The Planets

dal 1 maggio al 14 giugno 2009 Casa Cima Via Cime, 24 – Conegliano

The Planets. Maurizio D’Agostini’s cosmic invention 

I was fortunate enough to meet Maurizio D’Agostini at his home/atelier at Costozza dei Berici, a very pleasant country village located just a few miles outside Vicenza. This quite surprising, ‘separate’ little world is close to the rock faces at Lumignano, where free-climbing enthusiasts often come to practice their adventurous sport. 

D’Agostini’s country retreat lies beneath the gentle slopes of nearby hills covered in olive groves and vineyards, where one will notice the curious presence of stone washing-troughs of a former age that have never been removed and the country homes of wealthy land-owners. With its  variety of architectural inventions and scenic views, the rural setting of this locus amoenus, which for some might trigger associations with ‘twilight’ atmospheres conjured up by the poetry of the withdrawing and reserved Guido Gozzano, offers an unexpected ‘counter-melody’ to nearby and more familiar examples of the grand Palladian style. 

This is where D’Agostini lives and works, surrounded by the fruits of his work and various documents that bear witness to decades of activity in the world of art, starting from the early years of his apprenticeship and continuing through to later periods when he worked as a master goldsmith, engraver, promoter of theatrical and cultural events and, in particular, as a sculptor. 

Maurizio D’Agostini has a complex personality, which, also in deference to the modern Lord of his zodiacal sun sign, we might reasonably define as ‘uranic’. Perhaps owing to such subtle influences he is capable of conjuring up ideas that are innovative with respect to current trends and norms but in this artist there is also the capacity to evolve in a very gradual manner. It is a personality in which the patient, silent research of the artisan is tempered by an enthusiastic openness towards the quality of the times and the various experiences of his life. We also find confirmation of this attitude in his many journeys in search of inspiration to some of the remotest places on Earth still imbued with the presence of mysterious energies of bygone ages, in his travels through Europe (mainly to France, which D’Agostini now considers his second home), his participation in important exhibitions and various well-planned ‘niche projects’. On the basis of these factors we are tempted to view D’Agostini as a world unto himself, possibly much like an entirely self-sufficient Leibnitzian monad. 

We might consider that this artist has always found a guiding light as a result of his ‘omnivorous’ curiosity, by means of which he tunes into a wide variety of stimuli, and by virtue of a constant rethinking of the succeeding stages of his life-journey, during which he has never conceded anything to the fluctuations of fashion and, apart from being rather enticing, such an orientation in the ‘reading’ of his work would be quite easily justified. However, in this way would we not risk relegating his work to a sort of ‘golden marginality’? We feel it is worth attempting to evaluate the evolution of the artist’s work with respect to the scenario of contemporary Italian art, and – albeit in a summary fashion – referring to established historical parameters.

It is generally known – also to people not professionally involved in the world of art – that the so-called contemporary age can be subdivided into the periods of the Avant-Garde movements – starting with Cezanne’s experimentalism and ending with conceptualism – and a subsequent period, which, for the sake of convenience, we might refer to as the ‘post-modern’ age.

The most discerning orientation of critical-aesthetic commentary has made a point of emphasizing how the Avant-Garde period itself was characterised by the simultaneous presence and alternation of two cultural ‘models’ or attitudes. One of these was that of the artist that expresses a judgement of the world through an attempt to change it by means of disruptive, paradoxical and in some way ‘prophetic’ gestures. The other model is typical of artists who, on the contrary, concentrate on their own consciousness and experience of life and reflect on processes and mental functions that structure their work, and thereby form part of an analytical strain of artistic production which reinvents linguistic modalities and in itself moreover acts as an instrument of investigation of the expressive ‘language’ adopted. 

In either case, the age of the Avant-Garde movements reveals an almost absolute faith in the dogma of intellectual catastrophism or in a kind of radical discontinuity, not only with respect to traditional modalities but also in relation to progressive development, and appearing in a feverish sequence of interruptions and new compositions that deny the absolute sense of the works produced, which assume the ‘fragile’ connotation of experimentation or, at most, a temporary manifesto.

