Aldo Moroni died last weekend. He was an artist, a sculptor, and 30 years ago he helped me see cities and the people who live in them.
I’ll tell you more about Aldo, but first:
“Want to paint?” granddaughter Emma, 10, asked one day recently.
“Yeah!” I said. I’m into any activity that doesn’t require major physical exertion. Emma is a gymnast and very much into exertion.
She got out blank pads and brushes and an assortment of paints that would put a Crayola box of 64 to shame. We each thought for a few minutes, then hunkered down over our canvases and started to paint.
Emma created a lovely impressionistic image of lines and curves and dots. “That’s really nice, Emma,” I said. She smiled, then considered my painting. “I like it,” she said.
But she was being kind.
I am not an artist. I croak more than sing. A former girlfriend would tell you emphatically that I can’t dance. I took piano lessons when I was a boy but, despite a kind and patient teacher, gave it up. I played clarinet, then saxophone, in the high school band but so clearly disappointed my band teacher that I brought no musical instrument with me to college. (I tried to return to the clarinet years later when I discovered the music of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and others of the Swing Era. My fondness for the music endures, but that silvery “licorice stick” is long gone.)
And, as Emma would tell you, if she’s being honest, I’m not much at painting.
I do love artistic expression and admire people who can sing, dance, paint, act – who have the vision, patience, drive and talent to create. I’ve seen Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” in an Oslo gallery, and I’ve heard Itzhak Perlman play the violin. Hearing the Varsity Bards sing at my high school more than 50 years ago persuaded me that UND was where I wanted to be.
And through his sculpture, Aldo Moroni helped me see and appreciate people who lived, loved, worked, played and died many centuries ago.
I met him in 1990 at his studio in north Minneapolis. He had been building a terra cotta city in his back yard for three years, a sprawling model of an Etruscan city, with a coliseum, a palace, a public market and hundreds of simple houses. His hands had shaped the city through centuries, from 853 B.C. to the Roman conquest and ultimately to its destruction by Vandals.
Aldo was the Vandal. One day, he lobbed rocks at his creation until walls crumbled, towers collapsed and all those intricate houses disappeared, buried under debris.
“It was time,” he told me.
His fascination with urban settings, how people lived in relation to their space, began in Chicago, where he grew up. He went to Minneapolis to study art and soon began building clay civilizations. (You can see some of Moroni’s work by googling his name.)
For guidance and inspiration, he read Livy, Pliny and other ancient scholars as well as modern archaeologists. Etruscan civilization was the most advanced in Italy before the rise of Rome, he said. Historians believe a dozen Etruscan city-states bound in a loose confederation were known for metal-working and fine pottery. Aldo said his was the 13th Etruscan city-state. “Only I know about it,” he said.
He compiled notebooks of “history” of his city, recording the Romans’ construction of the colosseum, a circus and aqueducts. He designed and built an elaborate system of roads and bridges. Ships of wax floated on a river.
“Maybe it’s psychological. Maybe it has something to do with wanting to control your world. This was my world. Sometimes I was the emperor, or I was the discoverer.” In the end, he was the destroyer.
The city he called “Gloria Civitas” wasn’t entirely a secret. “The fire inspector liked it,” he said. “I think he understood it. But he said I was crazy.”
School kids “saw it as a little village, something to play in, and that was OK.” Professors of archaeology and history visited, too. “They come in and argue about whether what I’m saying is right. But in the end, they shrug and say: ‘He’s an artist, so he can say whatever he wants.’”
But accuracy mattered to Aldo. When someone stole five buildings one night, Aldo left a note in case the raider returned: “Will you please wait? You’re well off schedule.” Destruction by invading hordes was “not due for 50 years yet.”
An earlier Moroni city, with hundreds of clay buildings, was buried intact several feet deep in a yard in Minnetonka, Minn. “Someday, someone will be digging there and will find it,” he said, clearly happy at the prospect.
Moroni died of pancreatic cancer last Sunday. He was 67. Volunteers were helping with his final project, representing all the civilizations of Mesoamerica, from the Mayans and Aztecs through the Spanish conquest to today’s Mexico, all on a mountain he built on a table in his studio. Friends and fellow artists have vowed to finish it. I wonder, though, if they will follow through with his intention ultimately to destroy it, too.
“It’s always sad when things collapse,” he told me. “But you also can look at it as the beginning of something new.”
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at email@example.com.