Back in 1965: artist Pietro Consagra sheds light on some shamelessly phallic architectural elements

Stefano Pirovano

Pietro Consagra, an artist no less important than Lucio Fontana, Alberto Burri or Fausto Melotti for Post War World II Italian art, and certainly the most politically aware among this very exclusive club, started taking pictures of bollards in 1965, as a prelude to his seminal essay titled “La città frontale” (Bari, 1969). Fascinated by the explicit ambiguity of these everyday sculptural objects, and surprised to discover that some of them had actually been designed by leading masters such as Bernini and Borromini, Consagra did research on this cluster of shapes and meanings for about a decade. In 1972 he ended up selecting 16 bollards he found in Como, Milan, Siena, Rome, Naples and Palermo and made 12 small-scale alabaster prototypes of the most interesting ones; 10 out of the 12 prototypes became each a series of 28 dazzling marble pieces. They were presented to the public for the first time in April 1974, along with a group of 25 outstanding sculptures, on the occasion of his solo show at Marlborough Gallery in Rome. In those days a dedicated booklet presenting the outcomes of Consagra’s interest in bollards was also published by Vanni Scheiwiller, with the introduction written by the artist himself. Thanks to the kind help given to Cfa by the Archivio Pietro Consagra, the Milan-based non-profit organization which manages the artist’s estate, we are glad to publish here below the first English translation of that wit and allusive artist’s writing.


The moment of truth for the bollards happens to be during the terrorism of the Counter-Reformation, when the church of Rome closes ranks in order to defend itself from the attacks against its dogma.

The bollard is an emblem of power expressed in the phallic virility and the architect, with such subject, has to create an original work, thus different from those realized by other colleagues who had already made original samples of the same subject.

Narrow passages of variable possibilities, game of the more and more difficult ever, the bollard becomes the masterpiece of that architect involved like a sculptor who realizes a sculpture by being inspired by his very same member: display of signs of his own abilities as well as of his status.

The uniqueness of the bollard is indeed a matter of the architect, but the trend and the Inquisition would want cities adorned, embellished with such a sarcastic message.

The baroque world is tragic.

Rome during Inquisition amasses explicit bollards and doesn’t want any misunderstanding with capital punishments.

Every city has a unique relationship with the political situation driven by the central power. The implications branch off in the ambiguity, in the partaking or in the overlooking.

In Milan, explicit bollards steer towards ridiculous and inattentive bowling pins. There is one, however, which is a masterpiece of ambiguity, smart and aware. It is the bollard in front of the old Seminary on Corso Venezia. Overturned, it changes interlocutor. If disguised as a rural tribute, it instead focuses on the sense of the reality it addressed to: a gathering point for men who gave up the virility of their member in name of the Church. Just as Canova, later on, turned the torch upside down to symbolize Death, so the bollard pointing downward with the ball on top seems to allude to castration.

Naples is terrified, exaggerated. Instead of explicit bollards in the Pompeian style, it came up with turbid and coercive ones like the phallus-breast on Via Chiatamone, or like the terrible, definitive one, with a dead head on Via dei Tribunali. Terror at its very beginning.

Florence, the proud Florence, doesn’t want to be either explicit or ambiguous. It doesn’t like any subterfuge, thus prefers to overlook and do without it. Counter-Reformation just rolls off its back. Florence has no bollard.

Initially Siena brought out only one of them, for Palazzo Chigi. Then the city had many, all identical to the prototype. By no means extraordinary, it nonetheless turned out to be explicit, straightforward, immediate and well sharp: a proud Tuscan.

An explicit, playing dumb, uncivilized, sturdy and neglected one, out of the blue, for whatever reason, stands out dazedly in Como.

In Palermo, except for certain banalities, you may find some small and clandestine bollards in the internal courtyards of private houses. Outside, no one must have felt like playing with fire, hence there was neither a supply nor an demand. There is a clandestine one, though, which is a small masterpiece, and transfigured into an octagon, stealthily, has managed to get away and last to this day.

The bollard is born ancient Roman, priapic and indeed remains priapic and papal.

Here Rome, the city with highest powers, is also the richest in bollards. They are in a row, grouped together, isolated, half-buried, enchained and are called “mammozzi”. The Inquisition flaunted them and the Popes cared about having their own emblems engraved onto them, like the Florentine Lily for Clement VII or the six-pointed star for Alexander VII Chigi. Rome is explicit, Rome is ambiguous, Bernini and Borromini run after each other with two bollards as truthful as two self-portraits: terrorism and exorcism. A bollard for self-defence.  

In Flaminio, the great twisted bollard has vanished. Where will it have ended up?

November 25, 2020