On the contrary, the tendency that characterises modern art during the closing years of the 20th century and substantially typifies these early years of the 21st century, appears to show that the faith in catastrophism has inexorably faded. Artists have moreover reacted to the collapse of an ideology by opening up a Pandora’s box of styles and once again making use of historicised modalities, quoting a broad and disparate variety of expressive forms, ‘interbreeding’ them with the languages of metropolitan sub-cultures, forms of technological communication and also with what are now ‘academic’ conceptual points of reference, adopted no longer in terms of a revolutionary function but in a more ludic and transgressive manner.

It would be all too simple to comment ironically on a reduction to an empty and conceited, overly-mannered or narcissistic trend overtly subject to the demands of the market with regard to this Babel-like ‘style of styles’. 

It is perhaps wiser to go no further than to note that such an aesthetic destructuring adapts to and befits (or, rather, perfectly adheres to) the historical phase we are living in, which the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman referred to using the term liquid modernity.

We should however emphasize how, especially in Italian artistic production, there is an ongoing manner of proceeding quite apart and separate from the ideology of catastrophism and different also with respect to the wild destructuring of the post-modern Babel we are witnessing. 

This is not a movement as such. It is not even a line of orientation in the true sense. At most we can consider it an option, which forgoes neither the mental project nor the technique – intended as an awareness of one’s actions and intervention and as an ability – and which therefore implies no fear of exhibiting mastery of manual skills, whereas the latter had been dishonourably relegated by the Avant-Garde movement “to the lower floors of the world of art” (Di Mauro). In such a modus operandi the act of creating is always taken terribly seriously; its final aim is that of developing and producing a work of art or a finished product that presents its own aesthetic properties and specific elements of a cognitive nature. Such an option moreover nurtures its own non-conflictual relationship with tradition, ancient works and the archaic world and also with the ‘linguistic’ stances of contemporary art; it succumbs neither to destructive compulsion nor to forms of subjection by way of a process of imitation. 

Generally speaking, Maurizio D’Agostini’s work can be ascribed to the category of this ‘option’.

Reflecting on some of the works he produced in the early 1980s (Homo Sapiens, The Temple of Two, Aeolus the Wind), the critic Giorgio Di Genova suggests that those sculptures offered echoes of the plastic representations of primitive art, Mayan sculpture and Indian styles1.

Observing the cycle of engravings D’Agostini produced in the period 1983-84 entitled Assateague – from the Indian name of an island close to the shore of Maryland famous for its free-roaming, wild horses – Giorgio Segato recognises metaphysical and surreal references reminiscent of the works of Max Ernst and Escher and also the American-British sculptor Jacob Epstein2. These observations are but two of the large number of possible examples but they will suffice to broach the issue of an incessant search on the part of the artist for his own signature style, according to a process that became evident – in a most explicit and occasionally dissonant manner – in D’Agostini’s burin engravings of the late 1970s. 

Dedicating himself entirely to a technique both exceptionally demanding and related to previous experiences as a goldsmith and engraver, D’Agostini alternates sinuous, totally organic forms assembled in the manner of automatic surrealist découpages (e.g., The Spring, 1978) with ‘mechanical’ compositions, which, rather than Picabia’s ‘macchine celibi’, can be seen as close to Depero’s futurist balletti (Memories of Childhood, Modern Man, 1979). 

Simultaneous and yet divergent, the results of the artist’s reflections however highlight a common denominator: an anxious quest to identify a space in which each individual invention can be allocated, and this being primarily of a ‘mental’ nature rather than physical. D’Agostini seeks and establishes his spatial dimension in the endless perspectives of his metaphysical ‘chessboards’ (David and Goliath, 1985) and ample ‘architectural’ curves reminiscent of Escher’s work (Anatomy Lesson, 1981). He tends however not to be satisfied with these solutions as can be seen for example in the elements of the magical mechanism of the Peace Treaty in the Universe (1979-80), which emblematically abandon the plane from which they are generated and, rising freely, engage in a dance occurring in an all-pervasive light.

It is not surprising that during this very same period Maurizio D’Agostini ventured into the world of sculpture, in which the spatial dimension is an important, basic factor. It is likewise hardly surprising that the artist’s choice to abandon his engraving work might ultimately derive from a ‘forced’ technical device, which demonstrated his familiarity with and knowledge of copper-plate printing. I refer here to the gaufrage technique, which consists in the manual perforation of zinc plates. This process allows an engraver to obtain on a printed sheet the “raised and ‘swollen’ plastic areas that enhance the effect of superimposed and yet detached planes”3; the graphic work, which by its nature should in theory be two-dimensional, can thus ‘expand’ to acquire three-dimensional effects. 

