Neapolitan pastry chef Gennaro Naddeo so loved Michelangelo's Pieta, he carved his own tribute - in margarine. Photographs by Paolo Pellegrin
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Gennaro Naddeo is an unusual sort of sculptor. For a start, his creations rarely survive more than a few weeks, and sometimes as little as a few hours. Either they go stale, or they melt, or else they are devoured by the very people who most admire and appreciate them. Not surprising, really, since his materials of choice are butter, chocolate, sponge-cake and sugar. Perhaps, with the help of custom-made freezers and the odd formaldehyde tank, his work would find its way into the Saatchi Gallery and provoke high-brow debate in fine art magazines. But Naddeo is not a man of any pretension, merely a Neapolitan pastry-cook with a passion, and the highest compliment he can hope to be paid is to have his objets d'art sliced up and swallowed with gusto.

Food sculpture has been a private, almost secret passion of his for years now. Customers at the Bella Napoli, the Neapolitan bar in the heart of old Rome where he works, have become used to strange sights suddenly appearing in the window - a six-foot long warship made of sponge-cake and white chocolate, say, or a painted marzipan Ferrari, or a full-sized Christmas crib fashioned entirely from panettone (the stringy-doughed cake that Italians traditionally devour by the kilo during the festive season) and decorated with chocolate and icing sugar.

Then one day last October, Naddeo tried a little experiment. He made his very own butter mountain out of 70 kilos of margarine, bought himself some sculpting tools and a book of photographs of art from the Vatican, and proceeded to fashion a facsimile of Michelangelo's famous statue of the Pieta, which sits just a few hundred yards away from the Bella Napoli in the nave of St Peter's. "It started out as a bet with myself. I just figured out what to do as I went along," Naddeo explains.

Three weeks later, having gouged away the first 20 kilos of margarine, the result was an uncannily alluring piece of artistic homage - smaller than the original and somewhat squatter, but such an arresting combination of subject matter and materials that it brought half of Rome to the Bella Napoli's door for a closer look. As the weeks passed, the sharp edges of the piece began to smudge and the bright yellow surface of the margarine turned a tallowy, rancid white. A process of decay not dissimilar to some of those pieces from the Saatchi collection, you might think (imagine a low fat, polyunsaturated version of Marc Quinn's slowly deforming self- portrait in frozen blood). But Naddeo is too practical-minded a man for such considerations; first he touched up the sculpture for a final few days' display, then abandoned it in favour of a new blob of margarine from which to fashion his next creation, a decorated Pulchinella figure for Carnival season.

From seven in the morning until one in the afternoon, Naddeo is a serious- minded, professional pastry-cook, descending to the basement kitchens of the Bella Napoli to turn out cakes, biscuits, parfaits and breakfast pastries including the trademark Neapolitan delicacy, sfogliatelle, deliciously brittle bite-sized mille-feuilles filled with sweet ricotta. It is only in the early afternoon, when his day's work is done and the ovens are switched off, that the artist inside him takes flight while the life of the bar continues on the floor above his head.

He has been studying the work of the country's best pastry-cooks ever since he started in the business at the precocious age of seven. Naples gave him a good start, with its tradition of artistic flair as well as culinary excellence, but he has lived all round Italy, learning over the past 30 years to perform culinary wonders with transparent caramelised sugar, and picking up the sort of secrets that once enabled him to build a cake in the shape of an airport runway with a marzipan plane taking off into the skies.

Naddeo's next project? He wants to replicate one of the fine Bourbon castles in Naples in time for Easter, and then spend the spring and summer on his magnum opus - a replica of the riotous gargoyle roof of Milan cathedral, all done in transparent glass on a sugar and sponge-cake base. "It's going to take a while because I'll have to design and make each piece separately," Naddeo explains. If he manages it, the unassuming window of the Bella Napoli will be thronging once again.