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Jeff Koons takes on the Old Masters in Florence

29 September 2015

‘My eyes are out of stalks’, an incredulous Jeff Koons revealed to me as guests wandered between the stands of the Old Master dealers at the gala opening of the Biennale Internazionale dell’Antiquariato at the Palazzo Corsini in Florence on 24 September. He is, after all, a renowned collector of Old Master paintings and sculpture. When I asked him about his own three-metre high sculpture, Pluto and Proserpina, which was to take its place on a specially erected plinth outside the Palazzo Vecchio at midnight, he smiled: ‘I haven’t seen it yet, although I have a pretty good idea of what it is going to look like from the computer images. I am excited.’

Koons's 'Pluto and Proserpina' joins Michelangelo's 'David' outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.

Koons’s ‘Pluto and Proserpina’ joins Michelangelo’s ‘David’ outside the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Photo: Lorenzo Valloriani

The following morning, in the Palazzo Vecchio’s grand Sala dell’Udienza, the artist was presented with the keys to the city, following an elegant speech by the city’s 39-year-old mayor, Dario Nardella. All guests were then ushered through to the adjoining Sala dei Gigli where the 2013 Gazing Ball (Barberini Faun) – a second Koons piece, also selected by the artist – is on show until 28 December. The bright blue reflective sphere placed on this plaster cast of the celebrated erotic antiquity mirrors not only its viewers, but also Donatello’s monumental bronze masterpiece Judith and Holofernes as well as Ghirlandaio frescoes nearby. Koons is nothing if not fearless to invite comparison with the greatest of all Renaissance artists.

Dario Nardella, Jeff Koons, Fabrizio Moretti and Sergio Risaliti in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.

Dario Nardella, Jeff Koons, Fabrizio Moretti and Sergio Risaliti in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. Photo: Emiliano Cribari

Outside, the greeny-gold aluminium Pluto and Proserpina – which Koons based on Bernini’s Rape of Proserpina – stands between copies of Donatello’s bronze Judith and Michelangelo’s marble David, the figures’ dazzling polished contours almost liquefying in the Florentine sunshine. It is the first time in nearly 500 years that an original sculpture of this monumental scale has been placed in front of Florence’s town hall. ‘After 500 years, the hour of cultural courage has struck,’ the mayor proclaimed of an initiative that may also be seen as a reflection of his desire to propel this most conservative of cities firmly into the 21st century. Revealingly, the exhibition – curated by Sergio Risaliti – was facilitated and largely funded by the Tuscan Fabrizio Moretti, the 39-year-old London and New York-based art dealer who has re-energised this year’s Biennale as its new Secretary General.

Nardella talked of the desire ‘to start a dialogue between centuries and cultures, to find out what happens…when contemporary art is compared, through a considered judgment and an open mind, to the glorious heritage of the past.’ Some of his guests, however, were even displeased at receiving an invitation in English in honour of the artist, and not all cared for Koons’s cultural ‘provocation’. ‘If it were any more ridiculous, it would kill you’, one viewer commented to La Republicca Firenze – but a more positive view seemed to prevail. Commented another: ‘Even if I didn’t like it, I think Florence should be open to new cultural experiences and shouldn’t be a museum city but alive and innovative. I think our forebears were more open-minded than many Florentines of today.’

(2013), Jeff Koons, in the Palazzo Vecchio.

Gazing Ball (Barberini Faun) (2013), Jeff Koons, in the Palazzo Vecchio. Photo: Pietro Savorelli

‘Jeff Koons in Florence’ is at the Palazzo Vecchio, until 28 December. The Biennale Internazionale dell’Antiquariato is at the Palazzo Corsini until 4 October (read our preview here).