The bad boy of contemporary art is sparking controversy in the city that was once the cradle of the Italian Renaissance with his biggest-ever personal exhibition, entitled Libero (Freedom), featuring a public installation inspired by Europe’s refugee crisis.

But the match between Florence and Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei is proving complicated, as the artist’s iconoclastic style shocks local sensitivities and reopens the age-old debate on the boundaries of taste and artistic expression.

Tempers have been raised by Reframe, an installation of 22 orange rubber dinghies hung on the facade of the 15th century palace that hosts Ai’s exhibition, which echoes the artist’s January stunt, when he tied 14,000 life jackets to the columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus.

“It is a work that prompts us to stop and think. This time Ai Weiwei’s criticism is not directed at China but at the West, recalling the tragedy of those who set out on a gruelling and on an almost hopeless journey towards’ Europe’s shores,” exhibition organisers said.

It is the most visually striking of the 60 artworks on display now to Jan 22, 2017, and since it was put up last week, exhibition venue Palazzo Strozzi and local authorities have been flooded with hundreds, if not thousands, of protest messages. “Simply disgusting,” Florentine resident Roberto Batistoni wrote on the Facebook page of Mayor Dario Nardella.

“Defacing the facade of one of the world’s most beautiful palaces with filth, even wasting taxpayers’ money, is a disgrace,” he added.

Ai is the first artist to exhibit across the entirety of the Palazzo Strozzi spaces, presenting a series of new and major works from the facade of the building and the courtyard to the Strozzina gallery. Photo: Reuters

Ai is the first artist to exhibit across the entirety of the Palazzo Strozzi spaces, presenting a series of new and major works from the facade of the building and the courtyard to the Strozzina gallery. Photo: Reuters

I never expected that this boat installation would capture peoples imaginations so much, and that people would be so critical of it, says Ai. Photo: Reuters

I never expected the boat installation would capture people’s imaginations so much, and that people would be so critical of it, says Ai. Photo: Reuters

At a press conference to launch the show, Ai said he did not expect to raise so much animosity, but said criticism was “fine” because “art, especially contemporary art, is about raising consciousness” and sparking “intellectual debate”.

The 59-year-old said he felt a strong connection with refugees and migrants because their attempts to seek a better life, while putting their lives at risk, makes them freedom fighters and “heroes of our times”.

Ai’s Italian exhibition covers his entire career, including his New York beginnings in the 1980s, his return to China in the 1990s, the political oppression leading to his arrest in 2011, and his move to Germany last year at the end of a four-year travel ban.

It also features original material, such as new examples of his trademark Lego bricks portraits, depicting Florentine heroes such as Dante and Galileo Galilei, as well as a self-portrait to be donated to the city’s main museum, the Uffizi Gallery.

An eye-catching part of Ais first career-spanning retrospective in Italy, entitled Libero (Freedom), which runs until Jan. 22. - AFP

An eye-catching part of Ais first career-spanning retrospective in Italy, entitled Libero (Freedom). Photo: AFP

Other highlights are Study Of Perspective – photos where he raises a middle finger to iconic landmarks such as the White House and the Colosseum – and Han Dinasty Vases With Auto Paint, a collection of ancient Chinese vases defaced with modern paint.

Palazzo Strozzi director and exhibition curator Arturo Galansino said it was the largest single display of Ai’s work and took “almost a year” to organise. Palazzo Strozzi had to be cleared of most of its interior fittings to accommodate it, Galansino added.

Ai’s large iconic assemblages works from the early 2000s consisting of objects such as bicycles are also part of this career-spanning show. Photo: Reuters

Ai’s large iconic assemblages works from the early 2000s consisting of objects such as bicycles are also part of this career-spanning show. Photo: Reuters

Cristina Acidini, Florence’s former chief conservation official, said at the press event with Ai that her city had been “enthusiastic and anxious in equal measure” about the radical artist’s arrival, but gave him her personal thumbs up.

“I am not sure if this is art,” she said. “But for sure there is thought and emotion (in it) and a desire to express fragments and aspects of what we are experiencing. And after all, this is what artists are called out to do,” she said. – dpa/Alvise Armellini