indeed, it is legitimizing the phenomenon, because it tends to conceal it.” Settis was prescient, for by the early-2010s, classical sculpture became ubiquitous in the Tumblr aesthetics of vaporwave, which displaced the sensuous materiality of the melancholic ruin in favor of the glitchy virtuality of the digital artifact. Originally hailed as an ironic form of techno-capitalist critique, vaporwave would go on to attract its share of criticism for its deeply ambiguous relationship to the precarity of consumer capitalism in the wake of the global financial crisis. It was only a matter of time before the aesthetic, gutted of any historical dimension, was co-opted by neo-fascists.

Vezzoli’s engagement with the classical, by contrast, is defined by a vertiginous clash between the seemingly eternal or static past on the one hand, and the ceaseless flux of the present on the other. It’s no coincidence the artist has worked closely with the world of fashion: The disciplines share a keen intuition for the moment, inflected with a deep historical imagination and a mischievous sense of play. In this sense, Vezzoli is current, as defined by the philosopher Giorgio Agamben: “Only he who perceives the indices and signatures of the archaic in the most modern and recent can be contemporary.”

Patrick Crowley: Francesco, could you tell me more about how the idea for this exhibition came about? I know you went to the Palazzo Massimo, the Baths of Diocletian, and the Palazzo Altemps in Rome. Given the tremendous wealth of those collections, how did you begin to make selections and develop the themes?

Francesco Vezzoli: We went through the galleries of the museum, and then we went into storage. The process was very emotional and, at the same time, kind of terrifying. Maybe it’s me, maybe it’s my obsession with archaeology, but it’s incredible—you’re in this vault with treasures on the shelves as if they were books. It’s like the Cave of Wonders in Aladdin, and you don’t know what to choose. You feel like, Oh my god, I’m really discovering something, because the storage deposit is supposedly for less precious objects. But for me, they are equally important pieces.

The idea was to give value rather than search for the perfect piece. For me, a scratch or a missing arm or nose is not something that deprives a piece of quality; it adds to the narrative. This [exhibition] could almost be called the Museum of Forgotten Beauty. We’ve been able to borrow the famous Antinous from the Palazzo Altemps, and that has a story: It’s a mixture of pieces from different periods. This approach to archaeology is not just to look for the perfect piece, but to look at its history.

Patrick: You’ve made many of your other works—including many of the pieces included in this show—from actual antiquities you’ve purchased on the market.

Francesco: Yes. I prefer to buy at auctions, because it’s starting the process in a way that already has history. I think the auction house is superior to buying from an antiquarian, however reliable he may be, since auction houses are at least obliged to present the provenance.

Patrick: Right. With things that you buy on the market, you can modify them however you like for the work you’re going to make. But obviously, with the selection of objects at the museum, that’s not on the table. I’m curious what that difference is like for you—between purchasing antiquities that become legally and creatively yours, and selecting antiquities to put in dialogue with other works that you’ve made.

Francesco: Well, the approach is very different. On one side, I’m thinking about myself and my capacity for intervention. When I look at these pieces, I think about how far my creativity can reach. In the case of the choice of the ancient objects, I think more about the community—you know, about who will come and look at them.

Patrick: Have you ever gotten pushback?

Francesco: I’ve been warned by everyone: people in the contemporary art world, lawyers. But never somebody from the archaeological world, which surprises me. I do believe that they understand that my passion is genuine, and that it’s a form of love. I love in a different way [from how] they love, too, so, they don’t feel competition. I think they feel a sort of empathy towards me, and I’m not asking them for legal or intellectual approval.

“Sometimes, to give the sense of history, you need to use the sense of reality rather than of the academy. Sometimes, being an academic is very important. But it’s good if there’s somebody who is not academic, who can [show] how dirty and deceiving and complicated the past was—just like the time we live in.”

Patrick: That’s refreshing, because what really strikes me about your work is this productive tension—where it’s so contemporary and historical at the same time. Like how, even in the 17th century, collectors were making baroque pastiches of ancient sculpture by piecing together disparate fragments and creating something new.

I think the first work I ever saw of yours was Trailer for a Remake of Gore Vidal’s Caligula (2005)—this brilliant idea for a trailer for a movie that doesn’t exist, that’s camp revisionist history. Can you say more about cinema in relation to your work? Even when film isn’t explicitly present, it feels like this ghost that’s haunting it in the background.

