Silvio's Italian American Historical Artistic Museum
According to Silvio Luigi Barile, most people don't understand the art that he's built at his pizzeria for the past 50 years -- but they like it.
Silvio is an Italian World War II refugee. He moved to Michigan with his family, then opened a pizzeria and pastry shop. But the longer that Silvio lived in America, the more he felt that he had to create a museum -- a museum of art about Italy and America, by Silvio.
His sculptures slowly began to fill the pizzeria, then the patio behind it, then the acre of woodland behind the patio. By the time local authorities shut down the pizzeria, the art had already overrun the place.
The Italian American Historical Artistic Museum shows where five decades of gradual accumulation can lead. The former pizzeria is now a cozy nest of Italian Americanism. Interior walls are covered with photos of Caesar statues, Roman ruins, Renaissance paintings, olive trees.
One display, labeled Museo-Della Civilta-Romana (Museum of Roman Civilization) includes a portrait of Pope John Paul II, color post cards of Italy, some nun dolls, a statue of Julius Caesar -- and the Statue of Liberty, a bust of Napoleon, a Canadian Mountie on horseback, Detroit Red Wings bobble heads, a Queen Nefertiti head, and a cowboy doll wearing an oversized copper hat.
A framed photo of a much younger Silvio with his shirt unbuttoned is captioned, "Sensuality has always been my bag." There are piles of books of classical art and architecture, and stacks of vinyl records of Italian music. Bottles of wine line shelves and the floor. "It's always been like this," said Silvio.
And it's just the beginning. Outside, on the back patio, where the clutter begins to dissipate and the statues increase in size, a concrete Vesuvius erupts blobs of red-painted lava next to a day-glo yellow cement Texas Alamo below a souvenir plate of the Unisphere from the 1964 New York World's Fair. There's a large concrete statue of a smiling Julius Caesar with glittery stars in his hair, and a Roman triumphal arch, one of several built by Silvio, this one titled, "For George Bush and the People of America."
"I like George Bush," said Silvio, "because he cannot spell. Like me."
Cross the back alley, open the metal gate, and enter "Silvio's American Forum." The former pizza-maker has populated this tree-shaded maze of paths with monumental sculptures and obelisks, some towering 25 feet high. Silvio says that all of his art is designed to enrich culturally fallow Americans with the Latin language, literature, philosophy, morality, and Christianity.
"I build because I want to help America," said Silvio. "I want to make America better."
As with the displays in the pizzeria, Silvio freely mixes and matches his subjects. One sculpture includes Washington Crossing the Delaware; a salute to Detroit's auto industry; jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong; the Three Stooges; the band director of a local high school; and Silvio Luigi Barile, dressed in Roman regalia. If you ask Silvio to explain any of his works, he'll answer in half-Italian while bemoaning your lack of knowledge of art and antiquity.
All of Silvio's statuary is covered with neatly inscribed Roman-style capital letters, identifying whoever or whatever it's honoring. This is helpful, since Silvio sometimes creates human faces from colorful pebbles and glass mortared directly into cement, so that everyone -- Augustus Caesar or the god Mars or Ronald Reagan -- looks a bit like a rock monster. Silvio described his efforts to create George Washington: "I wanted to make him look a little bit like Apollo. But sometimes when I do things, I think this, and it comes out that."
Silvio is well into his seventies and still making sculptures, motivated by America's need to hear his message, and aided by a battered little bucket for his cement. He's painted his Buick in the red-white-green of the Italian flag, added an "Italian Stallion" license plate, and parked it outside the pizzeria as a kind of billboard.
He welcomes visitors, although people who've only seen art in genteel, antiseptic museums will be in for a shock.
"Lotta people think I'm some kind of clown," said Silvio. "They say, 'This guy, he's just a crazy man.' But I think I make some of the greatest statues in America."
We hear you, Silvio. Michelangelo probably had a little bucket, too.