Opportune observations offered by Silvio Viero reveal the critic’s comprehension of how the artist’s move away from graphic work and engraving and his initiation into the world of sculpture occurred as a smooth and gradual transition: “Maurizio D’Agostini’s sculpture rises from a lower surface” and “develops the material he uses, working around and adhering to it like an outer covering or penetrates it like a die-cutting punch, rendering each side an impression of that opposite to it.”4 

During an early stage of the evolution of his research within the plastic dimension, D’Agostini became particularly attracted to natural materials and sometimes he would spend considerable time looking for them. He occasionally found the materials that inspired him quite by chance, as occurred in the case of his pebbles and shells. He reflected on their potential uses for figurative results and then extracted from their rough forms those images that would be generated one from the other. D’Agostini carefully considered and followed the ‘enclosed’, predetermined spaces of these casually found objects, reviving the powerful expressiveness of stone amulets, African sculpture and the expressive trends of cubist art in amassed, ‘solidified’ forms that Viero would almost define as ‘Gothic’ in nature5. 

The size of his works may vary but the subtractive/generative process remains the same. This can be seen in ‘minimal-level’ experiments leading to the engraving of the one hundred Stones from the Brenta (1994), which revealed precious qualities one might expect to find in only truly refined jewellery, and his medium-format (e.g., The Last Journey, in Carrara marble, 1984) and large-size works (e.g., Don Quixote in limewood, 1988).

However, an insistent need to explore new possibilities and expand in spatial terms already discernible in his engravings became a driving force in D’Agostini’s work and the search became incessant; parallel to the closed, centripetal forms which ‘interpret’ the natural materials he worked on, we also find the development of an inverse centrifugal process, bearing witness to the need to explore forms that open up and seem to move outwards into the space surrounding the sculpture. 

It is by no mere chance then that the new pressing need to develop forms in this way corresponds with the moment when the artist began to experiment with sculpture and the ductile nature of clay. The two works in terracotta Eros and Chronos and the Cosmic Man (1987) are both emblematic results of this new direction.

In these latter works – especially in Eros and Chronos – D’Agostini conveys a sense of considerable self-confidence as he creates links with effects produced by a coiling and expansive, spiralling softness or the convex and concave forms typical of the liberty style and in particular of the ‘expressionist’ strain, the foremost adept of which was Adolfo Wildt. The artist’s research clearly transcends figurative representation and favours an entirely mental quest to have form comply with a requirement for movement.

From this moment onwards, D’Agostini is faced with two options, and he chooses both; in a way coherent with his particular method of proceeding he succeeds in simultaneously following the two choices. However, he does so always in an extremely conscientious and coherent manner; on the one hand he explores possibilities offered by works composed of various elements (with masterful scenic skill), which allow him to position figures in a dignified, ‘noble’ and ‘intellectual space’ distinguished by certain symbolic elements (cf. the Tree, the Door, the Cathedral), while on the other hand he reflects on the possibility of insisting on the theme of germination of individual figures from a non-figural foundation, which can be abstract or geometric or soft and organic. 

The idea of a ‘dialectic’ relationship between an empty involucre and the figure that emerges from it was taken up by Giorgio Di Genova, who refers to the ‘container’ as if it were a womb, from which the figure will tend to free itself; Di Genova however also speaks in terms of an armoured outer protection, in which the figure – which maintains the ‘heroic’ features typical of traditional plastic art – is enveloped. 

While attempting to decipher this dialectic, we should not forget that, besides being an artist committed to experimentation with syntheses of forms, Maurizio D’Agostini is an investigator of symbolic meaning and an inventor of icons.

In D’Agostini’s works the relation existing between the symbolic and the iconic moreover explains various things concerning the artist’s position with respect to contemporary art.

For the champion of contemporary work Bill Viola an icon “can be any image that has acquired a ‘power’ of its own through its use as a cult object”: a definition not really so distant from the pop movement intuition according to which even very commonplace, mass-produced objects, such as the Campbell’s soup cans anyone might come across on the shelves of a supermarket, are capable of acquiring an ‘artistic’ valence (as in the case of the soup cans painted by Warhol). There is moreover a mediatic mechanism at work here, occurring through a form of “social and codified recognition” (Gualdoni). 

