Rodin from the Italian Perspective

Rodin vu d’Italie: Aux origines du mythe rodinien en Italie (1880-1930)
Barbara Musetti
Preface by Catherine Chevillot, Director of the Musée Rodin
Paperback, ISBN-13: 9791092054736 (RRP €35)
Publication date: 1 March 2017 
Publisher: Editions Mare et Martin, Paris, in the ‘Thèses Illustrées’ series, 556pp.
Language: French

Musetti has written widely on the sculptural relations between France and Italy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly on the Italian praticiens, including those who worked for Rodin. In the year that marks the Rodin Centennial celebrations, this book, a development from her Sorbonne Doctoral Thesis of 2008, aims to explore the work of the great French sculptor in the light of its reception in Italy and the creation of the Rodin myth there. It is divided into three more or less chronological parts: Exposer – 1880-1901 and the exhibition of his graphic work in Italy ; S’exposer – Rodin and the cultural myths of Michelangelo and Dante up to the former’s death in 1917 and S’imposer – Rodin’s influence in twentieth-century Italy and the propagation of his myth.

The volume is both very readable and a useful scholarly tool, being well-illustrated with many contemporary photographs and enriched with two appendices referring to the Italian chronology of journeys, exhibitions, publications and conferences all relating to Rodin’s life and oeuvre and to the sculptor’s works in public collections in Italy. It also includes a list of the wide range of archival sources consulted in France and Italy, a general bibliography, a year by year Italian bibliography documenting knowledge of the French sculptor and his works in Italy (1897-2014) and, finally, a chronological catalogue of exhibitions featuring Rodin in Italy (1865-2016). 

Rodin made well over a dozen trips to Italy between the end of 1875 and 1915 and Musetti accurately documents these, as well as the 17 times that he exhibited there in his lifetime, showing a total of 56 sculptures (32 bronzes, 22 plasters, 2 marbles) and some 100 pieces of graphic work. Apart from the practical reason for travelling there to select blocks of marble (he was in Carrara perhaps in 1898 and there again and in Seravezza in 1901), Rodin’s early approaches to Italy were indubitably motivated, at first, by his wish to discover the great Italian sculptors of the Quattrocento, and then to measure himself against the yardsticks of Michelangelo and Bernini. He later visited some of the major exhibitions that were showing his works; a one-man show at the Venice Biennale of 1901 which he probably saw in October, the ‘Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Decorativa Moderna’ in Turin in 1902 and the Exhibition in Rome to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Italian Unification in 1911. A year later, he was in Rome to supervise the prestigious installation of the Homme qui marche(The Walking Man) in the Palazzo Farnese, surrounded by the architecture of Antonio da Sangallo Junior and Michelangelo (fig.1). In 1915, he was granted the privilege of executing a portrait of Pope Benedetto XV although, he regretted, he never discussed matters with him ‘en quelque sort à l’égalité’(‘as though an equal’) in the way that the great Florentine had done with Giulio II!

Rodin was certainly driven by his desire to have his works on show in public spaces in Italy and, to this end, he was prepared to concede favourable terms or even to pay the cost of transport himself. Italy’s private market, especially for modern works was notoriously deficient. Rodin only ever sold one work of sculpture during his lifetime to a private collector in Italy, and that was to Giulio Pisa in Milan. Recognised by most as the Grand Homme of European sculpture, he was fêted by artists, critics and the authorities upon arrival in the various art centres he visited; the keys to the City of Rome were conferred on him in 1912. 

