The Roman spring that year was late. However, the comments and notes of art criticism on the statue of Daniel Comboni inaugurated on 15 March, the date of his birthday, had already blossomed. Keeping in mind the last remaining picture of our founder, the artist wanted to make a portrait of him which was quite different from the one we were used to: not a Comboni in a pose, seated or standing, gazing at the photographer, but a man—slim and slender—with outstretched arm and open hand, his head slightly inclined backwards as of one who is looking to the horizon.
The statue arrived in the General House of the Congregation on 11 March, duly wrapped in a large canvas, from which protruded only his left arm. It seemed like an enormous ghost, which the crane grabbed by the neck and placed on the pedestal. A Comboni Missionary Sister who witnessed the operation commented: “I got a shock. It’s true that it’s a statue, but taking this man, two meters tall, in this way, it gave me the impression that they wanted to hang him.” Then, turning to me, she added: “You laugh, but this was my impression.”
The arrival of the artefact had been preceded by a sketch of the work and it immediately triggered a series of comments about the missing Combonian identity: “The artist is a Franciscan, and he will give us a Comboni resembling the Poverello of Assisi. If it is true that Comboni was like this, then I entered the wrong Congregation. We have rediscovered Comboni only recently, but is it possible that in the meantime his face has changed so much?”
So bundled up, it teased even more the creativity of whoever looked at it: students, brothers and priests residing in the house competed to draw an identikit of this mysterious being: “To me, it seems like Lazarus, on the fourth day, before the miracle; it is so different that they don’t want him to be seen right away; it seems as if he is asking: “And you who do you say that I am? Nolite temere, ego sum (do not be afraid, I am). Do you know why they hooded him in such a way? It represents Comboni when he was kidnapped and gagged in Paris, to take him to confess the Freemason condemned to death”.
The appointed day finally arrived. In the presence of a small crowd, at 11:30, the Superior General of the Institute prepared to bless the monument. Freed from its bandages, the statue appeared in all its ascetic solemnity. The air was clear and the sun of March brightened this block of bronze of recent cast, of golden reflections. It was nice, no doubt about it. Someone dared to clap his hands. Humbly the author explained: “My works are often not approved by all. They are works that perhaps want to anticipate a message which is not often understood at the moment they are produced. I made my first St Francis in 1962; it was intended to be put in a square in Tivoli. It was rejected. Eighteen years later, it was placed in Capernaum and that image has now spread throughout the world.”
It is clear that the bystanders were unwilling to wait for so long to express their opinion. Some had already reconciled themselves to this work, and said: “It is elegant; it seems it wants to move. It looks sporty; to understand this monument one should do a mortal jump: I am not able to do it; all in all, it says something; it’s a bit peaky, but it has something; it has a face that makes me remember so many, that we can say that it represents us all.”
Thank God that the ceremony ended with refreshments which united all those which the art had just divided.