Wednesday 12 December 2018

Groundbreaking Exhibition in New York: 18th Century Roman Designer Luigi Valadier

Luigi Valadier, Herm of Bacchus (detail), 1773. Bronze, alabastro a rosa, bianco e nero antico, and africano verde; lacquered and golden patina. Galleria Borghese, Rome. Photograph: Mauro Magliani. Cover picture: Luigi Valadier, Madrid (Second Breteuil) Deser (detail) ca.1778. Pictured at the Frick Collection exhibition.
Now on at the Frick Collection in New York is a groundbreaking exhibition of the work of Roman designer Luigi Valadier, one of the greatest gold and silversmiths in 18th Century Italy. The show exhibits works made for Popes, royalty and aristocrats, from Rome to Russia. Never before has an American museum shown so many of Valadier's creations, with loans coming from public institutions and private collections across Europe and the United States, Antonio Visconti reports

Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator of The Frick Collection,
Xavier F. Salomon, with the Luigi Valadier exhibition
curator and author Alvaz Gonzalez-Palacios 
THIS beautifully mounted show is the first monographic exhibition devoted to Luigi Valadier, one of the most important artists in eighteenth-century Italy working in the decorative arts. The exhibition is curated by Alvar González-Palacios, who has dedicated his life to scholarship on the artist. Called Luigi Valadier: Splendour in Eighteenth-Century Rome, the exhibition highlights Valadier’s oeuvre, presenting more than fifty objects as well as drawings that represent the breadth of his work.

Valadier’s career spans most of the second half of the eighteenth century, the period when Rome was one of the main cities visited by foreigners on the Grand Tour and many were clients of the artist. Archaeological finds were bringing antiquity back to the fore, inspiring a stylistic shift to Neoclassicism. The book about Luigi Valadier accompanying the show, is the first substantial monograph published on him, and with the exhibition, provides a vivid and unprecedented account of the artist's work.

Luigi and his eighty assistants produced a staggering number of objects for the pope and noble families of Rome, among them the Borghese, Colonna, Chigi, Odescalchi, Sforza Cesarini, and Giustiniani

Lugi Valaldier and his family
Valadier’s father, André, moved from Avignon, in the south of France, to Rome in 1720, where he established a silversmith workshop that became one of the best known in the city. While both of Luigi’s parents were French, he was born in Rome and lived in the city all of his life. It is mot known if he ever visited France, and even though his background was French, he remained firmly established within the social circles of Rome. Luigi inherited his father’s business in 1759, and his unsurpassed technical expertise combined with his aesthetic taste led to designs and creations that are outstanding for their complexity and use of early Roman Classical motifs and combination of precious stones, jewels and metals.

Luigi Valadier, Bacchus and Ariadne,1780–85.
Alabastro d’Orta, bronze and gilt bronze,
ancient intaglios and cameos, crystal, ancient
glass paste, sculpted fragments
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Luigi had a lively shop and home, visited for more than twenty years by popes, aristocrats, and foreign sovereigns. A key document recently purchased by the Frick Art Reference Library, has provided help in understanding his production methods. Leafing through the almost four hundred pages of the Registro Generale, compiled in 1810 by his son Giuseppe, we can begin to visualize the large list of tools that Luigi and his eighty assistants and collaborators used to produce the staggering number of objects for the pope and major noble families of Rome, among them the Borghese, Colonna, Chigi, Odescalchi, Sforza Cesarini, and Giustiniani.

The Valadier studio also worked for foreign clients who took the creations back to France, England, Spain, Portugal and Russia as tokens of their visits to the Eternal City. Despite this documentation, very little survives about Valadier the man, his character, his personal taste or interests. Even though he was such an in-demand artist, he was financially burdened as a result of commissions for which he was never paid and running his large workshop, which employed nearly one hundred people all together was very costly. We do know that Valadier was a discerning observer; he had an great eye for detail, focusing on the architecture surrounding him, especially the vestiges of Roman antiquity.

Even though Valadier was much in demand, he was financially burdened by the many commissions left unpaid and running his large workshop which was very costly

Luigi Valadier, The Triumph of Bacchus, 1780.
Agate, alabaster, ancient hardstones, ancient glass
paste, gold, gilt metal and gilt bronze
Musée du Louvre, Paris
© RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY.
Photo: Les frères Chuzeville
He managed to translate these ancient Roman details into vivid designs, bringing miniature ruins to the courts of Europe. Interested in archaeology, Luigi would take artifacts from the past as inspiration, playing with forms and materials to produce innovative and imaginative works.
In 1780, Valadier mounted for Pope Pius VI a series of precious cameos that had belonged to the late Cardinal Carpegna. These had been acquired by the papacy for the Vatican Museums, and Valadier was asked to set them in precious frames. The Triumph of Bacchus (see image at left) and its companion Bacchus and Ariadne (see image above) are now at the Louvre and are both on show in the exhibition.

