Welcoming La Donna: Collier puts out solid marble welcome mat in East Naples

Brent Batten
Marco Eagle
A crane hoists pieces of Marton Varo's sculpture, La Donna, into place at the intersection of Collier Boulevard and U.S. 41 East. The view is looking south toward Marco Island. Nick Shirghio/Nick Shirghio Photography

What is that? It’s a 15-foot-tall, 22-ton sculpture made of Carrara marble welcoming travelers on U.S. 41 East into greater Naples. Yes, but what is that? Well, it’s not a man. Nor is it a woman. It’s definitely not a fish.

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“It’s abstract art. It’s someone welcoming, encouraging, embracing. The undulating lines give pleasure,” said sculptor Marton Varo, a Hungarian artist whose work can be seen at Naples Community Hospital, above the entrance to the iconic church in the town of Ave Maria and in private collections around Naples.

He calls the piece “La Donna,” Italian for the woman, but Varo says it isn’t meant to be taken literally.

Italian is the language of sculpture, and Naples is an Italian city name.

In art, the concepts of liberty, peace and justice are all embodied by women, so he wanted to invoke all those sentiments without carving an actual woman, he said.

That the public art project was spearheaded by County Commissioner Donna Fiala is merely a coincidence, Varo said.

Hungarian-born artist Marton Varo with a scale model of his sculpture La Donna Wednesday at U.S. 41 East and Collier Boulevard. The 15-foot-tall sculpture is being installed at the intersection this week. An official unveiling is set for Feb. 21.

Fiala led the effort to raise the $250,000 pay for the sculpture, relying mostly on contributions from developers with projects near the intersection of U.S. 41 East and Collier Boulevard where the piece was recently installed.

Installation costs amount to $135,000 and will be paid from the county’s road landscape budget for Collier Boulevard. Annual maintenance cost is estimated at $500 per year, according to county documents.

“For a long time, I’ve been wanting to get (public) art in Collier County,” Fiala said.

She was familiar with Varo through his other local projects and asked him to submit an idea.

“He said, ‘Don’t tell me you want a fish. I’m not doing a fish,”’ Fiala said.

County commissioners unanimously agreed to the project after Fiala raised the $250,000.

Varo said it took a while to sketch out his ideas. La Donna is reminiscent of his public art on display at Texas Christian University and in Palm Springs, California. 

Once he had the concept, it took about another year to sculpt the marble, mined from a mountain in Carrara in northern Italy, the same marble used by Michelangelo and other masters going back 2,000 years to the days of ancient Rome.

Varo said he adheres to Michelangelo’s philosophy of seeing the sculpture in the solid block of marble and then chipping away the parts that don’t belong.

Unlike Michelangelo, Varo has the benefit of power tools like diamond grinders to help with his work. And if he makes a mistake and grinds away too much marble?

It just doesn’t happen, he said. “You don’t get there before you have the experience. For the delicate parts, you work with delicate tools, you have total focus,” he said.

The sculpture consists of 10 3-foot cubes of granite, stacked one on the bottom, more in the middle and one on top. With its narrow base, it looks as if it might topple. but Varo says it’s balanced and anchored to be sturdy.

The sculpted and polished blocks were taken by ship from Italy to Miami then trucked to East Naples, where on Wednesday afternoon a dozen workers with a 50-foot crane carefully maneuvered them into place.

Once a block was set, a sheet of ice was placed on top before the next block was moved into place. As the ice melts, it gently lowers the higher block into its proper position, said Adam Ahmad, an engineer with Capital Consulting Solutions, which is doing the work.

Overhead, a drone took photos and video of the progress. Photographer Nick Shirghio, operating the drone, has documented some of Varo’s other projects, including making a trip to Italy with him as part of the NCH commission.

“He’s awesome at what he does. His stuff is amazing,” Shirghio said.

Fiala said it was positioned so that even if an overpass is built at the intersection the sculpture can remain as is.

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Abstract art being what it is, there are bound to be those who, even after a county unveiling ceremony set for 11 a.m. Friday, Feb. 21, will ask, “What is that?”

The answer will always be in the eye of the beholder, but Varo hopes they will come away thinking, “It’s something playful, welcoming, pleasant to look at.”