ROME - The Vatican yesterday slammed a giant new modernist sculpture that portrays John Paul II, saying the bronze work outside Rome's main train station doesn't even look like the late pontiff. Commuters and tourists say the statue looks more like the late Italian dictator Benito Mussolini than the widely beloved pope.

"How could they have given such a kind pope the head of a Fascist?" said 71-year-old Antonio Lamonica, in the bustling square outside Termini Train Station. As he pondered the statue, his wife muttered, "It's ugly, really ugly, very ugly."

The artist, Oliviero Rainaldi, depicts the pontiff as if he is opening his cloak to embrace the faithful.

But the Vatican says the effect is "of a mantle that almost looks like a sentry box, topped by a head of a pope which comes off too roundish."

Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno said public opinion would be considered in any decision on removing the statue. He said, "There's an ancient saying: 'Vox populi, vox dei,' " Latin for "voice of the people, voice of God."

While acknowledging that the work is a modern one, and describing as "praiseworthy" the city of Rome's initiative to erect the tribute, the Vatican said "the statue's sin" is that it is "hardly able to be recognized."

The statue, paid for by a foundation at no cost to the city of Rome, was erected a few days ago, to mark what would have been John Paul's 91st birthday, on May 18. Pope Benedict beatified John Paul, the last formal step before sainthood, on May 1, at a ceremony drawing about one million admirers to Rome.

Neither the Silvana Paolini Angelucci Foundation, which donated the statue, nor the artist could be reached immediately for comment.