My friends, to let you understand and feel the spirit of Livorno and people who lives in this incredible city, I thought about an old, very old story that for sure you cannot miss. Too funny!
This is the story of a huge practical joke involving one of Livorno’s most famous personalities, Amedeo Modigliani, and four ordinary young men, which took place 20 years ago in one of the nicest areas of the city, the Medici canal which flows in front of the indoor market.
The joke took place back in 1984, however to fully understand how it came about we must first go back to 1909 and discover a bit about the events which led up to it. It was in 1909 that Amedeo Modigliani, a young artist and sculptor who had just turned 25 years old, was hugely disappointed by the negative reviews that he had received from critics about his work and as a result decided to leave his hometown forever. His sculptures, which were completed in a figurative style of the beginning of the 20th century, that he had seen in Paris, and which were inspired by African art, were not to the taste of the local art critics and one critic even told the young artist that he would be better off just throwing them all away.
The general story goes that it was these criticisms which forced Modigliani to leave his town, dumping all of his failed works of art in a ditch in the process. His failed work actually consisted of sculptures of human heads, which were harsh and elongated in style and sculpted into the stone in a style for which his work was to become famous following his death. The ditch in which he dumped his sculptures (the name of which indicates the canals of Livorno which cross through the historical centre) would have been Fosso Reale, a ditch of the Medici Canal which goes from Piazza della Reppublica to Piazza Cavour, where you can see one of the city’s most well-known monuments: the 18th century Chiesa degli Olandesi, with its spectacular Neo-Gothic, yellow, stone facade and the impressive General Food Market with its tall, big windows which feature greek style colomns.
Now, in 1984, it is 100 years after the birth of Modigliani and Vera Durbé, the manager of Livorno’s Progressive Museum of Contemporary Art, decides to organise an exhibition of Modigliani’s sculptures, to celebrate his 100th year. Her idea, however, prompted an interesting challenge: The search for the legendary heads since they had been previously thrown into the canal by a young Modi. The quest was supported by the administrative council, who approved the dredging of the works from the ditch.
The excavation work took place in the sunny month of July, under the watchful eyes of many who stood waiting excitedly for any news of the recovery of these long-awaited works of art. Their wait lasted a week and on the eighth day three stone sculptures, scultped in the harsh, elongated style for which Modigliani was by now famous for, were successfully excavated, one after the other. They were presented to the many art critics of Livorno, who claimed that the heads were the original work carved by the hands of Modigliani immediatly after examining them closely.
At first, it seems that the story has a happy ending: Durbé’s dream was realised and art lovers from all over the world flocked to Livorno… but they were forgetting that Livorno is a city famous for its pranks and practical jokes and here it is always possible that things are not always as they seem. Therefore, after a month of much talk and awards regarding the three newly-recovered sculptures, three Livornese students: Pietro Luridana, Pierfrancesco Ferrucci and Michele Guarducci, came forward claiming to have sculpted one of the three heads, in the garden of one of their houses, using drills and other tools bought from a local hardware store. They presented photos of themselves in action and the splinters of stone pertaining to the sculpture in question. Then, on national television they re-enacted the creation of the masterpiece.
Not long after, a sculptor named Angelo Froglia laid claim to the other two heads. Angelo Froglia was, in fact, just an ordinary dockworker who was passionate about art and was a talented sculptor. He claimed that he came up with the idea to pretend to have sculpted these pieces as a way of showing how art critics are led more by market trends rather than their own perceptions and the true worth of each individual piece of work. Both the three students and Froglia achieved their goals as in the end the joke was on the art critics who had previously slammed the work of Modigliani.
Talk of these events lasted a while. Mainly due to the fact that too many acclaimed art critics had already declared the authenticity of the three heads. However, although it was, in fact, the three students and Froglia who had, separately, sculpted the heads which had been excavated from the canal, there were still those who thought that they were liars who had conspired together to pretend to be the true sculptors of the heads, and so continued to believe that the sculptures were the original work of Modigliani. The reality is that only in Livorno could two completely different, unrelated groups of people have come up with exactly the same successful practical joke.