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Statuette of Narcissus, or Bacchus.

Giorgio Sommer & Son

Category

Art / Sculpture

Date

c. 1890 - 1910

Materials

Green patinated bronze

Measurements

220 x 90 x 87 mm

Place of origin

Naples

Order this image

Collection

Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

NT 515072

Summary

Bronze; figure of Bacchus; Giorgio Sommer and Co., after a model by Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929); c. 1890-1910. A small reproduction of a bronze figure of Bacchus (Dionysus), the Roman god of wine, discovered in Pompeii in 1862, and today in the Museo Nazionale Archaeologico in Naples. Long thought to be a figure of the youth Narcissus, he stands looking downwards, left foot forward, naked except for sandals and a small animal skin around left arm, his right hand raised in admonition. The statuette is fixed with two screws to a circular separately cast base, decorated with palmette pattern. The model was copied from the Roman original by the Neapolitan sculptor Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929) and cast in the foundry of Giorgio Sommer, whose signature is on the base.

Full description

Giorgio Sommer (1834-1914) was born in Frankfurt-am-Main and arrived in Italy as a young man in 1857, quickly moving from Rome to Naples, where he would remain for the rest of his life. Sommer is famous today as one of the early pioneers of photography, who on his arrival in the city established a studio in Naples, going on to run a highly successful business. Sommer made thousands of photographs of Italy, ranging from landscape views to portraits to photos of archeological sites and works of art, and would publish photographs in formats from luxury albums to postcards. He also ran a business selling reproductions of works of art, especially from Pompeii and Herculaneum. In 1885 he opened his foundry, which made reproductions in bronze, marble and other materials. Sommer marketed his bronzes with the help of printed catalogues (Catalogo di Bronzi e Terracotta, Naples, c. 1890-1900). As well as ancient works from Pompei and Herculaneum, his reproductions included works by more modern artists such as Giambologna and Antonio Canova, as well as an extensive series of traditional Neapolitan costumed figures. The Narcissus was one of the most popular of the finds from Pompei and Herculaneum that continued to emerge from excavations in the course of the nineteenth century. The small statuette of an elegant naked youth was discovered in 1862 in the house now known as the Casa di Narcisso or the House of the Statue of Narcissus. Today, the bronze statuette is in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples (Inv. 5003). The figure was long thought to represent Narcissus, the handsome youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool, pining away as he gazed at himself. However, the ivy leaves in the hair and the animal skin draped over the shoulder would suggest it is in fact a representation of Bacchus, god of wine. The Narcissus was the last antique statue discovered in Italy to enjoy great fame and also to have been extensively copied (Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique. The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900, New Haven/London 1981, pp. 271-72, no. 64, fig. 141). The little bronze became extraordinarily popular, being described as the ‘pearl’ of the National Museum’s collections (Domenico Monaco, A Complete Handbook to the National Museum in Naples, 3rd edition, London 1883, p. 68). Towards the end of the century, Louis Conforti went even further, describing it as ‘the most splendid antique master-piece extant [….] It surpasses in beauty all the other sculptures that come from Pompeii…’ (Louis Conforti, The National Museum of Naples, Naples c. 1899, p. 10). The popularity of the Narcissus led it to become a standard product for the Neapolitan foundries that specialised in reproductions from Pompei and Herculaneum, including De Angelis, the Fonderie Artistiche Riunite and largest of all, the Chiurazzi foundry, in the catalogue for which it was described as ‘of extraordinary beauty’. (Chiurazzi. Fonderie, Ceramica, Marmeria, Naples 1929, p. 61, no. 91). An example of a Chiurazzi cast of the Narcissus is at Sizergh castle (NT 998583), whilst a De Angelis cast is at Ickworth (NT 850842). The casts of Narcissus from the Sommer foundry are of particular interest since, according to the catalogue, the original model was made by the gifted but wayward Neapolitan sculptor Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929). A child of the streets, Gemito quickly made a reputation as a sculptor and draughtsman with a genius for realistic low-life subjects that avoided the sentimentality prevalent in so much Italian art of the time. Gemito was also fascinated by the classical sculptures from Pompei, Herculaneum and elsewhere that were to be seen in the National Museum in Naples, making a number of interpretations of them. According to his biographer Salvatore di Giacomo, ‘towards the end of 1885, Gemito began to copy the little statuette of Narcissus in the Museo Nazionale. It had been found in 1862 in an excavation at Pompei, and is one of the most graceful and delicate bronzes to have been brought to light, from one of those noble houses of that ‘Colony of Venus’. Gemito spent longer making his copy of the Narcissus than he would generally do on his own original works: the sensitive artist fell in love with the sculpture’s composed and elegant purity, and the rare care taken in its execution, which the finely finished little bronze encompasses so completely in its delightful and adorable symmetry. When placed before the original, this wonderful copy could deceive even the greatest experts.’ (Salvatore di Giacomo, Vincenzo Gemito: la vita, l'opera, Naples 1905, pp. 129-30). According to di Giacomo, the Narcissus was one of the last works that the sculptor cast in a workshop set up for him by the Baron de Mesnil. Gemito sent one of his casts to his friend the French painter Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier (1815-1891), but it was reclaimed by the baron (di Giacomo, pp. 130-31). It is not clear how Gemito’s model came into the hands of Giorgio Sommer. It was evidently regarded by Sommer as something of a coup since, unlike the other generally bare entries, the Narcissus was fulsomely described in the trade catalogue of his bronze and terracotta reproductions: ‘Modelled by Gemito, an incomparable imitation of the original’ (‘modellato da Gemito, non plus ultra, imitazione dell’originale’. The firm offered free packing of bronzes, with the exception of Gemito’s Narcissus. As was the case with other models in the catalogue, the Narcissus could be bought in different sizes, 63, 61, 37 and 21 cm. high, and with a choice of three patinas, ‘Modern’ [brown], ‘Herculaneum’ [dark] and ‘Pompei’ [green]. It can be seen in a photograph of the bronzes offered by the foundry, entitled ‘Repertorio dei bronzi della propria fonderia’ (Massimo Osanna and Marina Miraglia, Pompei. La fotografia, Milan 2015, p. 48). The Anglesey Abbey version, not a very refined production, is an example of the smallest model with the cheapest ‘Pompei’ patination. It was priced at 20 lire in Sommer’s catalogue. Another of the Gemito/Sommer casts of the Narcissus, the same size as the Anglesey Abbey cast, is at Greys Court (NT 195758). Other examples appear frequently on the art market. Jeremy Warren October 2021

Provenance

Urban Huttleston Rogers Broughton, 1st Lord Fairhaven (1896-1966), by whom bequeathed in 1966

Marks and inscriptions

On base: Founder’s signature on base: G.E. SOMMER / NAPOLI

Makers and roles

Giorgio Sommer & Son , founder after Vincenzo Gemito (1852 - 1929), model

References

G. Sommer & figlio, Catalogo di Bronzi e Terracotta, Naples c. 1890-1900, pp. 14-15, no. 140. Haskell and Penny 1981: Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique, The Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500 - 1900, New Haven and London, 1981, 64, fig. 141

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