Migrant dinghies wash up in Renaissance Florence with artist Ai Weiwei

Red inflatable lifeboats are attached to the windows of Palazzo Strozzi's facade for the Ai Weiwei Libero exhibition in Florence.
Red inflatable lifeboats are attached to the windows of Palazzo Strozzi's facade for the Ai Weiwei Libero exhibition in Florence.PHOTO: EPA

FLORENCE, Italy (AFP) - Red dinghies hang from the facade of a Renaissance palace in Florence in Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei's latest exhibition, a homage to those refugees who risk all to reach Europe by boat.

"I have visited dozens of refugee camps in Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel and the Gaza Strip and talked with all these people," said the 59-year old, an outspoken critic of the Chinese government who was once arrested for falling foul of the authorities.

"Those who are fighting for their freedom are the heroes of today and my work is none other than telling them the profound respect that I have for them," he told a press conference the Italian city as he presented the largest retrospective to date of his work.

Dubbed "Ai Weiwei libero" (free), the exhibition opens Friday and runs until Jan 22 at the Strozzi Palace in the Tuscan capital.

The show includes some 60 works, from installations to sculptures or photographs, by China's most controversial artist.

It begins outside with "Reframe", an installation made up of 22 rubber dinghies which "frame" the second-floor windows of the 15th-century palace in a political statement which has provoked both admiration and outrage among tourists and locals.

"I chose Florence for the exhibition because Italy is the country with the most refugees, it never rejects them, unlike other nations," said Ai, who hit the headlines in February by posing for a photograph as the washed-up body of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi.

His bid to draw the world's attention to the migrants' plight did not stop there: the artist decked out the columns of Berlin's Konzerthaus with 14,000 orange life jackets donated by the Greek island of Lesbos, where vast numbers of people have landed.

More than one million people reached Europe's shores in 2015, the majority fleeing war and persecution in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and a further 300,000 have come by sea since January this year, according to the UN refugee agency.

"Reframe" has not failed to ruffle feathers too, with messages posted on the Strozzi Palace Facebook page denouncing the "horror", "vandalism", "aesthetic affront" and "ideological attack on one of the finest buildings in the world".

Inside the Palazzo lies a treasure trove of Ai works, some dating back to his time in New York in the 1980s and 1990s under the influence of masters Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol, and others from the 2000s.

Photographs of Ai's "middle-finger salute" to the most famous sites in the world - from the White House in Washington to the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Tiananmen Square in Beijing - line one of the rooms.

The exhibition also features a new installation made just for the occasion: a series of portraits in Lego of famous Florentines who were unafraid to take a stand for what they believe, from the exiled poet Dante to executed friar Girolamo Savonarola.

"These figures from history challenged (the status quo) to change things, it will not be forgotten," the soft-spoken, bearded Ai said.

The painter, sculpture and photographer helped design the Bird's Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics, but was detained in 2011 for 81 days and had his passport confiscated for four years. He later travelled to Berlin where his wife and son live.

Ai told journalists he may soon return to China.