For Maurizio D’Agostini an icon can be nothing else but one of the possible modalities of expression of the symbolic dimension, this being moreover an always partial and transient form of expression of a higher, universal truth, which will not change in time and can never be fully revealed on account of the fact that symbols are containers and incessant and unstable sources of meaning. 

In this way the tortoise, embraced by a human figure in the series entitled Time (1985), can be read as an earthbound, chthonic element of a denser material ‘underworld’, a maternal and ‘basic’ entity and an obscure force capable of providing great strength. 

The tree beneath which we find a man at rest (Silence, 2000) or to which a human figure gains access through an emblematic dividing breach (Dawn, 2004) is the Tree of Life and can also be seen as the White Cypress, which, in orphic thought, marks the boundary between the world of the living and that of the dead, and between different states of awareness. 

In an artist who lives in a state of non-mediated concord with archetypal dimensions – as in the case of Maurizio D’Agostini – symbols act in what we might call ‘automatic’ terms. Again, it should therefore come as no surprise that the human figure with the winged head in a piece called the Cosmic Man (terracotta, 1989), who is evidently attempting to free himself from the spiral shell from which he is generated, thereby expressing an instinctual upward movement, reveals an astounding likeness in form with certain representations of the god Mithra, who is himself generally equipped with wings, appearing wrapped in the coils of a serpent; the snake can be seen as Ouroboros, an alchemical symbol of cyclical time and a sign of wisdom and renewal, linked to Mithra on account of the latter being the Master of Time who watches over the ascent and passing of souls through the portals of heaven.

Undeniably, Maurizio D’Agostini’s work reveals a sapiential valence. 

And in this sense, it fulfils a double task. 

It presents the ‘psychopompic’ function we would attribute to mythological guides that assist souls in their ascent to more ethereal dimensions, as suggested by the many figures and entities found in this work that are apparently filled with an incoercible drive to project themselves upwards towards a higher plane or are intent on performing a ritual of initiation; signs of such states and endeavours are to be found in a symbolic passing through half-open doors or momentary reflection before a totemic presence (To the Monolithic God, 1999) or representations of wandering through abstract, labyrinthine worlds (Journey towards the Unknown, 2003). 

Or, on the other hand, the work contains a space extending beyond the bourn of normal consciousness which we may see as a meditative nucleus that becomes a tabernacle and temple; such a view can be supported by the effect of the many works which, independently of their iconographic results, are provided with an opening or ‘outlet’ (for example The House of the Soul, 2005) or, elsewhere, with steps or stairways (as in the monumental House of the Winds, 1994) that offer access to an inner dimension. Such solutions would also appear to involve the presence of a warning, the underlying meaning of which would be that those who fail to experience the ‘Heart of the World’ or those incapable of merging with the essence of all things and, above all, are distracted in their quest to encounter their own true self shall never attain authentic knowledge.

As observed previously, Maurizio D’Agostini belongs to that category of artists who know how to adopt both past and present artistic styles. And now, having indicated certain aspects of the iconic valence of the artist’s work, this would be an opportune moment to reiterate the concept as, reflecting on a form of expression that calls to mind ancestral symbols and aims to fulfil ‘higher’ conceptual goals, we would spontaneously and naturally expect a hieratic, learned and archaizing language.

In actual fact, not only when he decides to propose again an archaic style but also when he refers to masters of the 20th century, such as Constantin Brâncuşi or Umberto Boccioni, D’Agostini’s mode of expression presents a surprising immediacy that has developed pari passu with an increasingly evident clarity of form. 

We might consider for example one of the artist’s more radical works such as the Cosmic Man (2001). Here, a typical figure emerging from a cocoon/spiral can be seen as submitted to the strain and pressure of a ‘dynamic’ source of tension in such manner that the figure becomes identified with its movement. We can witness in such works a superhuman feat and furiously rapid action and flight that undergoes a seemingly paroxysmal acceleration. It would not be unfitting at this point to consider associations with Boccioni (Forme uniche di continuità nello spazio [Unique forms of Continuity in Space]), whom we should certainly not ignore, or Balla (Dinamismo di un cane a guinzaglio [Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash]). Though what appeared as a ‘linguistic thesis’ in proto-twentieth-century works in D’Agostini now attains the level of a narrative modality, which denies neither the iconographic force nor the spiritual message. It moreover rather clarifies how the myth of the hero who gains absolute freedom does not merely survive; it is eventually reinforced by an expressive modality that considers not only now standard examples but also more recent forms of representation such as the latest generation of cinematographic works and comic-strip art, which have caused emphasis and paradox to attain a level of poetics in their own right. 

