At Italy On This Day you will read about events and festivals, about important moments in history, and about the people who have made Italy the country it is today, and where they came from. Italy is a country rich in art and music, fashion and design, food and wine, sporting achievement and political diversity. Italy On This Day provides fascinating insights to help you enjoy it all the more.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Vincenzo Gemito - sculptor

Neapolitan who preserved figures from local street life


Gemito's statue, Il giocatore di carte, so impressed Vittorio  Emanuele II he placed it on permanent display in a museum
Gemito's statue, Il giocatore di carte, so impressed Vittorio
Emanuele II he placed it on permanent display in a museum
Vincenzo Gemito, one of the sculptors responsible for eight statues of former kings that adorn the western façade of the Royal Palace in Naples, was born on this day in 1852.

The statues are in niches along the side of the palace that fronts on to the Piazza del Plebiscito, displayed in chronological order beginning with Roger the Norman, also known as Roger II of Sicily, who ruled in the 12th century, and ends with Vittorio Emanuele II, who was on the throne when his kingdom became part of the united Italy in 1861.

Gemito sculpted the fifth statue in the sequence, that of Charles V, who was the Holy Roman Emperor from 1519 to 1556 and, by virtue of being king of Spain from 1516 to 1556, also the king of Naples.

Born in Naples, Gemito’s first steps in life were difficult ones.  The son of a poor woodcutter, he was taken by his mother the day after his birth to the orphanage attached to the Basilica of Santissima Annunziata Maggiore in the centre of the city and left on the steps.

He was brought up by a family who adopted him after two weeks at the orphanage. It is thought that his adoptive father, an artisan, encouraged him to work with his hands and even before the age of 10 he was working as an apprentice in the studio of Emanuele Caggiano.  He was enrolled into the Naples Academy of Fine Arts when he was 12.

Gemito's Il pescatorello
Gemito's Il pescatorello
Gemito was known for the outstanding realism in his work, as can be seen in his sculpture Il giocatore di carte – the Card Player - which he created when he was only 16, which depicts a boy seated with one leg crossed, the other bent so that the knee is level with his chin, scratching the side of his head with one hand while he contemplates the cards he holds in the other.

It was such an impressive piece of work that after it has been exhibited for the first time in Naples, the King, Vittorio Emanuele II, purchased it and had it placed on permanent display in the Museo di Capodimonte.

Where many other sculptors created romanticised figures or works of fantasy, Gemito was fascinated by what he saw around him, on the streets of Naples, and it was everyday scenes that were his inspiration.  Another brilliant example of his eye for detail, especially for facial expression and natural poses, was Il pescatorello – the Fisherboy – which shows a boy, his fishing rod tucked under his arm, looking down at the fish he has just caught, which he clutches to his chest with both hands.

Gemito moved to Paris in 1877, where he forged a friendship with the French artist Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier and created new works in various media, exhibiting in major salons and galleries, and at the Universal Exposition of 1878. It was at the Paris Salon - the official exhibition of the Paris Academy of Fine Arts – that his Fisherboy was unveiled, a work greeted with such acclaim that he won widespread fame, as well as lucrative commissions for portraits.

He remained in Paris for three years before returning to Naples. He settled on the island of Capri for a short time, where he married.

The Royal Palace in Naples, with the eight statues inset in niches along the frontage overlooking Piazza del Plebiscito
The Royal Palace in Naples, with the eight statues inset in
niches along the frontage overlooking Piazza del Plebiscito
Back in Italy, Gemito constructed his own foundry on Via Mergellina in Naples, where he revived a Renaissance process for using wax for bronze casting.

The commission to create a marble statue of Charles V, to be erected as part of the changes made by Umberto I of Savoy to the frontage of the Royal Palace, came in 1888.

It caused Gemito much anxiety. He did not like working with marble and suffered a crisis of confidence, doubting his ability to produce a statue that would meet expectations. He finished the job but became so depressed he suffered a mental breakdown. He became a virtual recluse, living in a one-room apartment and several times being admitted to a mental hospital.

For the next 21 years he produced only drawings and did not resume his sculpting career until 1909. 

In 1911, by which time he had turned to using gold and silver, he created another masterpiece, a severed head of Medusa in partial gilt silver, which again was notable for the realism of expression and the intricacy of detail.

In 1952, Gemito’s life was commemorated in an Italian postage stamp issued to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth.

The waterfront at Mergellina, with Vesuvius in the distance
The waterfront at Mergellina, with Vesuvius in the distance
Travel tip:

Mergellina is a coastal area of city of Naples, technically in the district of Chiaia, standing at the foot of Posillipo Hill and facing Castel dell'Ovo.  It was once a fishing village entirely separate from Naples but was incorporated into the Naples metropolitan area in the early 20th century.  Today it has an important tourist harbour for ferries from the islands of Ischia, Capri and Procida and points on the Campania mainland. It is also a popular area for seafood restaurants.

Almost always thronged with tourists, the  bustling Piazzetta is at the heart of Capri town
Almost always thronged with tourists, the
bustling Piazzetta is at the heart of Capri town
Travel tip:

Capri, an island situated off the Sorrentine peninsula on the south side of the Bay of Naples, has been a popular resort since Roman times.  In the 19th and early 20th century, it was a place to which many wealthy intellectuals and authors were drawn. Norman Douglas, Maxim Gorky, Graham Greene and Axel Munthe were among the authors who chose to live there for parts of their careers.  It has been a magnet, too, for figures from the entertainment world. The English singer and actress Gracie Fields spent many years at her villa there; today, the American singer Mariah Carey has a property on the island.  Tourists are drawn to Capri town, the pretty harbour Marina Piccola, the Belvedere of Tragara  - a panoramic promenade lined with villas - the limestone sea stacks known as the Faraglioni, the Blue Grotto and the ruins of Roman villas.


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