The story of the prancing horse of Rocca Priora in the Castelli Romani coincides with the history of its sculptor, Mario Benedetto Robazza, a great living artists. Mario, a man whose life has been filled with action that is more interesting than a James Bond film.
For those who pass daily along the Via Anagnina, the Rocca Priora horse has become a ‘Friend’ and a reference point: “I’ll see you at the horse!”. So over the years many have forgotten that the sculptor of the horse is an internationally renowned artist who lives between Italy and the United States, fell in love with Rocca Priora and that the destiny and a promise led to Rocca Priora.
Robazza, known as Johnny, found success after the privations of the war, prison, the Navy, boxing, diamond cutting, wealth, art, international renown, meetings with American and world presidents and an exhibition in the greatest museums in the world. But let’s get it in order.
Mario Benedetto Robazza was born in Trastevere 2 March 1934, and his accent leaves no doubt about his pure spirit ‘Roman from Rome’. He had all the premises of a ‘normal’ life: an architect father, a good mother and a brother.
His father left for the war of Russia and was disabled in the legs and then deported to Germany where he died. The war came to Italy and his little brother died of meningitis. His mother was torn by grief at the death of her men and abandoned herself from the realities of life. Mario Benedetto Robazza was 10 years old and had to suddenly grow up, take care of his mom and learn how to get money and food.
It is clear that a child subjected to this stress is in a delicate situation in which he can become great or may end up in reform school. You can live like a lion or follow the herd. Robazza chose to live as a lion.
He survived the war, doing everything but finding himself good at one thing that apparently could not bring money: paint and sculpt. His connection with Rocca Priora was born in this period and his gratitude is the result of a promise that he still wants to respect at all costs. But this is the man, Robazza, one who stands behind his works. A passionate man who protects the weak (as someone should have done with his father), one that respects his word.
“When the Americans arrived, a soldier adopted me and taught me two things that would be very useful throughout life: to box and to dance. What then, if we think about it, the movements of the feet are very similar, but the social functions are different! “
In the lives of those who had to make do in the hard post-war years, you could become a thief or a crook. Robazza without schooling was not literate but had excellent manual dexterity and started making nativity figurines and paintings, but it turned out that he could earn more when he did ‘fake’ watches. He could ‘fake’ anything, including the brands that he drew freehand and that were perfect. But the game he played was interrupted with prison.
Robazza got along OK but realized that he had to learn a trade, so he enlisted in the Navy for a period. Military obedience was not congenial and illiteracy prevented him from having any future career. But boxing and art came to his assistance and he began his new career in an unexpected way.
“One day they give me an encyclopedia, useless for those unable to read, but an incredible stimulus for those who are hungry to learn. I saw the section in which they explained gemology and the cutting of stones and it is as if I had always done it. I learned everything with avarice and went to Brussels to the best school. From then on the world seemed to go all right.”
But life had taught him to respect his fortune and to distribute it to others. How had the soldier fared who wanted to bring him to America? Robazza offered a second chance to all his friends who he had met trafficking in the streets, and in jail. His philosophy is that you have to provide an opportunity and to be grateful to the people who helped you in some way in prior difficult times.
One day, now at the peak of his wealth a gallery owner asked to borrow a bust he had done of his wife and the show was so successful that Robazza changed his life’s direction again. Finally he went to America and gave himself up entirely to art becoming a major contemporary artist. A life he had dreamed of as a child: living with sculpting and painting.
Today he lives between Rome and Rocca Priora with his wife with whom he has shared love for more than half a century and with whom he also shared all the vicissitudes, always remaining children, with the desire to ‘eat life in bites’. His biography will be released soon, while in all the libraries are books about his works.
The horse of Rocca Priora is one of the works he donated to the city he fell in love with, and that today has become one of its symbols. The horse with its free spirit is one of his favourite subjects along with sculptures in which music and the female body come together in a harmony of sounds, shapes and meanings.
But his masterpiece is the representation of Dante’s Inferno, a work of 90 meters in length by 2.5 meters in height that leaves you breathless for the skill with which it manages to penetrate the sufferings of the damned and the arrogance of demons. The work was exhibited in America, China and Italy, but the teacher wants it ‘near him’ and decided to exhibit it in Rocca Priora so that he can look at it whenever he wants. On his death the town will become the owner.
Now when we pass in front of the marble horse at the entrance to Rocca Priora we imagine muscular arms and hands that pull no punches or use sculptor tools. Imagine a man with such a strong sense of gratitude that he loves his adopted town absolutely and seeks nothing in return. Rocca Priora gave to Mario something more precious.
When we make an appointment with someone at Rocca Priora we say: “See you under the Robazza horse!”. In this way we honour a great artist, the town that has hosted him and to ourselves and to the curiosity that rewards us.
And if we want to go deeper knowing other works of Mario Benedetto Robazza we can take a ride to the historic centre of Rocca Priora and admire the Stations of the Cross along the alleys or try to absorb his masterpiece, the Inferno, in the town museum.