Reflecting on this way of administering underlying ‘linguistic’ archaeology, Beatrice Buscaroli tunes in successfully to the artist’s work and, aptly quoting a previous suggestion of Stefano Ferrio, speaks of the ‘blissful innocence’ with which D’Agostini crystallises his “moments of reflection in the materials he works on” 7, thereby succeeding in transmitting his intuitive and visionary capacity through a process that takes into consideration “immediate and sincere drives” and his own life experiences more readily than “adjunctive cultural elements”8. For Buscaroli, it is this immediacy and “newly-found innocence and candour” that engenders a ‘reassuring’ valence in D’Agostini’s work. 

Although this is inevitably a partial interpretation, one must grant that it does have the merit of highlighting the intuitive element in the artist, his great expressive freedom and a persistent faith in his consummate mastery, which allows him to attain the ‘synthetic’, refined lightness with which he is increasingly identified and which becomes so evident in the Planets, very definitely the summa of his most recent work.

The set of sculptures entitled The Planets, exhibited at Casa Cima for the first time as a complete series, is the result of a long period of ‘gestation’. However, as always occurs in D’Agostini’s works, it ultimately stems from a moment of sudden intuition and decisions made on the spur of the moment.

The flame of creativity was kindled one day during the autumn of 2001, when the artist happened to hear Holst’s Mars interpreted by the young pianist Ygor Roma. 

Aided by the “intuitive intelligence of the pianist, who guided him in his discovery of the seven movements of the famous suite dedicated to the celestial bodies of our solar system, and absorbing his “overflowing energy”, D’Agostini was deeply and inevitably inspired by Holst’s compositions. 

Conceiving the idea of producing a cycle of sculptures dedicated to the Planets, D’Agostini was immediately aware that he had become committed to an alluring adventure but that such an enterprise would not be a simple one and would require a considerable amount of time to bring to fruition. In this sense he was right: seven years were to pass between the completion of the first planet-deity Zeus (Jupiter) and the recently completed Uranus.  

In the development of his iconographic representation of the Planets, D’Agostini retraces the complex project of the British composer, which in itself represents a tribute to and a portrayal of the characteristics of the mythological figures that superintend the celestial bodies referred to and their physical and astronomical attributes. The composer’s intention was also to depict the astrological traits projected onto the planets (with the exception of Pluto, which was discovered after he had completed his compositions), which pre-scientific thought associated with the various constellations of the zodiac. 

Holst developed the idea of Mars as the Bringer of War, Venus as the Bringer of Peace, Mercury as a Winged Messenger, Jupiter as the Bringer of Jollity and Saturn as the Bringer of Old Age, while Uranus was associated with the figure of the Magician and Neptune is referred to as the Mystic. In this way the composer avoided adopting the traditional subdivision, which assigns to Jupiter and Venus an exclusively positive valence, to Saturn and Mars the connotation of ‘stellae maleficae’ and to Mercury an ambivalent nature. He considered the Planets as an expression of essential forces of the universe; it is thus perhaps more correct to state that, while in the case of Mars, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn Holst had attempted a sort of ‘character portrait’, he instead aimed at illustrating the potentiality and virtuality of Mercury, Uranus and Neptune. 

The tireless and perpetual movement of the ‘winged messenger’ is thus translated into the rapid scherzo created for Mercury. 

For the piece entitled Uranus The Magician, apparently influenced by the wild frenzy of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice composed by Paul Dukas, we find references to the planet’s power to transform reality, its capacity to instigate innovation and a drive to pit one’s strength against traditional forces (it is worth remembering that its rotation occurs in the opposite sense with respect to the other planets). 

Neptune, the Mystic does not present a well-defined theme by reason of the particular significance attributed to this deity, who induces common mortals to gradually attain an appreciation of the inherent lack of permanence within the material world; all material things must necessarily eventually dissolve and return to the spiritual realm. 

