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Emilio Greco was born in Catania, Sicily, where he was apprenticed to a stone mason and sculptor of funerary monuments at an early age.

From the 1950s he taught sculpture in Rome, Carrara and Naples, and it was during that decade that his own work first began to receive recognition. Strongly influenced by Etruscan, Greek and Roman art, Greco is best known for his powerful portrait busts and sensual nudes that are classicised, yet volumetric, often characterised by perfectly rounded heads. However, whilst life-size female figures dominate his oeuvre, Greco also received important religious commissions like his contemporary Giacomo Manzù. These included a monument to John XXIII for St Peter’s in Rome, depicting the Pope visiting the city’s Regina Coeli prison.

One of Greco’s first major works was his Monument to Pinocchio (1953). Taking Collodi’s famous tale as its theme, the artist’s maquette won a nationwide competition (fig. 3). This moving study in bronze captures the moment when the fairy transforms Pinocchio from a puppet into a boy. The base of the sculpture represents a significant departure from Greco’s signature style – its abstract, spiralling forms evoking a hollow tree trunk.

In 1959 Greco began to work on a set of monumental bronze doors for Orvieto Cathedral, representing merciful actions from the life of Christ. Initially unenthusiastic about the commission as the proposed themes (including episodes from the Crusades) left him uninspired, Greco’s attitude changed dramatically once the subject matter was confirmed. He later stated: “When, finally, the Corporal Works of Mercy – those capital commands of human behaviour – were suggested to me, I accepted immediately because I felt strongly that this theme was congenial to my beliefs. It is an eternal theme, perpetually occurring, not only a historical one; a human theme, not only one connected with the Church.” Working studies for these monumental commissions are in both bronze and on paper. These were the materials favoured by Greco throughout his long career and there are strong similarities in the artist’s approach to both media.

For instance, Greco’s drawing style is extremely sculptural in its evocation of volume, revealing a particular fascination for conveying a sense of depth, and for exploring and defining the space between forms, rather than the forms themselves – which, by contrast, tend to be cursorily traced with simple, flowing lines. Conversely, the surfaces of Greco’s heads are often scored with lines recalling the dense cross-hatching characteristic of his works on paper.

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