Italy's sculpture capital honours Colombian Fernando Botero

Colombian artist Fernando Botero is celebrating his 80th birthday in the renowned sculpture centre of Pietrasanta in Tuscany with a new exhibition of statues, including huge cats, horses and large women.

"I feel at home here, the mountains and flowers make me think of Antioch" in Colombia, Botero told AFP in the medieval Saint Augustine church, where six of his sculptures and 40 drawings and watercolours from the 1970s are on show.

Six of his giant sculptures tower over visitors in the cathedral square in the dusty town, which has been home to master artisans down the centuries.

The exhibition of 80 works looks back over Botero's career and pays homage to his mix of Columbian and European styles in paintings and sculptures always united by their proportionally exaggerated figures -- the master's trademark.

"My paintings have nothing of 'magic realism' about them, no-one floats in space or is chased by yellow butterflies. It's an improbable style, but not impossible," said Botero, whose works capture the world with a humourous slant.

"I work eight to 10 hours a day, every day, without listening to music because it disturbs me," said the Colombian, who has lived in Pietrasanta, in a house perched on a hill, for two months a year for the past 38 years.

Celebrating his "first 80 springs," the artist emphasised how important contributions from other artisans have been in creating his famed sculptures.

"Painting is a solitary job, while sculpture is a collective effort because you work in a team. One makes the mould, one chisels, one polishes," he said.

In his youth, Botero studied the works of the Renaissance masters in Florence, and his Tuscan house is near the Carrara marble quarries where Italy's Michelangelo sourced the prized stone for his polished masterpieces.

"This is just as important exhibition for me as those hosted in Rome and Milan," he said. The works -- taken from his private collection -- feature oversized people, bulls, horses, Madonnas and countryside scenes, among others.

The exhibition, which runs until September 2, has galvanised the 30,000 or so inhabitants of the small town, who have become fond of the Colombian artist, who is often spotted eating in the local trattorias.

"The whole family is here: children, nephews, cousins, friends," he said.

Alessando Romanini, who curated the exhibition, described it as a "synthesis of South-American and European cultures, an amalgamy of iconography, of the technique and language Botero has elaborated over his 60-year career."

Adolfo Angolini, who heads up the Mariani bronze foundry on the outskirts of Pietrasanta and has worked with Botero since the 1970s, said the Colombian's works pay homage to man, to those who are not changed by fame or fortune.

Botero "is always very attentive to those close to him. He never forgets to call up with best wishes for birthdays or at New Year!" he said.