By Francine Brevetti
Some say Dionisio Cimarelli is Italy’s finest living sculptor. Some people say he’s the greatest Italian sculptor in China.
Trouble is, he’s in neither country. He’s right here in California, visiting and working in studios from Monterey to Los Angeles.
Born in the Italian region of Le Marche, he started studying art when he was 14. But he was the type of boy to fly way. Instead of getting a driver’s license at 18, he obtained his first passport. A life of travel, study, and the practice of sculpture followed him through Europe to Saudi Arabia to China and now here.
“To be a sculptor for me is like a mission. I believe I enrich the quality of people’s lives through art and beauty,” he says.
But his passion is not completely selfless. “When I am sculpting I get excited about transforming the idea in my mind in three dimensions through the material. I have an idea, a shape, which not always is clear, but I try to take it out and make it real. The inspiration comes when I attend to the aspects of it,” he explains.
Cimarelli (pronounced chee-mah-REH-lee) has a hungry mind. He devours experiences, countries, their arts and crafts, and people. His inspiration comes from “everyday experiences like traveling, people, feelings, nature—the things around me.”
Early in his education he had to choose between painting and sculpture. Sculpture won out without a contest.
Only sculpture gives him the scope to satisfy his appetite for new experience. Unlike painting where the range of materials is somewhat limited, sculpture allows him to create in every known medium—from clay, to resin, marble, bronze, and ceramic. Most sculptors specialize in one or two media. But not Cimarelli.
He actually started out doing abstract sculpture but something in him changed.
In his early 20s he moved to Paris and worked for two years restoring sculpture in the Cour Napoleon of the Louvre. A fantastic experience, of course, but it also brought him to an appreciation of classical and figurative art. To its very door, you might say.
After his two-year stint he was offered a position at Notre Dame de Paris which he refused!
Instead he resolved to learn the basics of his art. He returned to study classic and figurative art full time at the art academy in Carrara.
“I started from zero,” he says, beginning with anatomy.
After several years working in Europe—projects in Copenhagen, London, Stockholm and Marseille to name a few—he left for China in 2004 on the invitation of a friend who was writing a book in which he was portrayed. It was just meant to be a visit. But his skill and wizardry were immediately understood in Shanghai, and he was invited to one colloquium after another to speak and teach.
He laughs when people, especially journalists, compare him to Marco Polo. After all, many Italians have been working in China for years. His biggest projects in the eight years he spent in the Orient were a year-long real estate project, and the construction of the statue of Matteo Ricci.
He was approached by architects to be the art supervisor of an enormous residential project outside Shanghai called the Zhongkai Sheshan Luxury Villas. These heavily funded 81 residences were designed to be intertwined by a network of canals so that each villa is edged by the water.
Cimarelli demurred that he was not an architect. “They said they didn’t need an architect but they needed me as a sculptor with my experience in classic sculpture and restoration.”
He stayed associated with that project until he returned to United States in 2012. But even while he was active at the Sheshan Villas, Cimarelli was mastering Mandarin, spoken and written, and studying the manufacture of Chinese porcelain.
Italy engaged him to produce a work for the Italy Pavilion for Expo2010 in Shanghai.
He chose a subject that linked both Italy and ancient Cathay—a statue of the 16th-century Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci. In this immense gilded porcelain statue, Ricci is clothed as a Chinese Mandarin or Emperor. The figure is speckled with Chinese calligraphy expressing Cimarelli’s Chinese name.
Gigantic though it was, he did the whole work himself.
The sculptor feels a certain affinity for the cleric—they were both born in Le Marche. “I think there must be a certain facial resemblance,” he quips.
He left China after eight years, needing a change. Besides he had received an attractive offer to supervise production at an art studio in Monterey. And he had always wondered what it would be like to work in the United States.
Now he knows.