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Scooping up history: Modigliani sculptures dredged from canal

A Caterpillar dredger and an Italian professor are making art history. Thanks to the persistence of Prof. Vera Durbe, the dredger has recently been scooping its way through a canal in the northern port town of Livorno, Italy - finding, among a lot of other things, several long-lost sculptures by the great Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani.

The story goes like this:

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Vera and Dario Durbe are the organizers of a major exhibition of Modigliani's work currently showing in Livorno, the artist's birthplace. The exhibition of 36 paintings and sculptures, which commemorates the 100th anniversary of Modigliani's birth, is entitled ''The Other Modigliani'' (''L'altro Modigliani''). The Durbes, who run the Livorno Modern Art Gallery, have for years argued that the Italian artist, who made his career in Paris where he lived until his early death in 1920 at the age of 36, should be as admired for his sculpture as for his painting.

Thus the commemorative exhibition centers around the only four sculptured heads the museum could obtain. ''There are 26 known Modigliani sculptures in the world,'' says Vera Durbe, ''but nearly all of them are in private hands and we could persuade no owners to part with them.''

The collection was destined to grow, however. Vera Durbe remembers childhood rumors that Modigliani, on a trip home to Livorno from Paris in the summer of 1909, had begun to try his hand at sculpturing, using the flagstones that paved the streets of Livorno as his raw material. No one ever saw the results of his labors, but reports say that he asked his friends what he should do with the pieces of stone that he couldn't take back to Paris with him. He followed their advice and an instinctive dissatisfaction with his work and dumped them in the Fosso Reale, a canal that ran under his studio.

There they would have stayed and the rumors would have remained rumors had it not been for the persistence of Vera Durbe. She persuaded the local government to fund a delicately maneuverable dredging machine that would sift through canal debris in search of the missing heads. ''I've been convinced for years that there was something there,'' she says.

For six weeks, the Caterpillar dredger has been churning through city garbage thrown into the canal, whose walled banks date back to the Renaissance. Along with old bicycles, sofas, lead piping, and sundry unwanted household goods, on July 26 two sculptured stone heads were extracted from the mud.

A scientific study of the stone showed the two heads to be sculptured in the same local stone used for the streets of Livorno, which is quarried on the nearby island of Elba. The stone is of the kind Modigliani used and probably persuaded his friends to heave up to his studio that summer.

Leading Italian art historians and sculptors - among them historian and writer Cesare Brandi; an ex-mayor of Rome, Carlo Giulio Argan, one of Italy's most respected art history experts; sculptors Corrado Guerin and Carlo Signori - have expressed their conviction that the two heads are authentic sculptures by Modigliani.

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Vera Durbe finds the notion that they could be fakes absurd. ''As soon as I saw that perfect oval face chiseled onto the stone, the grace of the nose, I was convinced,'' she says.

The two heads have now joined the other pieces of the exhibition in the Villa Maria, home of the Modern Art Museum. On the day of their installation in the exhibition, the dredger drew up another head, sculptured in granite and, like the previous finds, covered in mud and tar. It lies on a piece of brown paper under the careful attention of art restorers from nearby Pisa, who are cleaning it with distilled water.

As with all but two of Modigliani's other sculptures, this too is a sculptured female head. It was created in a style that art critics attribute to the artist's fascination with the indigenous African and Oceanic sculptures he saw in his early days in Paris museums, as well as his admiration for the work of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi, with whom he shared a studio between 1909 and 1912.

One of the most definitive proofs of the the newly discovered works' authenticity is the simplicity of their materials. Modigliani chiseled his deceptively simple outlines onto hard stone, often granite, which he picked up from piles left in the street by Paris road workers, who were then constructing the subway.

The works, however, were carefully prepared; many of his sketches show this as do some early sculptures, which are sculptured on two sides, one side possibly serving as a sketch.

Sadly, one of the people most qualified to authenticate the newly found sculptures failed to see them. Jeanne Modigliani, the artist's daughter, died in her home in Paris on July 27 just when, despite her complaints at not being consulted about the Livorno exhibition of her father's works, she had decided to make the trip to Italy to pronounce her judgment on the latest discoveries from the Fosso Reale.

Her death was perhaps a final ironic twist: She had spent her life researching her father's life and work, bringing to light several documents and letters as well as writing a recently updated biography ''Modigliani Senza La Sua Leggenda'' (''Modigliani Without His Legend''). The work is considered by critics to be one of the most thorough books on the artist.

It is also a work about a man she never knew. Jeanne Modigliani was 14 months old when her father died on Jan. 25, 1920. The following day her mother, Jeanne Hebuterne, committed suicide.

But the search for the work Modigliani discarded 75 years ago goes on. If the funds forthcoming from the local government and the Rome Fine Arts Ministry give out, the Durbes say they have promises of continued financing from Japan through the embassy in Rome. No one knows how many sculptures may be buried there, but the directors of the Modern Art Museum are convinced their collection is already richer by three sculptures.

The works could also be considered an essential link between his earlier paintings - whose strength of line and color showed his inspiration from the Impressionist Paul Cezanne - and his later sculptures.

By then he was free of direct influences from African or Grecian art and imbued his sculptured heads with a graceful style at which the English poet Beatrice Hastings marveled: ''The whole head smiles impartially in contemplation of wisdom, of madness, of grace, and of sensibility. ... The whole enclosed as if in perpetual meditation. It's as legible as the book of Ecclesiastes, only more consoling.'

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