Fendi’s Gift to Rome: A Sculpture Shaped Like a Tree

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Fendi’s Gift to Rome: A Sculpture Shaped Like a Tree

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PIETRASANTA, Italy — Shading his eyes from the warm Tuscan sun, the artist Giuseppe Penone watched as a crane hoisted a bronze tree trunk into position to cradle an 11-ton carved marble block.

It was the first time that all of the elements of the sculpture, “Leaves of Stone,” had been fitted together as a sort of dress rehearsal, before it would be transferred to Rome. There it was unveiled on Monday in Largo Goldoni, in front of a downtown palazzo owned by Fendi, which commissioned the work.

Mr. Penone was pleased with the dry run. “This work should work well in that space,” he said in the yard outside the foundry where the bronze tree was cast.

As one of the protagonists of Arte Povera, the avant-garde Italian movement of the late 1960s that rallied around the use of humble materials to create “poor art,” Mr. Penone is having a busy year. At 70, he is installing artworks not just in Rome, but also in the United Arab Emirates, for a piece commissioned by the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

“Leaves of Stone” is a gift from Fendi to Rome, where the fashion house set up shop in 1925.

“We want to give back to the community, to give thanks,” said Pietro Beccari, the chairman and chief executive of Fendi.

The public art piece is also a way for the company to further bind its name “to Rome and to Italian beauty because we believe the Fendi brand is 100 percent made in Italy,” Mr. Beccari added. He said that when he arrived at Fendi in 2012, he changed the packaging logo from Fendi to Fendi Roma.

Two years ago, Fendi moved its headquarters to a Mussolini-era building in Eur, a suburb of Rome, restoring the renowned but abandoned Fascist landmark known as the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana. Ground-floor exhibitions there have drawn more than 100,000 visitors.

“We must overturn ugliness with beauty,” Mr. Beccari said, noting that Rome has been in the headlines lately for its filth and decay. “That is our small contribution.”

As perhaps befalls an Eternal City, Rome has struggled to embrace modernity. It took decades for Maxxi, a national museum of contemporary art, to take root, and years for William Kentridge’s 2016 “Triumphs and Laments,” an ambitious public art project along the banks of the Tiber River, to receive the appropriate permits.

By contrast, Mr. Penone’s work was quickly approved after Fendi set up a commission with public officials, who supervised and facilitated the process.

The Penone sculpture is the most recent example of Fendi’s art and cultural binge. The fashion house restored several fountains in Rome, including the Trevi Fountain, and is the main sponsor for the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year. Later this month, Fendi will inaugurate the Spazio Fendi, a laboratory at the national Institute for Conservation and Restoration, which was founded in 1939 to preserve Italian heritage.

Other Italian fashion brands have also helped spruce up Italy’s tattered territory, in some cases encouraged by the so-called Art Bonus, a 2014 law that offers tax credits for arts funding.

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Last December, Prada opened a second exhibition space, on top of one of Milan’s most prestigious landmarks, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. The space showcases photography and complements the Rem Koolhaas-designed Fondazione Prada, aiding Milan’s claim as a vibrant hub for contemporary art.

Ermenegildo Zegna, through its foundation, has taken a multiprong approach to supporting contemporary art, including sponsoring works by artists for museum shows.

And throughout Italy, fashion houses have been buttressing their brands by sponsoring A-list monuments, including Tod’s restoration of the Colosseum, Bulgari’s revamp of the Spanish Steps and Diesel’s cleanup of the Rialto Bridge in Venice.

But “Leaves of Stone” was commissioned to complement Rome’s millennial artistic tradition — all art, of course, was contemporary at some point.

The sculpture uses a common leitmotif — trees and stones — in Mr. Penone’s vocabulary. “I use the tree as a sculpting material,” he said. “You think of the tree as something solid, but in reality, it is fluid in its growth, and thus malleable, interacting with the environment.” The carved marble block is a nod to Rome’s history and rich architecture, much of it built of marble.

Pepi Marchetti Franchi, director of the Gagosian Gallery in Rome, which is hosting an exhibition of Mr. Penone’s works, said the new pieces went “in a new direction,” indicating how Mr. Penone’s work continued to evolve.

While Romans have not always embraced contemporary art, Mr. Penone is not concerned about how “Leaves of Stone” will be received. “I am more fearful of the reaction of the art world than the reaction of the population,” he said.

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