Edoardo Villa (1915 - 2011)

Edoardo Daniele Villa was born in the village of Redona, on the outskirts of Bergamo, Italy in 1915. He studied the basic techniques of sculpture at the Scuola d’Arte Andrea Fantoni, under the sculptors Minotti, Lodi and Barbieri. As a young artist, he completed a number of public commissions for reliefs in his home town. Villa was about to continue his art studies in Milan when he was called up for two years of military service. He asked to be stationed in Rome, which gave him the opportunity to view the numerous public sculptures on display throughout the city (Von Maltitz and Nel, 2005).

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Villa was conscripted into the Italian army under Mussolini and was wounded in the North African campaign. He was captured by English forces and hospitalised in Egypt before being sent to South Africa as a prisoner-of-war. Together with 70,000 Italians, he was held at the Zonderwater camp in the Transvaal from 1942.

During the four years in the POW camp Villa was able to start sculpting again (Berman, 2005). An art studio and a number of cultural activities for the young prisoners were set up in the camp, and the years spent there were an active period of re-connecting with his craft. He studied the work of Auguste Rodin, working mainly in plaster-of-Paris. The difficult conditions of the war years was reflected in his work, described by Von Maltitz and Nel (2005) as “emotional” and descriptive in style. Esmé Berman (2005) notes that, “Rodinesque realism characterised the first phase of Edoardo Villa’s South African career.”

Unlike most of his fellow prisoners, Villa decided to stay in South Africa on his release in 1947, settling in Johannesburg. He went on to become the foremost abstract sculptor in South Africa - rejecting traditional European art practices and mimetic sculpture that defined the South African scene in the 1950s. Villa started to explore an ‘African’ character in his work, bringing in elements of the highveld landscape; its plant forms, brilliant sun, dramatic shadows and rock formations - manifested in sharp contours and intersecting flat and curved planes (Berman, 2005). In the early 1950s, Villa’s friend Douglas Portway recommended he experiment with constructing sculptures by welding pieces of metal together – after Picasso and Gonzales had begun working in this medium. At the start of the 1950s, Villa toured Italy with fellow Italian-born artist Giuseppe Cattaneo. In South Africa, he started a new trend that he would continue throughout his career, holding open-air exhibitions in Joubert Park, in Johannesburg (Von Maltitz and Nel, 2005).

Villa’s use of Cubist and Constructivist techniques and his creative use of steel, exploring the possibilities of bent and welded metal, characterised his “break with descriptive conventions” (Berman, 2005:4). In line with Cubism, he became interested in traditional African sculpture, and a “new formal language” that appreciated the geometric forms in much African sculpture (Maurice and Dodd, 2009). During the 1960’s, Villa’s work engaged in a “dialogue between constructed steel and sculpture modeled for casting” (Von Maltitz and Nel, 2005:48).

Another significant development in Villa’s career was when he met Lucas Legodi in 1964, and the two began a long-standing friendship and co-operation, working together on large sculptures. The two were able to produce more prolifically, accelerating Villa’s development, as works could be completed much quicker. Rather than working on an individual sculpture, Villa often worked on a series of works in which “a formal idea was explored for possible variations of form and meaning” (Von Maltitz and Nel, 2005).

Villa was passionately dedicated to the creation of an African identity in his work – an aim which was initiated and further explored through his friendship with two collectors of modern and African art, Egon Guenther and Vittorini Meneghelli. He became a member of the Amadlozi group, along with Cecil Skotnes, Sydney Kumalo, Giuseppe Cattaneo and Cecily Sash. In 1963, Egon Guenther organised an exhibition for the Amadlozi group around different cities in Italy, showing their work in Rome, Venice, Milan and Florence.

According to Esmé Berman, his work began to speak “convincingly, not of the appearance, but of the experience of Africa”. This is most noticeable in his works of a more serious nature, such as ‘Confrontation’ of 1978, which illustrates Villa’s concern with the human dynamics of the political conflict after the Soweto student uprising in 1976. “It is not difficult to see this work as encapsulating all the pain, defiance and anger arising from the implacable conflict of values that hallmarked the uprisings of 1976”, write Von Maltitz and Nel.

