Piazza d'Italia is one of the most debated, celebrated and acclaimed examples of postmodern architecture in the world. Created as an urban plaza and monument to New Orleans' Italian community — the first large Sicilian community in America — the Piazza was designed by Charles Moore, a former dean of the Yale architecture school and influential pioneer of postmodernism. Declared a masterpiece even before it was completed in 1978, it maintains a surprisingly obscure existence in the Warehouse District, literally in the shadows of far less celebrated structures. But it's got some star power once again: Sophia Loren.
Italian sculptor Francesco Vezzoli's contribution to the Prospect.2 biennial is a bronze statue of Loren installed at Piazza d'Italia, and it's calling attention to the largely overlooked architectural oddity in a unique and suitable way.
Like celebrities who shine brightly at first only to slide slowly downhill, the Piazza d'Italia has had a checkered existence since its completion. It was declared an urban ruin (the first postmodern ruin) less than a decade after its completion when its maintenance plan fell victim to hard economic times. Like a misunderstood genius in need of a sponsor, it was eventually rescued by the Loews hotel chain, which renovated the adjacent former Lykes office building in 2003, and devoted more than $1 million to restoring the Piazza to its former glory. In fact, the Piazza d'Italia looks pretty terrific now that its fountain in the shape of Italy, once barren and dusty, glitters again with clear water and neon traceries over its surreal stylized arches and colonnades glow in the luminous shades of a confectionery rainbow.
Even so, it can still seem a little lonely as an obscure aesthetic oasis amid office towers, hotels and the casino. But the new Loren apparition appeared in a strategic spot on the plaza. The voluptuous cinematic goddess of all things Italian is rendered in bronze in a brilliant gesture by acclaimed Milanese sculptor Vezzoli. Loren devotees should be warned, however, that this rendition of the statuesque diva features some distinctly idiosyncratic touches, not the least being an architectonic bas-relief nestled in her arms, covering her storied bust. What gives?
For the amateur aesthetic investigator, consider this your very own Da Vinci Code moment. If you recognize the mysterious bas relief as a Giorgio de Chirico painting, you are in on the secret of the Piazza's design plan. Moore was inspired by a series of de Chirico paintings all bearing the same Piazza d'Italia name, many of which featured a statue of the Greek goddess Ariadne situated in the same spot Loren now occupies. While borrowing de Chirico's abstracted forms, Moore, in collaboration with local Perez firm architects Allen Eskew, Ron Filson and Malcolm Heard, employed buoyant neon colors to make this Piazza d'Italia more like a Fellini movie set, where a cameo appearance by Sophia Loren would not be unexpected. All of that may have come as a surprise to anyone anticipating something more like a classical Palermo piazza, but even here it should be noted that de Chirico's father was a son of Sicily, so the circle remains unbroken. And that is how, instead of simply reflecting history, our Piazza d'Italia ended up making architectural history instead.