Upon my first visit in Santa Croce, I was a bit surprised to find a strikingly modern Henry Moore sculpture in the cloister of a Medieval Italian church known for its Trecento frescoes and Renaissance era tombs. Upon further inquiry, I discovered that Moore had had a sort of infatuation with Florence that led the sculptor to gift many of his works to the city before his death in 1986.
However, the strange thing is that this sculpture, one of six copies of the Warrior with Shield, was not one of them. This 1972 version of the Warrior with Shield subject came to Santa Croce in 1987 on loan by the British Institute after having been donated to the Institute by Moore’s widow Irene. The sculpture was first on display in a rather hidden inner garden at Palazzo Vecchio, which bothered some who thought it deserved more visibility. Hence, it was moved to its current location at Santa Croce.
The reason that the Henry Moore sculpture in the cloister was an unexpected discovery for me was that I had always associated his works with modernity and extreme abstraction; everything that Medieval and Renaissance art is not. Every day on the way to my high school in New York City, I would pass by an enormous Reclining Figure by Henry Moore in Lincoln Center, which looked completely at home among the 1960s and 70s architecture. Therefore, when I first arrived in Florence and paid a visit to Santa Croce, I felt both drawn to Warrior with Shield and confused by it, which compelled me to take a closer look not only at this work, but at Henry Moore the artist as well.
Moore’s connection to Florence goes back to 1972, when the city held a major retrospective of his work at the Forte di Belvedere. In a letter from Moore to Giovanni Carandente, an Italian art historian and critic, in June of 1971, the artist wrote, “Credo tu sappia che la Città di Firenze mi ha chiesto di tenere una grande mostra retrospettiva delle mie opere per l’estate prossima e che l’idea è di farla al Forte di Belvedere. Quel luogo è, secondo me, così meraviglioso che sarei davvero molto felice se la mostra si realizzasse. Penso che non vi sia luogo più bello al mondo, specie per le mie grande sculture destinate all’aperto.”
The mayor at the time, Luciano Bausi, had taken a special interest in Warrior with Shield and expressed desire for a copy that the city could keep. In a letter from the artist to Bausi, Moore wrote, “I have loved Florence since my first visit in 1925… And so my close relationship with Florence grows, and I feel it is my artistic home.” – Moore expressed a deep sense of gratitude about his works being exhibited in the city he loved, and saw the show as an opportunity to further strengthen the kinship he already felt with the city. It isn’t unlikely that Irene was aware of this exchange, and of her husband’s feelings about the city, and was therefore instrumental in getting the Warrior to Florence.
So why did Moore love Florence and its art so much when his personal aesthetic might suggest otherwise? Moore’s development as an artist, both in theory and in practice, was an ebb and flow between the classical and the “primitive,” and from works like Warrior with Shield to his recurring reclining figure motif, one can see the both the tension and harmony of these two stylistic poles in Moore’s oeuvre.
“In 1925 a scholarship sent him, reluctantly, to Italy. He thought his allegiances lay elsewhere but the six months’ tour through France and Italy taught him that art was one. He returned a synthesist for whom there was no essential conflict between a Mexican stone figure of the goddess Xochiquetzal and a Michelangelo marble.”
Prior to this sojourn in Western Europe, Moore’s work had shown an affinity to the arts of the ancient civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas, Africa and the Cyclades, about which he has said, “its primary concern is with the elemental and its simplicity comes from direct and strong feeling, which is a very different thing from that fashionable simplicity-for-its-own-sake which is emptiness.”
In the aforementioned letter from the artist to Mayor Bausi, Moore even cited his time in Italy as the most formative period of his artistic development, even though in his earlier stages as an artist “his opinions and expectations of Italy and Italian art had been prematurely set.” The shift in Moore’s thoughts on the works and practices of the canonical old masters certainly had a direct effect on Warrior with Shield as well. Of the work, Moore said,
“The idea for The Warrior came to me at the end of 1952 or very early in 1953. It was evolved from a pebble I found on the seashore in the summer of 1952, and which reminded me of the stump of a leg, amputated at the hip. Just as Leonardo says somewhere in his notebooks that a painter can find a battle scene in the lichen marks on a wall, so this gave me the start of ‘The Warrior’ idea.”
