S.F. from the 805 inherited a white marble bust entitled “Poesia” from her late mother-in-law, who inherited it from “her no-good father who ran off when [my mother-in-law] was a young child.” The story goes that the nogoodnic won it in a poker game in 1915-20.
Poesia means the act of creation; the bust has a perfect name. Although S.F. did not find a signature, it is in the style of Cesare Lapini, coming of age in late 19th C. Florence. Sculptors were taught by the famous Lorenzo Bartolini, Director of the Academy of Florence. The Academic Style was pure realism with a message, often moralistic (images from mythology of noble warriors, gods and fallen goddesses) or sentimental (featuring mother love, glories of peasant life, or faithful lovers). The Academic Style left little to the imagination and was prized for its readability and accessibility to anyone who had eyes.
Florentine sculptors, as the 19th C. closed, searched for seemingly impossible techniques, incredibly lifelike; for example the almost translucent depiction of our sculpture’s laurel leaf crown. Other such flourishes might be a lifelike rendering of a bunch of grapes (hard to make lifelike out of stone), or the most famous, the depiction of a gauzy veil of lace drawn over a beautiful face. These piece d ’resistances point directly to the end of the 19th C. as sculptors searched for novelty.
American artists flocked to learn at the Academy; in fact Horace Greenough became the Associate Professor of Sculpture from 1840-65, and joined in Florence’s American expatriates with James Fennimore Cooper and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Greenough is famous for his colossal heroic statue of George Washington currently at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC. He wrote “The Travels, Observations, and Experiences of a Yankee Stonecutter” from his desk at the Academy di Belle Arte.
Another artist who called Florence his birthplace was John Singer Sargent, painting for the early 20th C civilized world when S.F.’s bust was sculpted. You can visit the Galleria dell’Accademia to see why I am so sure S.F.’s bust’s spiritual home is Florence. At the Plaza Donatello you will find the “English Cemetery,” the burial place of many distinguished American artists from 1828-78; here lies the famous Academic American sculptor Hiram Powers, as well as Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Americans purchased this style for well- appointed drawing rooms and for civic monuments, as many wealthy American visited Florence on their “Grand Tours.”
I believe S.F.’s bust is by Cesare Lapini, born in Florence in 1848, known for sculpting in the Classical style, but adding his own masterful flourishes of impossible-to-render features. His style is delicate and refined, working with a school of sculptors who perfected the human skin-like patina of the face and the breasts of many a sculpture featuring demure semi-naked nymphets. Another characteristic of late 19th C. Academic Sculpture is a charged undercurrent of sexuality. Take, for instance, Lapini’s full-body sculpture of a young woman, who has paused to sit on a tree stump, fascinated by a butterfly on her shoulder; Lapini chooses to portray her as she slips off her simple peasant’s robe down below one perky breast to gaze at the butterfly.
Works like this enabled this circle of sculptors to exhibit virtuoso techniques of carving marble: the simulation of the alabaster smoothness of a young body, or the sheer delicacy of a butterfly wing, not to mention the suggestion of a voyeuristic onlooker, both the artist and the art lover.
S.F., in the early 2000’s your bust would be worth $5000. Yours is worth $1500 today; devalued because I see a broken leaf in the crown. Not bad from a nogoodnic card shark who was paid with this elegant little marble.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
Sign up for Elizabeth's newsletter