In the illuminating pages of his diary, in which he describes the progress of his creative journey and work on the project of the Planets, D’Agostini insistently conveys to the reader a romantic image of himself as a ‘naïve’ artist, whose aim is to “simply listen to the melodies and allow his fingers to freely caress the material like a child would, absorbed in boundless fantasies, in his own world of flowing water.” In no way detracting from the sincerity of such methods of perception, it would seem quite clear that he has fully captured the subtleties of the linguistic weave and fabric of Holst’s composition.

Holst’s work is moreover syncretic; starting with an initial Wagnerism, his attention was also directed towards folk and popular music and the recovery of baroque elements. The cultural interests of the musician were also quite varied and range from astrological tradition to Gnostic thought, the theosophical doctrines and ancient Sanskrit texts. The Planet suite was composed in the period 1914-1916, however in Holst’s work rigour and simplicity combine with a highly-imaginative capacity to communicate, which resulted in the eventual appearance of numerous echoes of his themes in music produced in the twentieth century. His compositions were reflected in or were used directly in various ways as theme music; it inspired many film scores and can even be identified in certain progressive rock pieces.

D’Agostini has thus produced a work containing countless associations with other styles and approaches and reflecting an evident sense of discontinuity, which, in each single piece comprised in the series, the artist reveals in a quest to attain his own natural form of linguistic expression. 

Zeus (2002), the first sculpture of the series, inspired by Holst’s Jupiter, conveys an atmosphere of tension, with the figure appearing to be drawn upwards; the backward inclination emphasises a regal quality of the figure, echoing the majestic mood to be found in representations of Mayan dignitaries of the Recent Classical era, while preserving a smooth, ‘clean’ effect reflecting Cycladic art (highly appreciated by the fathers of contemporary sculpture, and in this regard Jean Arp would be a prime example). The high-relief of the head, emerging from a cusped halo presenting a rather oriental flavour, reflects ancient and, in particular, celebrative Carthaginian statues. 

And yet even here, as always, the artist conveys no particular preoccupation of an ‘archaeological’ nature to those who observe this piece of work. This is appreciated when we note the outstretched arms of Zeus, who is unexpectedly holding what might appear to be a pair of cymbals: perhaps a reference to the use of these instruments in Holst’s composition. The gesture of the god however above all conveys the idea of a positive joviality, capable of instilling order throughout the universe by means of sonorous vibrations.

Saturn was also produced in 2002. While through the forms given to the porous material used, Zeus could be seen as an imposing, primitive and yet benevolent force, here we find an apparently fluid figure, engaged in a ‘dance’ reflecting the rotating motion of a celestial body. The deity depicted in this manner almost evokes the platonic music of the spheres and whirling successions of the cycles of time which Chronos dominates. The extremely refined work reveals a trace of Art-Déco stylization, in which D’Agostini seems to contradict the inexorable and in some ways gloomy passages of Holst’s piece, as if his intention were to exorcise the melancholic, saturnine topos; in this sense we should note the rather ‘ironic’ element of the flat, outwardly expanding ‘gorget’ (evidently a reference to the distinguishing characteristic of the planet), which appears as an enormous, ruff-like neckpiece. And yet, in itself, the coup de théâtre also establishes a link with classical tradition. We are told in Hesiod’s Theogony that, knowing that he will be dethroned by one of his children, Chronos, the reigning god of the Golden Age, devours his own offspring; here, the wide-spanning disk crosses the face of D’Agostini’s Saturn just below the pointed nose, appearing as if it might impede him from carrying out the cruel act.

The planet Mars was finished two years after the piece representing Saturn. After reflecting on “many different ideas” and having produced a considerable number of sketches and drawings, D’Agostini opted for an apparently simple solution, in which the visual impact of the sculpture was a foremost requisite and Mars reveals a valence in terms of form very different from that found in the piece dedicated to Saturn. In the preceding work the ideas to be conveyed are ‘translated’ into movement, while here a static mood is evident. Mars projects the solemnity and absoluteness we would attribute to the Κούροι, the ancient Greek statues of male youths, however a dramatic force is most certainly not lacking in this sculpture; rather, the “Bringer of War” seems to be the protagonist of a Greek tragedy. He bursts forth onto an imaginary stage with the forceful and bold bearing of an Agamemnon; his frightening presence is made all the more intense through the ‘frozen’ gaze appearing beneath the feral helmet covering the face and by the cloak by which he is protected and armoured. Thus, in a most precise and effective way, a plastic reflection is created of the energy transmitted by Ygor Roma in his rendition of Mars, The Bringer of War: a work defined as “the fiercest piece of music of all time”. On a more ‘technical’ note, we might add that the work reveals traces of Maurizio D’Agostini the engraver and goldsmith in his patient enhancement of the sculpted figure with a series of minute, engraved notches and grooves that sharpen the luminous vibration of the cloak and iron mail covering the planet-god. 

