Interview | It often arouses strong interest on social media. Carved from a marble block, the Veiled Virgin’s striking transparency is indeed testament to Giovanni Strazza’s virtuosity. Yet, there is little documentation about it.
“Extraordinary !”, “Italy is surprisingly beautiful but this is breathtaking”, “Pure beauty”… The Veiled Virgin – a mid 19 th century sculpture by Giovanni Strazza – often generates ecstatic comments on social media. Yet, very little is known about this Lombard sculptor trained in Rome by Pietro Terenari… or about this work of art and its astounding textile effects, which travelled from Rome to Newfoundland in 1856 and is now in the custody of the Sisters of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Saint John’s in Canada. To lift the veil, we met with Claire Barbillon, the director of the École du Louvre, who is specialised in 19 th century sculptures and wrote Comment regarder la sculpture (2017).
Translation : Alice Borrego, PhD student at the Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 (France)
As an art historian, what are your thoughts on this Veiled Virgin ?
When I look at Strazza’s work, I cannot put aside the fact that it is a religious sculpture. I know very little about it. However, I would say that it represents the Virgin Mary, even though one could think that it is a virgin – virginity always being a token of purity and spirituality. Whether it is the Virgin Mary or a virgin – like the vestal virgins for instance – it conveys purity and suggests a relation to the divine that is not sullied by sensuality and sexuality. A striking ambiguity emerges at first glance : on the one hand, spirituality is represented with closed eyes - as the Virgin’s face conveys repressed emotions - and on the other hand, the different levels of the veil’s thickness seem disruptive, creating a sort of wave, of movement that blurs the image.
What do we know about this work and more generally about the craft behind marble-carved veils ?
It is very characteristic of an Italian tradition which goes back to the 18 th century and more precisely to the Neapolitan tradition that consisted in skilfully working and carving marble so as to play on the ambivalence between revealed and concealed aspects of the human face. From an archaeological point of view, it stems from the tradition of “wet drapery” that already existed in Greco-Hellenistic sculpture. Sculptors have always taken on this challenge : this style relies on a precise anatomic depiction of the face and on the way it reveals itself to the audience, making it a perpetual play on dissimulation and revelation.
Why do you think this work arouses such interest each time it is posted on social media?
Such a virtuosity is always impressive, and rightly so. Many of the comments insist on the perfection of its technical mastery – which is undeniable. The stone cutting technique is absolutely fascinating. A contrasting effect also stands out : marble is a hard material, resistant both to the chisel and to cutting, and yet it seems to be flexible and light here, creating this paradox. In my opinion, the reason why people are fascinated by this work is the combination of all these paradoxes, of all these ambiguities between strength and fragility, between purity and sensuality...
A century earlier, Giuseppe Sanmartino sculpted a Veiled Christ which is considered as a, or rather as the masterpiece of the genre. It can still be seen at the Cappella Sansevero in Naples...
Exactly, this Veiled Christ exists along with a Veiled Woman by Antonio Corradini which conveys an extraordinary impression of lightness based on illusion. It is even more impressive as sculpture – rather than painting – is the art of truth. It has been used to make effigies, to create resemblance and to remain faithful to the model. Some 19 th century theoreticians considered painting as the art of lying. David of Angers, who was an important sculptor during the first part of the 19 th century, wrote the following aphorism in the notebooks he left behind : “I don’t want to give up sculpture for painting, I want to remain committed to the truth and not to lies.” Interestingly enough, these wet drapings and veil patterns - which are used to cover faces and bodies in this particular type of work - are a way of playing on ambiguity. The veil is actually quite erotic.
How would you explain this return to a technique used in Ancient Greece ?
In the history of sculpture, there has always been a constant fluctuation between severity and simplicity on the one hand– which are still prerogatives of Classicism – and between subtlety and virtuosity on the other – which are rather linked with the Baroque. This very oscillation between Classicism and the Baroque existed at different moments in time. At the end of the 5 th century and at the beginning of Hellenism, an evolution took place : there was a shift from rigour and plasticity – meant to convey the natural grandeur of the models – to something more delicate and thus more sensual. At the very end of the 17 th century and during the 18 th , the Baroque actually encouraged sculptors to vie with one another so as to find out who was the most talented. These excessively arranged draperies, concealing the shape of the human body, gave way to such tendencies. The fundamental principle of Classicism is to consider the naked body as a microcosm mirroring the world’s macrocosm. Drapery, with all its seductions and subtleties, then belonged to the Baroque aesthetics.
Who were the other artists using this technique in the 18 th and 19 th centuries ?
