Europe is famous for some of its stunning street art – statues, monuments and, in more modern times, sculptures and street art – that have captured the imagination of residents and visitors for centuries. So if you’re interested in art and planning on taking a tour of Europe, here’s a list of some absolutely unmissable sights.
Michelangelo’s statue of David, widely regarded as his defining work, was actually commissioned in the 15th century, and wasn’t all Michelangelo’s work. The original artist, Agostino di Duccio, made a half-hearted start on the statue but gave up, leaving the way clear for Michelangelo to take over 35 years later. Michelangelo was offered the prestigious yet abandoned project, and despite being unhappy about the state of the marble after it had spent years festering in the Cathedral courtyard, he took over and within two years had created the iconic image that we know and admire today.
There are countless replicas of Michelangelo’s Statue of David all over the world, including one in Okuizumo, Japan, where after complaints, some locals asked that he be given some underwear ‘to preserve his modesty’.
The original monument now takes pride of place at the Accademia art gallery in Florence; in its original location at the Piazza della Signoria is a replica.
The subject of endless photographs over the years, and just three blocks away from the Grand Place in Brussels, this iconic little statue of a boy answering the call of nature has been popular for centuries. The original statue was sculpted by Jerôme Duquesnoy back in the 14th century, and so outraged were the locals when it was destroyed that a replacement had to be made in 1616. For national holidays and special occasions, the locals like to dress their special boy up – he’s even been dressed up as Elvis and Mozart in the past. The tourist office in Brussels can tell you in advance when his next dress-up opportunity is going to be. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you might even catch him peeing wine or beer!
Banksy – London, Bristol and elsewhere
Think of modern street artists and the first name that will spring to mind is probably Guerrilla artist Banksy. For over a decade, his works have been appearing in London and his home town of Bristol, where he stencils clever pictures, sometimes with a political angle, some which are just wickedly funny or clever. The problem with his work is that some of it has faded with time, and some has been removed, so it’s hard to say definitively where the best examples are to be found. A good guide to finding his best work is this Map of Banksy’s Works, but it’s an ever-changing guide.
Art auctioneers have tried to capitalise on Banksy’s notoriety by auctioning off examples of his street art in-situ and then leaving the tricky problem of how to remove them from their settings to the successful bidder.
The Fourth Plinth – London
If you’re searching for examples of modern public art in London, head to Trafalgar Square, where you’ll find The Fourth Plinth and some often controversial modern art.
Three of the Plinths around the base of Nelson’s Column look quite reserved; there is a statue of George IV and two more statues are of generals. The fourth plinth was originally going to be a statue of a horse, but as these projects tend to do, it ran out of money and the plinth was left empty for over 150 years.
In 1999, somebody had the bright idea of turning the plinth into a place where art could be displayed, including works such as Yinka Shonibare’s Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle, and Antony Gormley’s One and Other – live art that involved members of the public becoming the statue and standing on the plinth for an hour at a time.
The Spire, Dublin
The tallest example of public art in the world is The Spire of Dublin, a 120 metre high landmark with a diameter of just 15cm at its tip, which was commissioned as part of a redevelopment of the O’Connell Street landscape in 1999 and completed in 2002. You’ll find it (well, you can’t really miss it) in the centre of O’Connell Street, close to the world famous General Post Office, swaying gently in the wind on a blustery day. Apparently this is perfectly normal!
During the day it appears to be made of steel, but as night begins to fall, the Spire actually appears to merge into the sky.
The Sequence – Brussels
The Sequence by Arne Quinze is a large bright red sculpture which connects the Flemish Parliament with the House of Flemish Representatives. It’s one of those works of art that has a Marmite effect on all who see it – some love it, and others… well, you can imagine. It’s a very intricate sculpture that consists of sustainable wooden planks (“for every tree cut, another one is planted”) and concrete. When asked what his sculpture represents, Quinze replied, “The sequence bridges the communication gap between people and generates movement in the city. I want to reconnect people and let them interact with each other like they did in the past on squares. At least people talked to each other then.”
The sculpture was originally designed to last for at least five years and has been in place since 2008.
Kivik Art Centre, Österlen, Sweden
Antony Gormley is perhaps best known in the UK for his Angel of the North, but he has worked on many continental sculptures, including the pavilion for the Kivik Art Centre, which was a joint project with architects David Chipperfield. The concrete structure they created took just two months to build, and is in three parts: ‘The Cave’, an enclosed space at the base; ’The Stage’, an exposed viewing platform; and ‘The Tower’, another platform accessed via a spiral staircase, which gives amazing views out across the Baltic Sea. Gormley said afterwards, “I see the work as a meditation on the status of sculpture and architecture and their respective relationships with light, mass and space using the material most associated with modernity: concrete.” So, now you know.
The famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí designed Parc Güell, originally intended to be a housing estate for wealthy Spaniards, with houses set into ornate landscaped gardens. By 1914 the project had been abandoned as a commercial flop, but Gaudi had already made his mark and created a landscaped masterpiece of passages, columns, steps and grottoes that was quickly snapped up and turned into a public park in 1922.
Beautiful dragon fountains guard the entrance to the park, and twisted rocky pillars stand up out of the ground like stone trees. If you find yourself in the Parc, make your way to top of the park, where you’ll find a terraced area with a fabulous view of the park and Barcelona City.
What public works of art would you recommend to fellow travellers? Share your travel tips in the comments below!