Contemporary Sculpture | Sculpture Artist | MARTON VARO

Marton Varo chips away at a bas relief sculpture of The Annunciation at the Ave Maria University campus.
By MITCH STACY The Associated Press

IMMOKALEE – Near the magnificent new church on the Ave Maria University campus, sculptor Marton Varo chips away at 80 tons of the best white marble money can buy, direct from the same Italian quarry where Michelangelo used to get his.

The $3 million, 35-foot-tall bas-relief sculpture depicts The Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel tells the Virgin Mary she will bear the son of God. The work will someday adorn the facade of the 10-story Ave Maria Oratory, around which a modern campus and college town have materialized in quick time on the edge of the Florida Everglades.

The recession has a stranglehold on much of southwest Florida, but billionaire Thomas Monaghan’s vision for the 1,100-seat church and the Roman Catholic school he created continues to take shape, even if construction is not progressing as quickly as he had hoped.

The 72-year-old founder of the Domino’s Pizza chain had hoped to have a gym built for the basketball team by now. He and the town’s developer also expected to see more than the 300 or so houses and condos that have gone up, and more restaurants and stores open in the town center surrounding the towering church.

And plans to erect one of the largest freestanding crucifixes in the world — 65 feet tall, with a 40-foot body of Christ — on the church grounds had to be put on hold.

“Our timing has been terrible,” Monaghan said during an interview in his office in the university library, a copper-roofed structure in the classic Frank Lloyd Wright style he favors. “But we’re pretty well-heeled, so we’re able to absorb it, and we just cut back.”

Considering these were far-flung fields of tomatoes and sod just three years ago, there has been great progress. Monaghan, who holds the title of university chancellor, figures he has put more than $400 million of his pizza fortune into developing what he likes to call a “spiritual military academy” amid a new town steeped in conservative Catholic teaching and symbolism.

Monaghan made headlines before the first shovel of dirt was turned, saying that stores in Ave Maria would be prohibited from selling contraceptives and pornography, and the cable TV system would not carry adult movies. He backed off after civil rights advocates raised a stink, but says he hopes those things will remain unavailable here.

A large classroom building, library, three residence halls and student union with dining hall accommodate 697 students this year, up from 367 when the doors opened in fall 2007. School officials say enrollment could top 900 this fall.

Another large dorm is under construction on the 11/2-square-mile campus, and in the next few years the gym and another student union/classroom building will go up. An arts center, administration building and auditorium are all on the drawing board. An affiliated law school scheduled to open in Naples this fall eventually will relocate to the campus.

The effects of the sagging economy are evident, though, in the vacant lots and unfinished streets around the campus, where about 1,000 residents have moved into houses whose starting prices have dipped to the low $100,000s. And plenty of storefronts are empty in the quiet, Italian-inspired town center.

But a trendy coffee house called The Bean is open. So is a smoothie bar, jewelry store, bike shop, florist, medical clinic and dentist’s office.

And a sure sign of civilization in Florida — a Publix grocery store — is under construction a block away on Pope John Paul II Boulevard.

The church, which grew out of a design Monaghan sketched out on a restaurant tablecloth during dinner with friends, has become a minor tourist attraction, competing with the glitzy Seminole Indian casino 15 minutes away in Immokalee.

Monaghan and developer Barron Collier Cos., which donated the land for the campus to persuade him to build here, still believe Ave Maria will grow in the next two decades to fulfill initial expectations: 5,500 students living in a bustling town of 25,000 residents.

“I don’t have any concerns at all about where we are,” says Blake Gable, the project manager for Barron Collier. “Everything that we did here was taking a look at this community where it sits 50 years from now, not today.”

After Monaghan made his fortune as a pioneer in the pizza delivery business, he shed Domino’s to dedicate his life to Catholic philanthropy. In 1998, he founded tiny Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti, Mich. When local planners rejected his proposal for a campus on his Domino’s Farms property in Ann Arbor, he looked to Florida.

He zeroed in on the Naples area because it was, before the economy collapsed, the fastest-growing region and Florida was one of the fastest-growing states in the South, where there were few existing Catholic colleges.

