July 16, 2009

Vincenzo Gemito

Il Pescatore at the Museo Civico
in the Maschio Angioino, Napoli
By Giovanni di Napoli
A year before his death the great Neapolitan sculptor Vincenzo Gemito wrote, "If the artist lacks knowledge of the past, he will never be able to make masterpieces." (1) As with art, this rule also applies to people. Without historical memory there is no shared identity or vision. This is why we study our history and keep our ancestral folk traditions alive. A people cut off from their past are enervated. Those who don't know their history will never be able to fulfill their destiny. Gemito's genius is a source of inspiration and a reminder of the potential that is still in us.
Vincenzo Gemito was born in Naples on July 16th 1852. Abandoned at the wheel of the Santissima Annunziata by his mother, with only his ear pierced for protection against the evil eye (Jettatura), the charitable sisters of the foundling hospital took him in and named him Vincenzo after a nearby piazza. The child was given the surname Gemito, meaning “to whimper,” because of the pitiable mewling sounds he made.
An excerpt from Ferdinando Russo’s (1866-1927) poem, The Wheel at the Annunciation reveals the pervasiveness of child abandonment at the time:
   Night and day one went and another came;
   never did that wheel ever tire!
   It turned always... always it turned and turned... (2)

Giuseppe and Giuseppina Baratta, a poor couple grieving the recent loss of their infant son, adopted him on July 30th. A former monk, Giuseppe worked as a house painter, but died when Gemito was only six-years-old. To help support his foster mom the young scugnizzo sold coffee in the streets. Giuseppina eventually married Francesco Jadicicco, another poor house painter, with whom Gemito had a loving relationship. He affectionately referred to his new stepfather as Masto Ciccio.
The boy worked with Francesco as a house painter until the age of nine when he became an assistant to the sculptor Emanuele Caggiano (1837-1905). Astounded by the boy's natural ability, Caggiano encouraged Gemito to pursue further art instruction. In 1864 Gemito enrolled into the Real Istituto di Belle Arti (Royal Academy of Fine Arts) where he became lifelong friends with the Roman painter Antonio Mancini. Together they studied in the workshop of Stanislao Lista (1824-1908), a prominent artist whose realistic style significantly influenced contemporary Neapolitan sculpture.
Testa di ragazzo at the Museo Civico in the Maschio Angioino, Napoli
During this period Gemito joined a colony of artists who set up a workshop in Sant'Andrea delle Dame, an abandoned monastery in the old city center. He would often explore the Via San Gregorio Armeno — famous for its workshops producing figurines for the Neapolitan presepe (Nativity scenes) — and the coast of Posillipo, observing the young scugnizzi at work and play. Naples' street-urchins were a popular subject with Gemito, one in which the artist would often return to in his career. In addition to the inspiration he found in everyday Neapolitan life, he'd often visit the Museo Archeologico to study the Greco-Roman sculpture excavated from Pompeii and Herculaneum.
At sixteen Gemito presented his Il Giocatore, a wonderful rendering of a young card player, at the Promotrice di Belle Arti in Naples. The statue was so well received that King Vittorio Emanuele II of Italy purchased a bronze cast for the Museo di Capodimonte, a former Bourbon palace and one of Europe's great museums.
Museo di Capodimonte, Napoli
The young artist quickly gained a reputation as a master portraitist. While only 22 years of age he cast the now famous bust of Giuseppe Verdi, capturing the brooding composer in a moment of deep contemplation. Gemito's love for his people was reflected in the many portraits he did of the Neapolitan peasantry. His Il Malatiello (The Sick Child) is a wonderful example of the artist's ability to fuse Classicism with Realism. Among Gemito's most celebrated works are his remarkable portrayals of his friend, the great Neapolitan painter Domenico Morelli (1823-1901) and the Spanish Romantic painter, Mariano Fortuny y Carbo (1835-1874). Perhaps his most famous portrait is his stoic Il Filosofo (Bust of a Philosopher), said to be inspired by the Hellenistic bronze Pseudo-Seneca discovered at Herculaneum. It is presumed that Masto Ciccio was the sitter for this piece.
In 1873 Gemito met Mathilde Duffaud, a Parisian model who posed for several of the artist's friends. Although nine years older than him they fell instantly in love and moved in together. He modeled at least four sculptures of her. They traveled to Paris (with Mancini) in 1877. The following year Gemito presented his Il Pescatore, a statue of a Neapolitan fisher boy securing his catch, at the 94th Paris Salon. His success won him international recognition.
Another look at Il Pescatore
During his stay in the French capital, Gemito befriended the celebrated artist Jean-Louis Ernest Messonier (1815-1891) and was given space to work in the Frenchman's atelier on the Boulevard Malesherbes. Gemito modeled two portraits of his host, a bust and statuette, as well as exquisite life-sized studies of Messonier's hands, holding paintbrushes, a rag and part of a palette.