Drapery is a sculpting tradition but it can give way to different approaches on the formal level. There is actually a difference between drapery and veils. Take for example a very famous sculpture, Winter by Houdon (Editor’s Note : 1783) : it is an allegory of winter represented by a very charming young woman, whose lower body is naked whereas the upper part is wrapped in a cloth. This is drapery. The difference lies in the fact that the cloth considerably affects the shape of the nude. A formal thoroughness overlaps and even replaces the morphology of the female body. In comparison with the Veiled Woman by Corradini, for instance, the nudity under the veil is here discernible. The veil reveals while concealing as it plays on the hairdo, on the face while drapery creates an overlying form. Drapery is obviously a technique that can be found in the entire history of sculpture, from the Black Virgin by Orcival circa 1170 to Rodin’s Balzac in 1898. In short, the human figure – which is the fundamental subject of sculpture anyway – is not always bare. One of the permanent features of drapery representation is a sort of alternative to the contemporaneous costume. The human body can also be dressed, and in that case, it rather stems from the realistic style that has also been developed throughout the history of sculpture. To some extent, drapery can be considered as sculptural whereas the veil can be seen as a pictorial effect.
Do you think Giovanni Strazza rather had his models pose naked or veiled ?
The practice of the naked model, at least in the 19th century, was extremely ordinary. I would say that the model was posing naked and that some veil effects were added according to the sculptor’s fancy.
Strazza also made profane sculptures, adding an erotic dimension through this veil technique. Was he a pioneer in this field ?
Not at all. The shift from the sacred to the profane is also characteristic of the Baroque as a whole. We may even consider that this shift - especially as regards the female nude and the veil - had already occurred during the Renaissance, when it concurred with the rediscovery of classical Antiquity, whose vocabulary was developed in parallel with that of biblical and religious themes. We may consider for instant that Venuses are the sisters of Susanna from the Old Testament.
About two decades after Giovanni Strazza’s death in 1875, Italian futurism was born… Had the sculpture become outmoded ?
At the end of the 19th century, this type of mastery - which could confine one to sentimentality - caused a sort of aversion that was voiced in The Manifesto of Futurism [Ed : written by the Italian artist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and first published in France in the newspaper Le Figaro ] in 1909. Futurism is also a form of rejection of the classical model permanence. If I remember correctly, when one says that a racing car is more beautiful than the Venus of Milo for instance, it is a form of futurist provocation that indiscriminately rejects both skillful academism and any reference to Antiquity. There’s a sort of violence and aggressiveness in this manifesto that reveals a certain despondency. The exact sentence goes that way : “A racing car whose hood is adorned with great pipes is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.” It is no coincidence that this provocation was directed towards a veiled antique sculpture.
What was the public’s reception to the Veiled Virgin in Strazza’s time ?
In the middle of the 19th century, such works of art still had a lot of success. People had an extremely strong taste for erotic sculptures. All over Europe, skillful art was triumphant but was countered by the emergence of realism. This sculpture was indeed made to seduce all kinds of audiences. It is important to remember that in Italy – and in my opinion even more than in France – these aesthetics followed the Neapolitan tradition of the Christ of Sanmartino we mentioned earlier , with its extreme virtuosity and its technical achievements.
Why are there so few documents on this work of art and its sculptor ?
First of all, sculpture is an art – especially as regards the 19 th century – whose rediscovery is relatively new. Until the 1970s, the public didn’t like sculptures from this era. Some big names like Rodin, of course, Rude and de Carpeaux stood out and… that was it. The rediscovery of numerous sculptors from this century really took place through the reevaluation undertaken by the Orsay museum, which opened in December 1986 with extensive documentation on sculpture. But the site was still under construction and this is why Orsay – and also because it housed the national collections – focused on French sculpture. There was a lot to rediscover and to restore. They saved for instance the Six Continents , large bronze statues which were in a landfill site in Nantes and are Borrego Alice France Culture now on the forecourt of the Orsay museum. Parallel to this rescue operation, they aimed at developing their knowledge, mainly focusing of French sculpture. Foreign sculptures were only purchased during a second phase, in the 1990s-2000s. But it must be acknowledged that 19 th century Italian sculptors are not very well known in France : there is more documentation in Italy.
There’s a more factual explanation as well : Strazza was born in 1818, just two years before the date that would make him part of Orsay’s incredible documentation. He therefore appears on the Louvre registers, but since the Louvre has to document all sculptures from the Middle Ages onwards... But doctoral theses can still be conducted in this field, one about which universities and museums are very enthusiastic - so everything’s not lost !