“I thought it would be the easiest place in the country to attract students from all over the country,” says Monaghan, who lives part time in a campus dorm. “And that seems to have worked out. We started out last year with students from all 50 states, as small as we were.”

Monaghan proudly notes that a dozen men from last year’s group moved on to study at seminaries.

Students talk up the fairly easy access to the Naples and Fort Myers metro areas, and extracurricular offerings from rugby clubs to outreach in the migrant worker community of Immokalee. One campus group organizes sidewalk demonstrations at an abortion clinic.

The west coast of Florida has Venice and Naples. Officials at Ave Maria University are hoping that their efforts to support creation of public art on the campus and the town will make it what AMU President Nick Healy called “the Florence of Florida.”

Support of those efforts will be led by a new organization, the Ave Maria Foundation for the Arts, which was announced Friday at a ceremony marking the completion of the first phase of the large bas-relief sculpture of The Annunciation that will adorn the Oratory in the town center. The sculpture depicts the scene where the Angel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she has been chosen to bear the Christ child.

varo-tsm1“This is beauty breaking free,” said Mr. Healy, standing before the head of the Virgin Mary carved by sculptor Martón Váró from Carrara marble. “Martón Váró patiently and lovingly chipped away at a 12-ton block of marble to reveal this form.”

“I am overwhelmed,” said Mr. Varo. “This is my life.” (At right, Mr. Váró discusses the work with AMU founder Tom Monaghan.)

The carving presented today will be moved to a spot by the Oratory soon where it will be on display until it is mounted, along with the rest of the sculpture, on the façade of the Oratory in about a year. Mr. Varo will spend another month in Ave Maria before leaving for the summer for Italy to work on two sculptures of angels that will be on the sides of the oratory.

The sculpture is the first project to be supported by the newly-formed Foundation for the Arts. The foundation’s executive director, Michael Windfeldt, said that the organization is inspired by Pope John Paul II’s 1999 letter to artists, in which the pontiff wrote that “in order to communicate the message entrusted to her by Christ, the Church needs art.”

bronze1The first goal for the foundation will be to raise the money to pay for the Annunciation bas-relief, estimated at about $3 million. Mr. Windfeldt announced that one way the organization intends to fund its projects is through the sale of cast bronze scale models (left) of the Annunciation sculpture. The bronzes were to be unveiled Friday night at a reception at Mr. Windfeldt’s Galerie du Soleil in Old Naples. A limited number of 400 of the 120-pound bronzes, which at three feet wide and three feet tall are about one-tenth the size of the real thing, will be produced and given to donors who make a gift to the foundation of $25,000.

At a lunch announcing the foundation, Mr. Windfeldt said that an anonymous donor has already purchased “bronze number one” as a gift for university founder Tom Monaghan “because,” Mr. Winfeldt quoted the donor as saying, “no one ever does anything nice for Tom.” Two other luncheon attendees also purchased bronzes.

“God willing, in a few years,” Mr. Healy said, “we will have some stupendous works of art and people will be flocking to Ave Maria not just for the education, and the great music, but also for the art.”

Below, Sculptor Martón Váró signs a marble chip from the Annunciation sculpture for town resident Santiago Chaparro, 12 (right) at the presentation.


Hungarian sculptor Márton Váró  knew what he wanted to do in life from a young age.

“I knew I wanted to be a sculptor ever since at age five or six I saw the movie Pinnochio and watched Geppeto carve Pinocchio,” he told a class at AMU’s Lifelong Education program Saturday morning.

Now, some 60 years later, Mr. Váró is carving what is said to be the largest bas-relief depiction of The Annunciation anywhere, to grace the facade of the Ave Maria Oratory. He is delighted that art will have such a prominent place in the oratory.

“These days, many churches get built with no thought to art,” he said, citing the cathedral for the Los Angeles archdiocese as one such example. “But art has to be part of the building and special to the community.”

marton2The sculpture of The Annunciation, Mr. Váró said, is an effort to bring beauty to the AMU campus. He is working in marble, which he said “represents purity and is the noblest of all materials used in sculpture.” The marble comes from the same quarry where Michelangelo found the stone he used for the Pieta and David. “The quality is very close to that used for David, — and I’m comparing the quality of the marble,” he joked, “nothing else.” (At right, he shows one of the hammers during a demonstration of the tools used to create the sculpture.)