Venus, produced in 2005, also appears to be substantially in line with Holst’s own rendering of the qualities of this mythological figure. Rather, the Holstian ‘concept’ provides D’Agostini with an opportunity to measure his skill, working on an iconographic subject that few artists have attempted to interpret, in contemporary work at least.

Here, Venus is above all evoked as the original Roman‘Lucifer’, the ‘bearer of light’ or the serenely pure morning star; we thus encounter for ourselves “lo bel pianeta” [the lovely planet] that Dante finally sees as he leaves the Inferno, the star “che d’amar conforta” [that induces us to love] and “faceva rider tutto l’oriente” [and which made the eastern heavens glad]. This pacifying entity, which ancient religious hymns even praised as a symbol of Christ, exists as “the hope and light of human life”. In any case, in this guise, Venus is the goddess of love, though not so much in terms of voluptas as of the all-generating force of eros. D’Agostini’s Venus is the divinity that presides over conception and rebirth. 

It is also interesting to note how the figure portrayed simultaneously projects an image of a suppliant or worshipper and the characteristics of fertile femininity. These ideas are created by the hands, half-joined in prayer and yet reminiscent of a genital element, and by the double womblike involucre from which Venus rises like a flower, developing by triplication in the tiara. Here, there is a reference to the five-petalled rose, a symbol often found in the works of hermetic thinkers and an emblem of Venus herself and of platonic love.

Neptune, which D’Agostini produced after a period of restless reflection, is also inspired by Holst’s work. Of all the works that make up the cycle, Neptune is the most mysterious and here the primary requisite of symbolic content, with all of its unspoken references and ‘irresolvable’ nature, really does hold sway over whatever albeit successful allegorization might be attempted. Neptune is presented in the form of a youth with a lowered gaze; he appears exhausted on account of his bearing the burden of a super-human destiny. He is rendered as an alien, ‘mutant’ entity as is suggested by the moon-crested mane extending along his neck and passing between the shoulders. The grave concerns deriving from his mystical knowledge and awareness inwardly pierce his very being, almost splitting and dissolving his composed form through an incessant movement of intersecting blades, which offer an association with the illusion of all material forms. In this particular subject we see D’Agostini’s metaphysical inventiveness at its best.

Again, there is a fairly long interval before the artist contemplates the final elements of this series. He produced Mercury in 2007.

Here too we note an irregular shift in the artist’s focus. Not entirely without a polemical undertone or intent, Maurizio D’Agostini loves to place himself amongst the ranks of figurative artists. Following a clarifying distinction suggested by an intuition of Dino Formaggio, it would be more correct however to say that, rather than figurative, his art is figural9; 

Though we shall not insist on the distinction, which would draw us into further observations beyond the scope of these notes. It is however worth pointing out that Mercury is not a work that requires any kind of figurative representation. Mercury is not a figure; the deity is rather, let’s say, a ‘celestial machine’, and amongst other aspects the ‘celestial’ component appears to be suggested also by the bluish film we see covering the sculpture. As such, this entity is a producer of forces. D’Agostini imagines the god as a sphere provided with wings, which, by means of a ring, is connected to a semi-sphere forming the base of the sculpture. Once again, faithful to Holst’s vision but also to the ideas of antiquity, D’Agostini captures the virtuality of this figure. Mercury is a dynamic force, the ‘winged messenger’ who causes and promotes interaction between different worlds and entities. He is the mythological link between mortals and the gods, between the worlds of the living and the dead, between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’. In old alchemical lore, he is the principle underlying every transformation. He is the movement that drives us to risk an enterprise and even venture beyond the limits of lawfulness. Mercury is the god of thieves and yet, at one and the same time, he too retains the essence of a sapiential divinity. 