A significant chapter explores the myth of Rodin in Italy. The process in which he moved from artist to icon is evident through images of his works (obtainable after 1908 from the Alinari) and photographs of the man himself (fig.2), the patriarchal genius, forged by his own personality and reported sayings rather than by any theoretical treatise. Musetti’s sensitive analysis of these and other photographic images of Rodin’s works reminds us that the eye of the camera is not an impersonal one, but reads the images for us and proposes them in a certain light. Nor, Musetti tells us, should we forget the importance of the visit to his atelier, or rather ateliers, both at the Dépôt des marbres in Paris and at Meudon, which were considered the sanctuary and a revelation of the man and his work. The writer and art critic Ugo Ojetti visited with sculptor Domenico Trentacoste in 1900, the critic Giovanni Cena in 1901, the journalist Luigi Campolonghi in 1910, and the Conte di San Martino several times. Ojetti was to write with the same reverential deference of a visit to Leonardo Bistolfi’s studios in Turin and La Loggia some years later. Another, previously underestimated, contributing factor to Rodin’s reputation in Italy, the illustration in the contemporary art press and exhibition of his graphic work, is now accurately documented here.

In effect, Rodin influenced art in Italy for almost 50 years (1880-1930). This, in spite of a series of unfulfilled ambitious initiatives: monographs by Pica, Ricciotto Canudo, an illustrated monograph by Cena, which was to be published by Bestetti and Tumminelli, a self-portrait commissioned for the Uffizi, Florence, a failed retrospective at the International Exhibition on Rome in 1911 and so on. Though sensitive to the taste of the Italian public, the Dantesque subjects at the Venice Biennale of 1903, for example, may have been selected ad hoc, and Rodin did not always release specific desiderata to exhibition organisers in Italy: the head (but not the full figure) of his most revolutionary Balzac, for example, was exhibited in Venice in 1901 and, although his works were generally considered innovative, many were well-known by the time they were exhibited in Italy: the highly influential Homme au nez cassé (Man with the Broken Nose), which was bought for the Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Rome from the first Roman Secession in 1913, had been refused at the Salon in 1864!

The time lapse between the artistic situation in Italy and the European, and in particular the French, avant-garde, is a defining characteristic of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Italian art. Musetti rightly notes that the generally triumphant reception of Rodin in Italy was not totally uncontested. This was particularly true of the early years of his exhibitions there when some, such as the sculptor Ettore Ximenes, criticised his work as mechanical, while art critic Luigi Callari thought it unfinished, contorted and even pornographic. While championing the modernity of Medardo Rosso, Futurist Ardengo Soffici was vitriolic about Rodin, calling him an ‘empty shell’, incapable of understanding Michelangelo, while the artist, Enrico Prampolini was no less derisive. The painter and sculptor, Umberto Boccioni, one of the principal figures in the Futurist movement, however, may well have been more influenced by Rodin than he professed, especially in his rendering of movement.

Rodin’s influence in Italy was not entirely positive. At the turn of the twentieth century, critic Giovanni Cena pertinently warned impressionable young Italian sculptors not to slip into Rodinismo, an all too facile caricature of his style, without a firm grasp of the expressive force behind it. Cena was echoed by other critics like Diego Angeli and Tullo Carnevali because, especially after 1905, there was a plethora of imitators who fell into this trap. Leonardo Bistolfi, however, Musetti rightly asserts, while appreciative of and no doubt influenced by the French sculptor’s work, remained substantially his own man. We might add that a recently discovered letter informs us that Bistolfi left Turin for Paris on 24 September 1889, too late to see the Rodin exhibition at the Georges Petit Gallery.

The influence of Rodin in Italy has been examined elsewhere, notably by Flavio Fergonzi, but Musetti contributes to the group of artists directly under his spell with the emergence of the little known sculptor, Alfredo Pina, to join the ranks of Trentacoste, Carlo Fontana, Eugenio Baroni, Giuseppe Graziosi et al. Furthermore, she provides a knowledgeable analysis of the rôle of Rodin in early twentieth-century sculptural theory in Italy (notably in relation to Adolfo Wildt and Antonio Maraini) as well as interesting contemporary comparisons between the French sculptor and, in turn, Medardo Rosso (who was given a torso by Rodin) and Vincenzo Gemito. 

How was the Rodin myth created? Illustrations and selected public exhibitions were not alone in spreading his fame (fig.3): Musetti reminds us of the great influence just one work, given of course the reputation of the sculptor, could wield, such as the little Danaïde given to Galileo Chini probably in 1900 or the small bronze of Jean d’Aire that artists could see in Rome from 1905 in the salon of Emilia Cimino Folliero, Rodin’s secretary 1898-1903, which was later donated to the Galleria d’Arte Moderna in Milan.