The sculpture is being carved in 19 different blocks and the logistical challenge of transporting those carved blocks and mounting them on the oratory is enormous, he said. The same engineer who orchestrated this feat for another major work of Mr. Váró’s — sculpure of angels that adorn the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Wort, TX — is working on the task here in Ave Maria.

Mr. Váró showed a smaller model of the sculpture which will be used to cast bronze models that will be sold to donors to raise the money for the bas-relief. Donors also will get their names inscribed on the oratory facade under The Annunciation.

The specific depiction of The Annunciation portrayed in the sculpture was developed taking into account a number of factors, Mr. Váró said. Included were his desire that the image of Mary be well lit as the sun travelled across the front of the oratory and that the angel Gabriel’s face not be in shadow.

“The most exciting thing,” though, “is working in this place,” he said. The work is out in the open, and “people encourage me and show a lot of interest.”

“This is a very unusual studio, but I’m happy to be in this studio.”

(Note: Mr. Váró will give another talk about his work at the Festival of the Arts March 22 at 1:30 p.m. A previous Ave Herald story on the carving of the first chip for the sculpture can be found here. Below, a simulated image of what the sculpture will look like on the oratory.)

future1“This is the greatest day of my life,” said acclaimed sculptor Marton Varo just before making the first strike on a 12-ton block of Carrara marble that will form part of a bas relief depicting The Annunciation on the front of the oratory. Mr. Varo then took hammer to chisel and chipped out the first block of marble from the portion of the sculpture that will include the face of Mary.

AMU president Nick Healy, calling the $3-million project the “first in a series of public art at Ave Maria,” told a group of a few hundred people gathered around the worksite that hopes the sculpture will be finished by the Feast of the Annunciation in 2010. Mr. Varo will be working in the open, where anyone can watch the massive work take shape. When completed, it will be 35 feet high and 31 feet wide. It will be carved from 19 blocks of marble and will weigh more than 50 tons. All the work on the Annunciation sculpture will take place on the university campus although Mr. Varo will go to Italy during the summer to carve two smaller reliefs of angels that will be on either side of the main work.


“We want to foster great architecture and great art,” said university Chancellor Tom Monaghan in his opening remarks.

Mr. Healy said that the university received more than a dozen proposals from various artists and organizations to create the sculpture of The Annunciation and chose the one submitted by Michael Windfeldt of Galerie du Soleil in Naples to have Mr. Varo as the artist. Mr. Varo is considered one of the premier stone sculptors of the modern era. A native of Transylvania in what is now Romania he learned his craft from master carvers there.

The marble for the Annunciation relief was extracted from the marble quarries in Carrara, Italy called “Cave Michelangelo,” where the marble was quarried for Michelangelo’s works Pieta and the David. Mr. Varo personally chose all the marble to ensure it would yield a visually seamless integration when assembled on the front of the oratory.

When completed, according to University Marketing Director Forrest Wallace, it is believed that the sculpture will be the largest depiction of the Virgin Mary in a bas relief.

Bass Performance Hall was built in 1998 and occupies an entire city block on 4th and Calhoun streets in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square. Serving as the official home of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Texas Ballet Theater, Fort Worth Opera, and Cliburn Concerts, the hall brings classic European architecture to the heart of Cowtown and is equally impressive as an opera house or rock arena.

A pair of enormous, trumpeting angels, standing 48 feet tall and sculpted into Texas limestone by Marton Varo, adorn the outside of the building. Inside the 2,056-seat hall, look up to see the massive, domed ceiling painted to look like the sky. It’s not only aesthetically pleasing, but it also plays a vital role in the excellent acoustics of this multipurpose facility.

Performing Arts Fort Worth Inc., the owners and operators of the hall, also offer a series of other events, such as concerts and Broadway musicals presented jointly with Casa Mañana. Through Performing Arts Fort Worth Children’s Education Program, there are educational program for kids in first through 12th grades as well as master classes for high school students.