Valadier set the large rectangular cameo in a frame decorated with other precious objects - cameos and engraved gems - and set them on two gilt-bronze Egyptian-style lions.

Below them he created a what looks like a pool of water, carved in stone, which includes small cameo representations of fish. This is one of the artist’s most whimsical objects and one that uses ancient objects in a particularly imaginative manner.

While Valadier’s early designs were inspired by French Rococo, later he became interested in antiquity and his work became more severe and classical

Luigi Valadier, Vase, ca. 1775–80
Rosso Appennino marble and gilt silver
The Frick Collection
Photo: Michael Bodycomb
Although many of Valadier’s early designs were created under the influence of his father’s work and are close in style to contemporary French examples that are loosely described as rococo, Valadier became interested in antiquity. His work became more severe and classical over time. Among the objects featured in the exhibition that show his embrace of this aesthetic is a vase recently purchased by the Frick (see image at right). Valadier’s only known marble object with gilt-silver decorations, it was possibly made for the Chigi family of Rome in the second half of the 1770s.

More than 230 years after Valadier lived in Rome, it can still be very difficult for both Italians and foreigners to be paid for their work, no matter what field it is. And this is particularly true for artists in Italy, from Ancient Rome through the Renaissance to the present, that were regularly bankrupted by clients that refused to pay for commissions.
Unfortunately for Valadier who was also working with precious metals and stones and had to maintain a large studio, he could not sustain his business when his aristocratic clients would not pay for his creations. In 1785, the designer committed suicide by drowning himself in the Tiber. Valadier’s career spanned just twenty-five years from his father’s death in 1759, until his own. However, in this time he worked with an extraordinary number of architects, sculptors, stone cutters, and furniture designers.

Luigi Valadier, Madrid (Second Breteuil) Deser (detail) ca.1778.
Pictured at the Frick Collection exhibition.
Lapis lazuli, amethyst, porphyry, red garnets, gilt silver.
Royal Palace and the Archaeological Museum in Madrid
Works of art for the dining table
Valadier and his workshop were particularly well known for the creation of substantial centrepieces for dining tables, known in Rome as desers. These ensembles were decorated with miniature temples, obelisks, and triumphal arches. Valadier would scale down monuments from antiquity and reproduce them in precious materials: marbles, stones, and metal.

Three desers by Valadier survive at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, in two institutions in Madrid, and at the Louvre. The first two were for Jacques-Laure Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the ambassador of the Knights of Malta to the Holy See from 1758, and to the royal court in Paris (after 1778). They were subsequently acquired by Catherine the Great and the prince who would later become Charles IV of Spain.

Known in Rome as desers, table centrepieces were decorated with miniature temples, obelisks and triumphal arches. Valadier scaled down monuments from antiquity, recreating them in precious marbles, stones and metals

Luigi Valadier, Madrid (Second Breteuil) Deser (detail) ca.1778
Pictured at the Frick Collection exhibition.
Lapis lazuli, amethyst, porphyry, red garnets, gilt silver.
Royal Palace & the Archaeological Museum in Madrid 
The third deser was created for Duke Luigi Braschi Onesti, the nephew of Pope Pius VI. Each is composed of a flat base, on which the various architectural objects rest. In the case of the first deser for Breteuil, the various elements survive, but the base is lost. The Braschi deser which was looted by Napoleon survives in an incomplete state.

The most complete of Valadier’s three desers was the second one he made for Breteuil, around 1778 (see at left and above). It is now divided between the Royal Palace and the Archaeological Museum in Madrid but is reunited at this exhibition, providing a unique opportunity to see this masterpiece in its entirety. The small temples that complement it are executed in materials including lapis lazuli, amethyst, porphyry, and red garnets. Eight preparatory drawings for the Breteuil deser will be shown along with these objects.

Designs for Italian aristocratic families
In the field of secular silverwork, most of Valadier’s production is lost. For the aristocratic families of Italy and for foreign patrons, he made large numbers of plates and soup tureens, coffee pots and cutlery and lamps. Valadier created very detailed drawings of objects he designed, such as, an elegant trembleuse of the early 1760s (see image below).