The importance of personal contacts is also stressed: the enlightened Mayor of Rome, Ernest Nathan (who secured Rodin’s gift of the Bust of Miss Fairfax, plus the purchase of the Homme au nez cassé for the Galleria d’Arte Moderna di Roma Capitale; the Conte di San Martino, a leading figure in the official Roman art world (whose widow donated the lovely terracotta Danseuse to the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome in 1955); writer Sibilla Aleramo; the young cellist Livio Boni; the intellectual avant-garde circle of Olga Resnevic and Angelo Signorelli in Rome.

Perhaps, like all great artists, Rodin was all things to all men: to Socialist critic Giovanni Cena, for example, he was a paladin of the second generation of Socialist inspired art that emerged in advanced Turin circles around the ‘Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte Decorativa Moderna’ in 1902 and was particularly evident at the Sempione Exhibition in Milan in 1906. Rodin’s Le Penseur (The Thinker) though never explicitly interpreted in this light by the sculptor himself, whether for good or for bad, was probably singly the most influential work of sculpture by a foreign artist in Italy in the first decade of the twentieth century in monumental, commemorative and funeral art. In 1907, after exhibition at the Biennale, the plaster was purchased by the Mayor of Venice to join the plaster Burghers of Calais in the Galleria Internazionale d’Arte Moderna Ca’Pesaro, which had been bought in 1901.

In Italy, Rodin’s work was, almost inevitably, interpreted in the light of Michelangelo: from the late 1890s until at least the first decade of the twentieth century, Italian art was dominated by the Latin (or Mediterranean) Revival, becoming increasing anthropomorphic (viz. the work of Adolfo De Carolis and Guilio Aristide Sartorio). Rodin, too, was seen as a defender of the Latin tradition. To his friend and admirer, Ugo Ojetti, Rodin went back to the glories of the Quattrocento through Michelangelo and Realism to re-invent Modern sculpture, capable of balancing Nature and the Ideal.

Meanwhile, Vittorio Pica, the most pro-European, pro-Symbolist critic of the three Italian critics who initially championed Rodin, influenced by Roger Marx, proposed Rodin’s graphic work in the periodical Emporium and through his ground-breaking Attraverso gli Albi e le Cartelle, and helped him to win recognition in the ambience of the Venice Biennales and the innovative exhibitions devoted to graphic art in Rome (1902). Pica owned a number of graphic works by Rodin, probably donated by the sculptor himself.

To the artists of the Roman Secession, understanding Rodin was a necessary step towards modernism in sculpture and a rather mixed selection of his works were shown at their first international show in 1913. Once again, Rodin was probably motivated by his wish for the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome to purchase one of his works: L’Âge d’airain (The Age of Bronze) a bronze cast did indeed go there the following year, through the good offices of Ojetti.

For the Post War Novecentisti and their return to order, Canova and the Italian tradition took precedence. Rodin’s portraits, however, assumed new significance, following the success of this genre in specific Italian exhibitions, and sculptor and critic Michele Guerrisi’s exaltation of the sentiment in Rodin’s portraits. Nevertheless, it was to be the gargantuan, monumental and anthropomorphic qualities of Rodin’s work that were to most inspire their Fascist heirs in the 1920s and 1930.

To conclude, while Musetti accompanies us along the path of Rodin’s critical reception in Italy, she goes beyond Rodin to document and comment on the evolution of exhibition facilities, the art press, art criticism and avant-garde movements in a Post-Risorgimento Italy that was struggling to find its artistic identity. Her studies, therefore, are of wider significance than just her masterly reconstruction of Rodin’s critical and artistic reception there.

Main image: Auguste Rodin and Giovanni Cena in front of the monument to Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy by Carlo Marochetti in Piazza San Carlo, Turin (photo: Oreste Bertieri, courtesy of Musée Rodin, Paris).

Aurora Corio