Fallen angels and mythical beasts have taken up residence at Pompeii, the ancient Roman town destroyed by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. A headless centaur guards the Forum. Icarus, broken and battered, his bronze arms cut off at the elbow, lies in the public center, where people once sold vegetables and traded goods, while his father, Daedelus, stands tall among the remains of the Temple of Venus, keeping an eye on the still-active volcano.
A first-time visitor to Pompeii could easily assume the statues had always been there—like Icarus, too, suffocated alongside the city's 2,000 residents when Vesuvius blanketed the town in ash and poisonous gas. But the monumental bronze works, by the late Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj, just arrived in May. This was so small feat—trucks are not allowed on the ruins, so the sculptures were dropped into place by 75-meter-high cranes—but it was one Mitoraj always hoped would happen. Luca Pizzi, his longtime assistant who organized the exhibit, said Mitoraj, who died in 2014 at the age of 70, dreamed of showing his work at Pompeii.
It couldn't be a better setting. Antiquity always informed Mitoraj's work. Born in Germany and raised in Poland, Mitoraj was obsessed with Greek and Roman art, and set up his studio in Pietrasanta, Italy, where Michelangelo worked 500 years before him. Art critics loved the "broken beauty" of his sculptures which are as modern as they are classical. "The idea of beauty is ambiguous, a double-edged sword that can easily hurt you, causing pain and torture," Mitoraj once said. "My art is an example of this dichotomy: mesmerizing perfection attached to corrupted imperfection."
"The idea of beauty is ambiguous, a double-edged sword that can easily hurt you, causing pain and torture."
Walking along the crumbling streets of Pompeii, and up the steps of the surprisingly well-preserved amphitheaters, and inside the public baths with their ornate frescos is an eerie, powerful experience. Though there are only three preserved bodies on display, death is everywhere. And Mitoraj's broken torsos and fragmented faces make it feel even more ghostly, like you should tiptoe on the marble steps so as not to awaken someone—or something. But, at the same time, they help you see a strange beauty in destruction. As Pliny the Elder, the Roman philosopher who died during the eruption of Vesuvius, wrote: "From the end spring new beginnings."