Arturo Di Modica, a Sicilian-born sculptor best known for “Charging Bull,” 3.5 tons of bronze belligerence that he illegally deposited in Lower Manhattan one night in 1989, died on Friday at his home in Vittoria, Italy. He was 80.
His death was confirmed by his dealer, Jacob Harmer, who did not specify a cause but said that Mr. Di Modica had been ill for several years.
“Charging Bull,” which Mr. Di Modica had made with his own hands and his own money, quickly became one of the most famous works of art in the country and a photogenic draw for millions of tourists — many of them presumably unaware of its illicit origins.
Mr. Di Modica grew up poor in Sicily, and he bore an immigrant’s love for his adopted home. With the country — or at least Wall Street — still reeling from “Black Monday,” the day in 1987 when the market dropped 20 percent in a single session, he wanted to give the country a get-well present, one that, he said, symbolized “the future.”
What he did not have was permission to place his enormous sculpture outside the New York Stock Exchange, his intended location.
Deciding that good intentions trumped petty matters like city permits, Mr. Di Modica spent weeks scouting Wall Street after midnight, taking note of how often police officers passed by.
Then, around 1 a.m. on Dec. 15, he loaded his sculpture onto a flatbed truck and drove to Broad Street, next to the stock exchange, where about 40 of his friends were waiting.
But there was a problem: Since the last time he had been there, the stock exchange had erected an enormous Christmas tree, right on the spot where he wanted to deposit “Charging Bull.”
“Drop the bull under the tree,” he shouted. “It’s my gift.”
Officials at the stock exchange, though, did not appreciate his beneficence, and that afternoon they had the sculpture trucked to a police warehouse in Queens.
Mr. Di Modica was distraught, but that evening he received an offer to move the sculpture to nearby Bowling Green, a park at the foot of Broadway. He visited the warehouse and paid a $500 fine, and on Dec. 20 the sculpture took up its new residence on a traffic island, where it has remained for 33 years, perpetually poised to charge through the Financial District.
Arturo Ugo Di Modica was born in the Sicilian town of Vittoria on Jan. 26, 1941. His father, Giuseppe, owned a grocery store; his mother, Angela, was a homemaker.
In 1960, he left home against his parents’ wishes for Florence, where he attended classes at the Academy of Fine Arts, worked odd jobs and tried to establish himself as a sculptor. He was so poor that he couldn’t afford to use a foundry, or even buy metalworking tools — so he fabricated his own.
He won critical acclaim after a 1968 show of his work, at the time abstract and heavily influenced by Henry Moore. In 1970 he moved to Manhattan, where he set up a studio on Grand Street in the SoHo neighborhood, which was in the early flush of its bohemian-artist phase. Mr. Di Modica fit right in, often crafting his monumental marbles and bronzes on the street out front.
His first major New York show, in 1977 at Battery Park, was a disappointment; few people showed up, and not a single critic attended. Irritated, Mr. Di Modica rented three trucks, and he and a group of friends drove eight of his enormous sculptures uptown to Rockefeller Center, where they deposited them in the dead of night.
He was ordered to pay a small fine — but he said that he soon sold all eight works.
Mr. Di Modica pulled a similar move on Valentine’s Day in 1985, when, in daylight this time, he loaded a semiabstract sculpture of a horse, called “Il Cavallo,” onto the back of his car, draped in a red blanket on which he had written “Be My Valentine N.Y. Love AD.” He left it on the plaza at Lincoln Center, surrounded by onlookers.
If Mr. Di Modica was less well known than some of his contemporaries in the New York art world of the 1980s, it was in part because he tried his best to remain outside it. Few of his friends were artists; he rarely attended parties, and until 2012 he did not even have a dealer to represent him.
Nevertheless, by 1987 he had built a roster of wealthy clients, and made enough money to buy a Ferrari 328 GTS and frequently dine at Cipriani, the power-lunch establishment in downtown Manhattan.
“He couldn’t imagine when he ran away from home that he would be living this way,” Mr. Harmer, his dealer, said. “He felt indebted to America.”
And so, when the stock market plunged that November, sending the country into panic, he felt he had to act. Spending two years and $325,000 of his own money, he crafted “Charging Bull,” a work that he later said evoked the “strength and determination” of the American people.
Mr. Di Modica put the sculpture up for sale in the 1990s, but he refused an offer that would entail moving it to a casino in Las Vegas. He finally sold it to the British investor Joe Lewis, on the condition that Mr. Lewis never move it from its Bowling Green location. The amount Mr. Lewis paid was not made public, but Mr. Di Modica’s original asking price was $5 million. (Mr. Lewis also bought several other copies of the sculpture.)
In 2000, he married Stefania Oriana Drago, who survives him, along with their daughter, Marianna, and a stepdaughter, Nadia. Information on other survivors was not immediately available.
Mr. Di Modica was extremely protective of his work. In 2006, he sued Walmart and several other companies for using images of “Charging Bull” on their products.
Along with tourists, the work drew more than its share of street-style critical responses. In 2008 and again in 2017, it was vandalized with paint, and in 2019 a man attacked it with what witnesses said looked like a makeshift metal banjo, leaving a six-inch gash in one of its horns. During the Occupy Wall Street protests, in 2011, police surrounded it with a tall fence, for fear that activists might attack it as a symbol of American capitalism.
One night in 2017, the artist Kristen Visbal, aping Mr. Di Modica’s original stunt, illicitly deposited her own bronze statue standing opposite his sculpture — this one a bronze girl in ponytails, standing opposite “Charging Bull” with her fists on her hips.
Ms. Visbal called her work “Fearless Girl,” and it was likewise an immediate tourist draw and cultural icon. But Mr. Di Modica was unhappy, saying Ms. Visbal had changed the meaning of his work, rendering it a hypermasculine counterpoint to girl power instead of the image of universal optimism he had intended.
In 2018 “Fearless Girl” was moved to the front of the New York Stock Exchange, not far from the spot where Mr. Di Modica had left “Charging Bull” on that night in 1989.
Beginning in the late 2000s, Mr. Di Modica spent more and more time in Vittoria, his hometown, where he had bought 13 acres for a sculpture school. He poured money into the project, eventually selling his SoHo studio to help finance it.
Despite a continuing battle with intestinal cancer and other ailments, he also concentrated on another monumental sculpture, his largest yet: two 40-foot-high rearing horses — the prototype, he said, for a 132-foot work that would someday straddle a river near Vittoria.
He completed the prototype in 2019, working intensely even as his health deteriorated. At his death, he was just getting started on the final version.
“I must finish this thing,” he told Mr. Harmer. “I will die working.”