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Henry Moore in Florence

The most significant solo exhibition of Henry Moore's lifetime - still one of the biggest ever Moore exhibitions - was held in Florence in 1972.

The venue was the Forte di Belvedere, a massive 16th century fortress just south of the river Arno.  Around 300 works by Moore were on display in the exhibition – 168 sculptures, the remainder works on paper – mostly from the collections of Henry Moore himself, his wife Irina, and their daughter Mary.

The show was a triumph.  Over the course of the exhibition’s run, it was seen by 345,000 visitors, including 2,000 who turned up to the opening, despite the cold and damp evening.  The initial print run of the exhibition catalogue sold out within two days, and the show was extended by a week to allow then-Prime Minister Ted Heath to visit it – where he was personally taken around by Moore himself. Heath was not the only notable visitor – the Italian president, Giovanni Leone, had paid an official visit, and Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon had been at the exhibition opening.

It had not always been clear that the show would be so successful.  The installation was fraught with difficulties.  Many of Moore’s drawings used wax crayons, and it was feared that in the heat of the Florentine summer, without climate controls in the exhibition rooms, the wax would melt. In the end Margaret McLeod from the British Council was left with the responsibility of deciding what to do, and a cooler room was found for the most vulnerable drawings.  The larger works, meanwhile, proved difficult even to get onto the site. The arch over the entrance to the fort was too small to fit many of the monumental works through, so they had to be hoisted over the battlements by crane.  Two sculptures, Locking Piece (LH 515) and Large Two Forms (LH 556), were cast in fibreglass for the show, because the bronzes were too heavy to install.

The biggest and heaviest work to be shown at the exhibition was Large Square Form with Cut 1969-71 (LH 599), carved from Italian marble.  The work had originally been produced in 1969 as a 16.5 cm maquette, cast in bronze.  It had been scaled up to a 140 cm working model, which exists as a carving in black marble, and casts in concrete and fibreglass, before a full-sized version was carved in marble.  This large version, which was shown in Florence, was 5.45 m tall and weighed 180 tonnes.  To make it possible to install the piece, it had to be carved in 60 separate sections, each one lifted individually and reassembled on the ramparts.

Moore began to plan the exhibition in Florence with images of maquettes and working models of the monumental works he was planning to use, photographed against a backdrop of the Florentine skyline, to give an idea of what the installed work would look like. In the case of Square Form with Cut, Moore used a polystyrene version of the working model; the next stage was a full-sized polystyrene-and-plaster sculpture, which was assembled in situ at the Forte di Belvedere.

Moore had begun working with polystyrene in the 1960s, having been introduced to it in 1968 by Derek Howarth, a former assistant.  It made working on large sculptures much easier and faster.  Working on very large plasters proved problematic, as the medium was fragile – in 1963, the large plaster for the Lincoln Center Reclining Figure (LH 519) had nearly collapsed under its own weight.

The sculpture finally installed in Florence for the exhibition was carved from Italian marble, and the first challenge was getting the pieces onto the ramparts.  Errol Jackson, who photographed Moore and his work for many years, recalled that the crane which was needed to lift the sections up onto the fortifications was too big to fit through the gate, so two smaller cranes had to be driven up; they were used to lift the larger crane into place, and only then could the sculpture begin to be brought up. The pieces were lifted into place onto the ramparts and then the sculpture was assembled.

After the show was finished, the work was deconstructed, and the whole process had to be performed in reverse to move the piece out of the Belvedere – and to its final destination, the city of Prato in Tuscany, where the work remains to this day.