Francesco: I can try and sum it up in one answer. All the movies we’ve chosen to exhibit in the show reflect how the Roman Empire was perceived in 1913, in 1933, in 1953, in 1973, in 2003, and in 2013. It’s basically reading a period through its reflection in modernity. So Derek Jarman is making a movie spoken [entirely] in Latin, giving a very abstract interpretation of Rome. Equally, Stanley Kubrick—with Spartacus—is giving a more oblique, complex, and layered interpretation compared to Ben-Hur, for instance. And then you go all the way to Fellini, probably the first one queering the classical, but he does it in a way that, today, would probably be judged as politically incorrect. As an Italian artist, you [must face] the interpretation that Fellini makes of antiquity; it’s something that cannot be separated, one of the pillars of postwar Italian culture.

So there you go. My answer is that the beauty of choosing these movies is [that you walk] through the chronology of interpretation. It’s basically like taking a major, major work of art—possibly very, very old—and reading, at the same time, 10 books from 10 different centuries that give an interpretation of these artifacts. Does that make sense?

Patrick: Yes, it does. But the medium specificity of cinema is interesting there, too. So much of your work delights in queering time–in exposing and dismantling forms of “chrononormativity.” At the same time, so much contemporary art that’s trafficking in the classical gets trapped in the iconography of the classical, right? Of a set of motifs or gestures. But the way you’re talking about it is more than reception history.

Francesco: Yeah—it’s conceptual. I cannot be a winner if I go into a confrontation with an archaeologist. I cannot be a winner if, as an artist, I try to sculpt something as perfect as the Venus de Milo. I can bring my contribution through a conceptual reading.

Patrick: Another aspect that touches on this conceptual approach is your use of color. I saw your Teatro Romano show at MoMA PS1 in 2015. If I’m remembering correctly, you had a team of conservators working with Professor Clemente Marconi from NYU, examining those pieces for traces of pigment. You seemed to have a strong interest in the science of conservation—or, at least, the rhetoric of scientificity. I’m interested in how you negotiate the line between archaeology and conservation on one hand, and the trajectory of where your art is going on the other.

Francesco: The trajectory is always to keep changing. For instance, with Teatro Romano, we tried to imagine what the original colors could have been. Then I moved on to painting a few of them, the way I thought they would have been painted. One was glazed like porcelain; another was painted like the face of Joan Crawford—because this ancient Roman face reminded me of her. I liked the idea that, by coloring an ancient face, she could become a Hollywood icon. And then I moved on to sculpture, where the issue of color was no longer there. It became more about the combination of contemporary and ancient elements, which was somehow less invasive from the point of view of the historian: You can dismantle my sculpture, and the piece from antiquity would still be protected.

Patrick: Part of what I love about that Joan Crawford piece is the way that you’re thinking about color, even if you’re doing it somewhat ironically, through black-and-white. Classical archaeologists such as Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann have been creating colorful reconstructions—themselves arguably works of contemporary art—in major museum exhibitions to educate the public, through a kind of scientific discourse about the ‘correct’ way of seeing something. You’re using a more speculative, artistic imagination.

Francesco: Yes. In the show, there is the head of a priest that I bought at auction. I painted it to look like it’s from Fellini’s Satyricon. I’m taking liberties; I’m abusing my freedom. But that’s the nature of my experiment.

Patrick: It’s so interesting to think about polychromy not just from a scientific point of view, but also as something akin to cosmetics and drag—that it is all about artifice. Of course, there’s this whole misogynist discourse, even in antiquity, that talks about cosmetics as lying and deception, but also as beautification, ornamentation, and imagination.

Francesco: Sometimes, to give the sense of history, you need to use the sense of reality rather than of the academy. Sometimes, being an academic is very important. But it’s good if there’s somebody who is not academic, who can [show] how dirty and deceiving and complicated the past was—just like the time we live in. But what was exceptional for me, on an emotional level, was that, for the first time, it was the authorities—who normally should be worried about me—giving me the keys to their safety boxes.

Patrick: How have you won over the hearts and minds of classical archaeologists, who can be very traditional? And I don’t mean just within Italy, of course.

Francesco: My motto is, Never cross boundaries. Always be aware that you are not trying to [replace] the archaeologists. You are just doing another job. If the person who is in dialogue with you acknowledges your emotional interest and passion, they will accept you.

The more cultural debate goes on, the more we learn that not everybody is entitled to talk about everything; we know that by now. Obviously, being Italian and having this enormous heritage, I was given the key to make a new narrative of that. In this sense, the show is political—not in an ideological sense, but political because somebody [else] has been given the freedom.

VITA DULCIS is on view at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni through August 27.