Naples is a city filled with art, ancient, old and new. I could think of no better person than my dear friend Penny Ewles-Bergeron, artist extraordinaire to give us a look at the life and the work of Campanian born artist Mimmo Paladino.

Mimmo Paladino’s tall horse sculpture embellishes the rooftop of the Madre Museum in Naples

Mimmo Paladino is one of Italy’s most prolific and imaginative contemporary artists, a sculptor, print and film-maker, photographer, painter and theatre designer. Born in 1948 in Paduli, near Benevento, his talent was encouraged by an uncle who was an artist. Mimmo enrolled at his local art school, graduating in 1968 and in that same year saw two gallery exhibitions of his work in Portici and Caserta.

His focus at the time was on drawing and photography as routes into exploring the ancient Mediterranean world of Etruscan, Egyptian, classical and religious imagery. Little by little his own rich eclectic language of images formed and while throughout his life Paladino has remained open to new impressions and ideas, his personal iconography is manifest in every piece of art he produces.

This is so much the case that if you see a modern Italian drawing or sculpture that includes a mask-like helmet, a sword or horse, or a figure studded with birds, Paladino will come to mind. In addition his sculptures often have worked surfaces that suggest the effects of ageing, inviting the viewer to invest them with a sacred, mythic or antique quality.

One of Paladino’s powerful mask-like helmets can be seen at Castel Sant’Elmo

In 1980 he was invited by Achille Bonito Oliva to exhibit at the Venice Biennale, along with artists Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Sandro Chia and Nicola de Maria. This assembly of work is acknowledged as the beginning of the Transavanguardia movement, marking a return to figurative painting after recent experiments in conceptualism and minimalism. Paladino’s participation in the Biennale led to his inclusion in important exhibitions at the Royal Academy and Tate Gallery in London and MOMA in New York.

Such successes, coupled with an increasing self-assurance in employing his language of forms and colours, allowed him to gravitate towards ever larger scale public works. Theatre designs and large sculptural installations cross-pollinate each other so that Paladino’s ideas travel between the visual and dramatic arts.

Today his projects embellish public spaces, theatres and churches in many parts of Italy while his work is included in many collections world-wide. Meanwhile the myths he explores have broadened to include Pinocchio and Don Quijote.

This work in mosaic at Castel dell’Ovo, like the even larger piece installed at the
Ara Pacis building in Rome, illustrates Paladino’s repertoire of mythic imagery

I see visual connections between Paladino’s art and that of two British-based artists, Anish Kapoor and Anthony Gormley. La Montagna di Sale, Mountain of Salt, a vast hill of salt sealed with resin in which horses seem to be sinking, is on the large scale of public works by Kapoor, while Gormley’s metal casts of his own body arranged in buildings, public spaces and landscapes, inhabit the same mythic atmosphere evoked by Paladino.

Montagna di Sale was first installed in Gibellina in 1990, then in Piazza del Plebiscito, Naples in 1995. The mound of salt seemed to echo the shape of the volcano well in view from the square. The concept was revived last year in Milan to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy.

These installations were designed to be temporary, but fortunately it’s still possible to see a smaller version of Paladino’s mountain in a courtyard of the Palazzo Reale here in the city. Here the horses have been immersed not in salt but in concrete but the effect is still striking, their heads raised as if surveying the ramparts of some ancient city – Troy? This inspired structure caps the new practice room of the San Carlo opera company.

Mimmo Paladino’s horses gaze at the viewer from their mound in the Palazzo Reale/San Carlo Opera House

A quizzical look from one of Paladino’s horses

Where else can you find Mimmo in Naples? At the Salvator Rosa metro station and on the colourful walls of several buildings in the Materdei district of the city. Naples, an ancient city itself, has embraced the modern not just in Mimmo Paladino but in numerous other contemporary artists, recognising their shared profound roots in Mediterranean culture.