Actually, his return to England following his tour of Italy brought about a difficult period for Moore during which he struggled with reconsidering the artistic visions he had been so sure about prior to the trip. Of the experience, Moore said in a letter to fellow artist Sir William Rothenstein,
“I had to go to Italy against my will. But thank goodness now I did go.”
In this letter, Moore expressed a feeling of internal conflict after his exposure to the “master works of European art” that caused him to doubt his own artistic theory and practice, which he then felt the need to reconsider and rework. But this agony was nonetheless exciting: he wrote,
“I feel the conflict still exists in me… Is this conflict what makes things happen?”
And so, when planning his grand retrospective at Forte di Belvedere in the early 1970s, Moore used the Cupola of Brunelleschi’s dome, a perfect symbol of the Italian Renaissance, as a physical point of reference for the arrangement of his modernist sculptures: a prime example of the artist’s commitment to reconciling his love for the canonical and the modern, and to marrying them into one cohesive entity.
The theme of war and its associated trauma is one that is universally relatable, especially so in the Italian collective conscience. Art in the years following World War II was palpably reactive to and reflective of the psychological shift wrought by the war’s tremendous devastation, and Moore’s post-war works clearly exhibit this quality. Painful images of despair and the human condition were common and successful in the 1950s, but many of these images, Moore’s included, managed to become also “symbolic triumphs” over the devastation. Said Moore,
“first I added the body, leg and one arm and it became a wounded warrior, but at first the figure was reclining. A day or two later I added a shield and altered its position and arrangement into a seated figure and so it changed from an inactive pose into a figure which, though wounded, is still defiant…”
Warrior was just one of many bronze sculptures that came to figure prominently in Moore’s body of work during this period. Certainly, the increase in Moore’s use of the medium of bronze was not incidental. During World War II, Moore considered bronze to be a more viable option because,
“one didn’t know at a certain stage of the war whether, if you began a large carving, you’d have another week to finish it or not.”
Moore said that working in bronze also afforded him the opportunity during this tense period to express his own humanist attitudes through his experimentation with and reworking of certain ideas of his. Accordingly, the manner in which Moore discussed the medium also seemed to ring of optimism and hope:
“You can do anything, really, in bronze. This is its value… This is the beauty of bronze.”
One of Moore’s philosophies regarding his work in sculpture is that the forms should communicate the character of life and the human experience; the forms should display “the human psychological content” within the sculpture. Warrior with Shield is, as Moore said, an image of both defeat and of triumph, of pain and of strength, not unlike the Christ that the Franciscan founders of this church worshipped.
In this way, can we say that Moore is almost a religious artist himself, refigured and repurposed for the 20th century? Having gained more insight on Moore’s artistic tenets, I would venture to say that Warrior with Shield fits in perfectly alongside works like Donatello’s Crucifix and Bandinelli’s God the Father.
Even after this investigation into Warrior with Shield and its place among the Italian artworks at Santa Croce that are hundreds of years its senior, I don’t purport to have any answers. But that’s what I like about this sculpture; all that I know about it was borne out of my initial surprise and confusion, and in my answer-seeking, I have arrived at more questions still, but questions that I can return to productively and curiously again and again. I hope that all Santa Croce visitors are compelled to do the same, whether it is Moore’s sculpture they are contemplating or something completely different. At Santa Croce, the thought provoking options are endless.
Guest blogger: Chloé Pulido, a born-and-raised New Yorker, attends Williams College in Massachusetts as double major in Art History and Japanese Language and Culture. She studied abroad in Florence with Syracuse University during the Spring semester of 2015.
All photos © Hongye Wu, Archivio Opera di Santa Croce
Carandente, Giovanni. Moore e Firenze. Il Bisonte, 1979.
Hamilton, George Heard. The Pelican History of Art: Painting and Sculpture in Europe 1880-1940. Penguin Books, 1967.
Lynton, Norbert. The Story of Modern Art. Second ed. Prentice-Hall, 1983.
Packer, William. Henry Moore: An Illustrated Biography. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985.
Wilkinson, Alan, ed. Henry Moore: Writings and Conversations. University of California Press, 2002.