Close to seven decades of Villa’s career has seen his work undergo remarkable stylistic transformations. Figurative, descriptive heads, busts and reliefs gave way to the stylized abstraction of modernist shapes inspired by the African landscape, and finally to the colourful works of structural abstraction which typify the latter part of his oeuvre. During the 1980’s, Villa completed a large number of public commissions, in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban and Johannesburg, experimenting with different sculptural forms and techniques. His largest exhibition, ‘Villa at 80’, was held in Johannesburg in 1995, with nearly 300 works on display. Following the successful exhibition, articles were frequently published on Villa’s work, in both South Africa and Italy, emphasising Villa’s impact on the development of South African art.

In the 1980s he repeatedly returned to using pipes in his works, which he had begun in the 1970s, as well as the incorporation of colour into his sculptures. As noted by Von Maltitz and Nel, “Colour, for Villa, has always been an important means of amplifying the mood he intends the work to project – at times brooding, moody and aggressive; at others, light-hearted and joyous.” He also completed a number of small steel works, and a series of sculptures such as ‘Metamorphosis’, in which organic shapes predominate. Since, 1990 he has produced a number of very large metal sculptures, always experimenting and adapting his methods, with an “acute awareness of his environment – natural, social and political – as well as a considered insight into contemporary art-making, tempered by an understanding of the global context” (Von Maltitz and Nel, 2005:118).

Throughout Villa’s career, the universality of humankind, expressing the multifaceted human condition, has been a dominant theme and concern (Berman, 1980). According to Berman, Villa’s work transformed the way in which South Africans perceive sculpture: “[It] is in the conceptual substance of his oeuvre that his most significant achievement lies. Edoardo Villa has been uniquely able to translate his South African experience into symbolic visual form (2005:4)”.

Today, Edoardo Villa’s public sculptures mark the metropolitan landscape of Johannesburg – his sculptures are better represented in that city than the work of any other artist. His numerous works have transformed the urban landscape of many South African cities, as Villa has created an “unsurpassed body of work – in number, quality and scale” (Von Maltitz and Nel, 2005). He has established himself as a prominent figure in the South African art scene, as a member of the South African Arts Association and the South African Council of Artists, and through long-standing relationships with prominent universities, such as the University of Pretoria and the University of Johannesburg. He has represented South Africa at the São Paulo Biennale as well as in the Venice Biennale on five occasions, and has had more than 100 solo and group shows worldwide.

The Edoardo Villa Museum at the University of Pretoria was opened in 1995, on his 80th birthday. He also received the Chancellor’s Medal of the University of Pretoria. A second Villa museum was established close to his birthplace, in Treviglio, by Giovanni Cervi, a fervent collector of his sculptures.

Villa and Legodi continue to work together to this day.

June 2010


Berman, E. (1980). “The human element in Edoardo Villa’s sculpture” in Engel, E.P.(Ed), Eduardo Villa Sculpture, United Book Distributors: South Africa.

Berman, E. (1983). Art and Artists of South Africa. Southern Book Publishers: Western Cape.

Berman, E. (2005) “Foreword” in Nel, E., Burroughs, E. and Von Maltitz, A. (Eds.), Villa at 90, Jonathan Ball Publishing: Johannesburg and Cape Town, 1-13.

Emile, M. and Dodd, R. (2009). Standard Bank Learner Resource in South African Art Times, 2/2009. http://www.standardbankarts.com/Gallery/Downloads/AV_EV.pdf

Engel, E.P.(Ed), (1980), Eduardo Villa Sculpture, United Book Distributors: South Africa.

Meneghelli, V. (2005). “Introduction” in Nel, E., Burroughs, E. and Von Maltitz, A. (Eds.), Villa at 90, Jonathan Ball Publishing: Johannesburg and Cape Town, 15-23.

Nel, K. (2005). “Edoardo Villa: Creating an African Presence” in Nel, E., Burroughs, E. and Von Maltitz, A. (Eds.), Villa at 90, Jonathan Ball Publishing: Johannesburg and Cape Town, 121-147.

Ogilvie, Grania, (1988). The Dictionary of South African Painters and Sculptures, Everard Read: Johannesburg.

Von Maltitz, A. and Nel, K. (2005). “Edoardo Villa: A Life Considered” in Nel, E., Burroughs, E. and Von Maltitz, A. (Eds.), Villa at 90, Jonathan Ball Publishing: Johannesburg and Cape Town, 25-119.

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