Rogue Carver on the Loose in Italy
Part 12: Death in Pisa, The Camposanto Statuary
NEW: As of December 10, 2015
In this the third and final installment of Death in Pisa it’s time we turned attention to the assortment of statuary that in my opinion brought the whole Camposanto experience to life, quite literally, for unlike the gravestones and sarcophagi of the previous two posts this time around we actually get to meet the occupants… face to face.
So far we have peered at the medieval gravestones and the Ancient Roman sarcophagi, but for a variety of reasons including fire damage, vandalism, the ravages of time, and who knows what else, we have actually seen very little of the folks who actually reside in the graves and tombs that fill every corner of the Camposanto. But all this is about to change, this time around we are to get a close up and personal view of the occupants and peer not only into their earthly reality but presumably the afterlife they had planned for themselves once their mortal remains had expired.
Many of the sculptures you are about to see trace their origin to the century before last and truth be told the Victorian society bore a striking resemblance to our own; the rich were fabulously wealthy and the poor knew their place, but unlike the billionaires of today the uber-rich of the 19th Century had no problem turning the spotlight upon themselves, commissioning a vast amount of statuary and painting upon themselves in dedication to the power and the glory of their tenure upon the earth. And so it should come as no surprise that when time came for them to conceive and commission their final statement to a world they were about to depart they were ready willing and able to come up with something a little bit special.
‘Something special’ is definitely how I would describe the sculpture you are about to see. Clearly money was no object. Even more clear are the technical and artistic skills on display of the sculptors who’s work is, in my view, quite unsurpassed… exquisite in fact. “Sublime”.
Finally I would like to add this one last perspective. We can all imagine an afterlife that makes sense and provides comfort to us. Whether we take our cue from religious doctrine or we simply make it up, it’s a reassuring thought that somehow after our flesh and bones are returned to the earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust etc… we will somehow continue on in one form or another. And why not? My own personal ‘heaven’ is a place where I am able to carve all day, take a nice long hot shower, put on some clean clothes, and then entertain a select gathering of all the people who have meant something to me during the course of my earthly life… from friends and family to Mohammad Ali, George Orwell, Constantin Brancusi, Michelangelo, Pele, Napoleon, Jesus, George Best, Marco Polo, John Steinbeck, Indira Gandhi, Victor Mature, Captain Cook, Marilyn Monroe, Jack London, Scot of the Antarctic, The Blues Brothers and whoever I decide will be at the table that evening as I carve my stone during the day. That would indeed be my idea of heaven. But each to their own.
So here we go: we’ve seen how the Romans viewed the afterlife; peered down at medieval gravestones in order to take their view of things, and now it’s the turn, by and large, of the Victorians. Let’s take a look at this cross-section of wealthy aristocrats and see how they chose to make their one last final statement.
Let’s begin with this guy:
I’m not even sure if he is Victorian – he looks more Ancient Roman to me. That thin lip betrays a hardness. This man will clearly do whatever he has to do in order to get the job done, right?
Right! Just look at that club. Clearly not the man to be messed with. A club entwined a with a snake for god’s sake. And what about those eyes? Hard as steel I imagine. But perhaps he knew nothing of his epitaph – maybe this was one last act of revenge from all those who had felt the weight of that club, or even the threat of it. It’s difficult to tell but if you ever feel like pursing your mouth in such a manner just take a leaf from my mother’s book of wisdom: “If the wind changes direction you’ll be stuck with that look”.
This piece I found particularly fascinating. It seems innocent enough at first glance, but close examination reveals a dynamic tension wherein danger is seen to lurk in every corner. Firstly there is the fierce eye contact. I maybe wrong but there would appear to be little love lost between this couple. Then there is the scary bird… a beaky pecky bird at that, not a nice turtle dove. Furthermore this stork, the traditional bringer of life, seems to be clutching a rock in its left talon. And finally this beautiful young woman appears to be clutching a wreath of flowers in one hand, and a dagger in the other. Did she fail to deliver on her obligation to produce an heir And did the beauty ultimately destroy the beast as a result?
Here we find another quandary – just what is all this about? We have music in the form of a lyre, a gorgeous nude boy with wings, the master… and who’s this peeking from below – the wife perhaps? A wicked caricature it may be but to the spender go the spoils. Did this chap’s wife object to her husband’s nocturnal hobby? I only ask this because, well, what exactly am I supposed to think? What do you think?
You know, the more I look at these the more I wonder whether all of them were indeed Victorian – these have the look and feel of Roman sculpture to me, but not having to bear a scholarly burden I really don’t care. They are just magnificent in their own right.