After three years in France, Gemito returned to Naples. With the help of a wealthy Belgian industrialist, Baron Oscar de Mesnil (1855-1897), he set up a foundry for lost-wax casting on the Via Mergellina. The quality of work produced at the foundry is considered his finest. An imposing bronze bust of his patron (said to have been completed in just twelve hours) can be seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Bust of Baron Oscar de Mesnil at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
In the spring of 1881 Mathilde died from tuberculosis in Resina. She was 38 years of age. Deeply upset over her death Gemito went to the Isle of Capri to recover. He produced several drawings and a silver portrait of a local peasant girl, which he later named La Caprese.
That same year he created Il Acquaiolo (The Water Vendor) for Francesco II di Borbone, the exiled King of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Worried that Queen Maria Sophia would be upset by the statue's nudity, the King asked Gemito to tailor a pair of silver pants to cover the figure. In 1882 Gemito presented a second version — con pantaloni (with trousers) — at the Paris Salon. In 1885 the statue, plus several portraits, won him a first class medal at the Universal Exposition at Antwerp, Belgium.
In 1882 Gemito met Anna Cutolo working as a model in Domenico Morelli's studio. She is believed to be the sensual figure immortalized in Morelli's Dama con ventaglio (Lady with a fan) now housed in the Museo Diego Aragona Pignatelli Cortes in Naples. They quickly married and in 1885 their daughter, Giuseppina, was born. Anna was the subject of many drawings, including the hauntingly beautiful Coserella. In 1886 he rendered a terracotta portrait of Anna from which, several bronze and marble versions were made. Masterfully executed, it is a deeply personal piece exuding the tender love the artist felt for his wife.
At age 35 and at the height of his career Gemito was commissioned to sculpt a marble statue of Charles V, which stands in the facade of the Palazzo Reale in Naples. The work troubled him greatly and upon its completion he suffered a nervous breakdown. He entered the Fleurant clinic in 1887, but soon withdrew into isolation in his apartment on the Via Tasso. He was unable to complete the silver Trionfo da Tavola, an elaborate table decoration incorporating allegorical figures of Naples, commissioned by King Umberto I of Italy. For over two decades the troubled artist abandoned sculpting, devoting himself entirely to drawing. Anna supported him until her death in 1906.
Charles V Palazzo Reale, Napoli
Gemito resumed sculpting in 1909. His taste developed towards a more Classical aesthetic, best represented by his La Sorgente (The Source), an idealized version of the artist's Acquaiolo motif. Although many of his works from this period depict mythological (The Young Neptune and The Sibyl) and heroic characters from antiquity (Alexander the Great), he continued to draw inspiration from the people of his native city. His magnificent Busto di Fanciulla Napoletana (Bust of a Neapolitan Girl) and Acquaiolo Storto (Crooked Water Vendor) are notable examples.
In his later years Gemito spent much time between Rome and Naples, visiting his daughter, Giuseppina, and four grandchildren, Annita, Bice, Carlotta and Alessandro. In Rome he studied the works of Renaissance and Baroque masters, sketching many of their famous masterpieces. He was especially fond of Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), even going so far as to try and acquire the Florentine's workspace underneath the Castel'Sant Angelo in Rome. Producing fewer and fewer sculptures Gemito dedicated his time mostly to drawing and smithing highly prized small-scale pieces in precious metals, including a silver relief of the great cosmocrator and gilded head of the gorgon, Medusa.
Vincenzo Gemito died on March 1, 1929. Old black-and-white photos in the Museo Pignatelli collection show thousands of people attending his funeral procession along the Piazza San Ferdinando in Naples. He was admired by many of his contemporaries, most notably the warrior-bard Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) and poet Salvatore Di Giacomo (1860-1934), who wrote the artist's first biography, Vincenzo Gemito: La vita, l'opera (Life and Works), in 1905. Gemito is considered by many to be the most important Italian sculptor and draughtsman of the late nineteenth century.
Photos by New York Scugnizzo
(1) Quoted from A Chisel and a Brush: Vincenzo Gemito 1852-1929, Antonio Mancini 1852-1930, from the Gilgore Collection, 2000, p. 58
(2) Quoted from The Bread and the Rose edited by Achille Serrao and Luigi Bonaffini, Legas, 2005, p. 146
The following sources proved invaluable to this post:
• Vincenzo Gemito: Drawings and Sculpture in Naples and Rome by Emanuela Ricciardi, Kate Ganz USA, 2000
• A Chisel and a Brush: Vincenzo Gemito 1852-1929, Antonio Mancini 1852-1930, from the Gilgore Collection, 2000
• Vincenzo Gemito: Drawings by Bruno Mantura, Trinity Fine Art, 2008