Luigi Valadier. Drawing of a Trembleuse,
signed, 1763. Pen, brown ink, ochre
wash on paper. Private Collection
Photo: Michael Bodycomb
These small metal trays, often in silver or gilt silver, were created to hold two cups: one usually in porcelain for coffee or chocolate, and another in glass for water. The accompanying tray would have held biscuits and sweets. In this specific case, the entire object is designed in a highly decorative style with vegetal motifs. The tray is shaped as a large leaf; the water cup is surrounded by reeds, and the coffee or chocolate cup evokes small beans, which may have been meant to describe both drinks.

The drawing deonstrates the sophistication of domestic objects designed and produced by Valadier for his Roman audience. Inventories and payments of aristocratic families list many objects like these, most of which, unfortunately, do not survive. The exhibition shows some of these rare survivals, including two soup tureens, one of which was made for the Chigi family, and a spoon that was originally part of a large service for the Borghese.

A monumental coffee pot engraved with the Chigi family’s coat of arms is another rare extant example of Valadier’s secular silver. The central body is covered in leaves and geometrical patterns, while the beak of it is supported by a dazzling mask of a woman and develops into the neck and head of a fantastic bird.

For the aristocratic families of Italy and for foreign patrons, Valadier made large numbers of plates and soup tureens, coffee pots and cutlery and lamps, using very detailed drawings

Luigi Valadier, Cruets for Wine & Water
from the Orsini Mass Service, ca. 1768
Gilt silver. Cathedral of San Nicola, Muro Lucano
Photo: Mauro Magliani
Ecclesiastical Commissions
A large number of Valadier's commissions came from ecclesiastical institutions, and one of the galleries at the Frick exhibition is devoted to a selection of these objects mostly in silver and gold. Highlights include two groups of objects from the south of Italy.
One is a splendid gilt silver service, made in 1768 for Cardinal Domenico Orsini d’Aragona for his palace’s private chapel (see two pieces at left) in Rome, and now in the Cathedral of Muro Lucano, in Basilicata.

Between the late 1760s and the early 1770s, Valadier designed the silver high altar for the Cathedral of Monreale in Sicily, which was commissioned by Archbishop Francesco Testa.

The altar, still in situ, is decorated with a number of reliefs showing scenes from the life of the Virgin, to whom the church was dedicated.

The altar is placed directly in front of the celebrated Norman mosaics from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which decorate the apse of the Cathedral. On top of the altar, Valadier placed six large statues of saints connected to the Cathedral: Louis, Castrense, Peter, Paul, Benedict, and Rosalia. All six sculptures have been lent for the first time, providing an extraordinary opportunity to study them closely, (see image below).  Each statue is executed in silver, highlighted with gold.

A large number of Valadier's commissions came from ecclesiastical institutions, mostly in silver and gold, including a splendid gilt service

Luigi Valadier, Saints in gilt bronze and silver, ca.1760s
Pictured at the Frick Collection exhibition.
From the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Nuova,
Monreale, Sicily, Italy
At the Frick, they are displayed on an altar-like pedestal, in the order in which they are shown in the Cathedral. Many objects like these statues were melted down during times of necessity, some quite soon after Valadier’s death and most particularly during the Napoleonic invasion. Works such as the Orsini service and the Monreale altar survived because they were located in more provincial areas, away from the main cities.

Both represent rare artefacts in the field of precious metalwork in Italy. Many more objects like this were created by Valadier than survive today and are documented because of invoices, records of payments, and inventories. Only occasionally are we able to know what they would have looked like when drawings exist.

Luigi Valadier, Table with Dodecagonal Porphyry Top, 1773
Giallo antico, portasanta, bianco e nero antico, gilt wood,
gilt bronze, and porphyry
Galleria Borghese, Rome
Pictured at the Frick Collection exhibition.
New Monograph on Luigi Valadier
The only comprehensive monograph on Valadier is published in conjunction with the exhibition, an important resource for understanding the artist and his work. Luigi Valadier is writted by Alvar González-Palacios, curator of the exhibition and considered the foremost expert on the artist. The book is produced by The Frick Collection in association with D Giles Limited. González-Palacios’s lively account, including a trove of archival documents he has unearthed, shows his long and dedicated research on Valadier and his family.

The artist and designer's surviving works are to be found in churches, palaces, public museums, and private collections, often still in situ. While some pieces have already been photographed, many of the objects designed by Valadier have been newly photographed for this new publication that includes more than 368 illustrations. The book Luigi Valadier is available at the Frick's Museum Shop or can be ordered through the Frick’s website.

Luigi Valadier: Splendour in Eighteenth Century Rome runs until January 20th 2019 at The Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, near Fifth Avenue, New York, USA.

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