Now here’s a sad one – just solid unremitting grief. No wild statement, no conflicting imagery, just the pain, sorrow and anguish of loss… loss that all of us have endured at some point in our lives. Why? Why did he, she or they have to go? Of all the wide ranging sculpture I was particularly moved by this piece… just sheer unrelenting sadness. Quite powerful and beautiful.
A complex piece indeed; complex in design and complex in execution – clearly no holes were bared when it came to the budget. The grief, pain and suffering are plain for all to see, but what of the maiden in the miniature bath? To our modern eyes it looks as if she is perched upon a soap dish, but ancient notions of perspective differed from ours – for now I’m fairly convinced that many these marvelous sculptures date far further back in time than the Victorian era. I mean to say, the imagery of quite naked children is anathema to our modern eyes but what exactly did they represent?
OK, we’re are back on solid Victorian ground with this one! I think there can be little doubt we are talking 19th Century Military Man of Steel here. The sort of man who clearly was not to be messed with, who wouldn’t flinch at trifling casualty lists so long as the objective was gained. But what I found quite telling was the medal he seems to have chosen to promote outside his braided band – surely he didn’t award himself his very own medal? Perish the thought.
And now for my all time favorite sculpture of them all – this one has e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g ! I mean, everything. Just look at her. Marvel at her. Get lost in those sleepy, droopy lidded eyes. Imagine the person this sumptuously carved block of marble represents. Who is she? A Goddess?
An Angel fallen to Earth? Or a real live mortal? And what about that body? Mama Mia!!! Whoever carved this was a genius. You can line up for hours to see the David if you wish, but this bombshell gets my money every time. Just why this isn’t adorning the Louvre, The Tate, or at least internationally famous beggars belief, but here she is, in all her glory, mesmerizing poor uneducated saps like me into believing we have looked perfection in the eye. So just who is responsible for the imortalization of such a divine creature? Why this man→ The old cad.
Now, here’s a man who seems to know how to spend eternity – reclined in his best satin pajamas reading a book – no dewy-eyed nymph for him… way too much trouble. Just the endless bliss of unlimited reading in the quiet solitude of his obelisk-lined library. But while I can appreciate such a purist idyll I can’t help wondering just who would ultimately be the more content – this chap with his lofty books and swell nightwear, or the previous gentleman with the girl of his dreams staring wistfully into his eyes for perpetuity?
Unfortunately this magnificent spectacle was positioned so high in the wall that much of the intimacy was lost, but all the same I loved the epic scope of the thing. Initially every aspect was, to my mind, just about perfect. I mean, if you are going to commission a grandiose, over the top, colossal piece of sculpture as a parting gesture to the world then surely this has got to be it. There she is, the ubiquitous lovely maiden; there’s the sarcophagus – almost Egyptian-like in its regalness; there’s an eagle, the appropriate Anno Domini along with impressive Roman Numerals… cherubs, of course – everything a sophisticated Victorian man of means could ever desire.
However, our Venus, Aphrodite, or whomever doesn’t seem in the least bit amused, in fact she looks a little peeved at her patron’s rude lack of attention; and as for the cherubs, well they seem to have fallen asleep, poor things, and poor guy – it all looked so darn good in the drawings!
Now here’s a chap we’ve all bumped into before… perhaps at a party where we knew very few of the attendees.
…and this one – earnest but somehow too sincere.
But who exactly is this? If I didn’t know better I would assume she was attempting to impersonate a postage stamp. But I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and put it down to the fact that perhaps she had simply succumbed to one too many Jane Austin novels. However, whatever her motivation she certainly assembled quite an impressive ‘fond adieu’ with her parting gesture to the world she was about to leave behind:
Which leaves us with one last extraordinary example of Victorian excess in the form of this beautiful monument to sculptural prowess, visionary foresight, and outright indulgence:
To be honest I am quite in awe of this piece -it completely as it utterly renders me useless the more I look at it – the exquisite detail, the audacity of design; the confidence inherent in the concept. I feel as though I would do whatever this powerful lady commanded me to do! I mean, how can such a carving be explained? Who could conceive of such a thing – how, in an age without power tools, could it have possibly been carved? Just who possessed the earthly skills to realize such a vision of feline power and prowess? It just boggles the mind. And as for the feet – the deft touch with the sandals, and those toes… oh those exquisite toes, complete with seemingly painted toenails – surely this is the work of Gods!
Well, that’s it for Death in Pisa, or death anywhere else for that matter. You might be relived to hear that the topic of my next blog will return to the present… the subject of which I have yet to decide. But until then, embrace LIFE. Love the one you’re with, and feel free to drop a line in the comment box any time you wish.
Until next time, embrace life for all it’s worth,
Bye for now…