Reminiscent in form of the equatorial cupola of an astronomical observatory, this sculpture contains references to stimuli experienced by the artist during his travels. While in Uzbekistan in 2007, D’Agostini visited Samarkand and had the opportunity to view the remains of the observatory of Ulugh Beg, an illuminated sovereign of the 15th century. It was here that the eastern ruler had an enormous celestial quadrant built and fitted with a sextant with a radius of 36 metres. These instruments allowed him to compile the most complete catalogue of stars of his age, following that produced by Ptolemy and before the modern catalogue produced by Tycho Brahe. Ulugh Beg’s curious astronomical precinct also contained a 50-metre high sundial with which he succeeded in determining the length of the sidereal year. 

We might however also propose a rather different hypothesis, whereby, in conceiving this original representation of Mercury, D’Agostini’s old fascination with Dadaist and surrealist mechanical devices, which he would often quote in his engraving work, may have once again surfaced and come to the fore. 

As we write our observations and comments, at this very moment Maurizio D’Agostini is completing the missing planet, which Holst called Uranus the Magician. 

Our observations in this regard are therefore based on the magnificent preparatory drawings; these sketches will undoubtedly differ from the final sculpture itself but can be referred to nevertheless as an illuminating point of reference in relation to the genesis of the work. From the very earliest sketches, the artist conceived the magician planet as a semi-human figure, whose enigmatic countenance is partially hidden by a mask and by ‘valves’ that open in succession, thereby creating the suggestion of a mysterious cloak. In the later drawings, the bust, which D’Agostini initially thought of composing with a series of superimposed truncated-conical containers (with a solution reminiscent of that used for Venus), becomes a complex structure fitted with alternatively open and shut doors. The structure is hollow, and here the artist is evidently harking back to the themes of the ‘temple’ and the ‘tower of knowledge’, which appear in other recent works (The Child Prodigy, 2004). The basic idea is quite specific: with a confidence deriving from his divinatory powers and prerogatives, symbolised by cubes and spheres (in some drawings visible through apertures), Uranus offers answers that convey meanings and yet are in no way revelatory, subjecting the suppliant/seeker of truth/observer of the sculpture to all the risks of interpretation. Enclosed within the amalgam of this labyrinthine sculpture, the ambiguous nature of Uranus reminds us of the enigmatic motto impressed amongst the spirals of the Room of the Labyrinth in the Ducal Palace in Mantua: ‘Forse che sì, forse che no’ [‘Perhaps yes, perhaps no…’]. We may note a reference to the force of destiny but also to the laborious and always uncertain ‘journeys’ of artistic creation.

Considering the series as a whole, it is evident that on account of the characteristics that relate these sculptures to each other – regardless of their unique qualities – within the current, lacerated and highly uncertain panorama of the arts, The Planets convey a sense of the rare unity of a cycle. Moreover, we are aware that each and all of these works conceal further potential, the possibility of becoming something ‘other’ that what may at first appear to be their significance, as would naturally occur for every self-respecting work in progress produced over a long period of preparation and reflection and conceived to remain as an ‘open work’. 

So, what will become of these sculptures? As the artist himself imagined in his diaries, at some time in the future they may become the protagonists and source of inspiration of a theatrical work or some grandiose scenic ritual in which new music and new choruses will remind us of and pay tribute to Holst’s glorious achievements. They may even be reproduced in monumental proportions and then installed in the ‘secret garden’ of a stately home, as occurred in the case of the Education of the Soul, produced in 1997 in the yellow/grey stone of San Germano dei Berici. This latter work can now be viewed in the park of Villa Pigafetta-Camerini at Mossano.

For now, let us simply enjoy their beauty in the secluded, suggestive interiors of Casa Cima, where, together with D’Agostini’s other ‘cosmic’ works, the Planets already convey to those who observe them their hermetic and perhaps subliminal stimuli, creating – on this miniature scale – suggestions that remind us of the Neo-Platonic park at Bomarzo, where the inventor of the wonders it contains, the disdainful and learned Vicino Orsini, left us with the persuasive and enigmatic exhortation ‘che ognuno incontri ciò che più gli sta a cuore and che tutti vi si smarriscano’ [Let everyone find he/she most ardently seeks from the heart and may all who come here surrender their conscious mind to moments of bewilderment].

Fabio Girardello