On Wednesday, Dec. 7, during the second day that Bertolami Fine Art devoted to a large sale of jewelry, watches, silverware and antique ivories, a select collection of memento mori will also be hesitated. The lots that make it up - only ten - stand out, either for the wunderkammer suggestions that never fail to fascinate the public, or for the presence of a rare death theater by the Syracusan Gaetano Giulio Zumbo (1656-1701), unparalleled leader of the spectacular Baroque ceroplasty and also probable initiator of the application of this artistic technique to the study of human anatomy, a science in those years in great expansion and which greatly benefited from the introduction of hyper-realistic wax study models to replace the ancient "skinned," anatomical models derived from the mummification of corpses.

(1656- 1701)
Case with ceroplast depicting
anatomical bust with vermin

"Anatomical bust with vermin" (1699-1700): a new piece to the knowledge of a mysterious artist

Paul Giansiracusa, one of the critics of reference in studies on Zumbo, calls the recent discovery of the work for sale by Bertolami Fine Art "of extraordinary value for the history of art" because "it adds another piece to the artistic story of one of the most brilliant authors of the Baroque age." And such pieces, when it comes to Abbot Zumbo, are really needed because the life of that albeit very famous artist is shrouded in mystery and few works with certainty documented as his have come down to us.

Troubled critical fortunes of an aesthete of horror

The dearth of preserved works surely finds an explanation in the combination of the artist's mode of execution-unprolific because he was obsessed with the pursuit of perfection-and the structural transience of the material used, wax. Two elements to which the radical change in taste determined by the beginning of the 19th century added a ruinous resetting of the value attributed to works first celebrated as sublime and then buried with embarrassment in the cellar, to the point of the erasure of their very memory.   

If even in the late 1700s the Marquis De Sade extolled as an unparalleled merit the realism of the gloomy compositions executed "in wax colored so naturally, that nature could know neither more expressive nor more true," not more than fifty years later that same adherence to reality was deemed horrible by a scholar of the caliber of Nathaniel Hawthorne who dismissed all of Zumbo's production as "turpitude."

It has taken more than a hundred and fifty years for the incredible human and artistic story of the Sicilian for whom the doors of the Medici court and the Sun King's Versailles were opened to the surface from oblivion. The critical recovery operation is attributable to a select handful of critics of the second half of the 20th century, among whom the most notable are Mario Praz e François Cagnetta.

Successes and mysteries of a death crib maker

"Anisolated Sicilian sculptor passing through wherever he goes, in Florence as in Paris." In François Cagnetta's felicitous definition is the summary of the unresolved secret surrounding Gaetano Zumbo: an immensely successful artist living a short life as a man on the run.

The figure of mystery marks every phase of his life, from birth to death. His surname, Zummo, later Frenchified to Zumbo, is that of a noble Syracuse family that died out, however, thirteen years before his birth. Noble in fact he always declared himself to be, and even the Jesuits at the college he attended to become abbot, an institution that admits only students of noble birth, believe him to be so, but everything points to the fact that he was the son of a slave enfranchised and adopted by the last of the members of the lineage whose last name he bore.

His adolescence is marked by the nightmare of the vicious typhus epidemic that mows down the population of Syracuse in 1672, a trauma he compulsively reproduces in many of his celebrated death plays.

In 1687, the first escape to Naples "on account of a troublesome accident," writes an eighteenth-century biographer. The Neapolitan sojourn profoundly influenced his artistic production, here he found his models of reference including that nativity art in which he certainly tried his hand, preferring, however, to decline it in the negative, in a series of anti-Christmas nativities of illness, death and the putrefaction of the flesh.

One of his Neapolitan compositions aroused the interest of an agent of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de' Medici, who invited him to Florence. In that court of profoundly Baroque taste his theatrical aesthetics of horror met with immense success. Zumbo stayed in that safe haven from 1691 to 1694, then, much to the grief of the grand duke, moved to Bologna.

In the university city he opened up to an interest in anatomical studies by initiating the second strand of his ceroplastic activity, that of producing anatomical models hailed by scientists for their palpitating realism. And it was probably in Bologna that he met one of the men of his destiny, the surgeon-anatomist Guillaume Desnoues

Desnoues invited him to Genoa, the city where he practiced his profession and which would be the scene, until 1699, of a successful collaboration in the production and sale of wax anatomical models.

The union breaks down due to violent disagreements between the two partners, and our abbot moves to France, to Marseilles, always kissed by success, preceded by a fame that grows larger with each stop on his restless journey.

The last stop is the most prestigious one: called to Paris by Louis XIV in May 1701, he obtained in early August a monopoly for the production in the kingdom of wax anatomical models and, at the end of the month, permission to lecture at the Sorbonne. The king's brother adored him, and the doors of the most exclusive salons opened for him.

On December 22, this very healthy man of only 45 years died of a "liver abscess that suffocated him." So reads the autopsy, but more than one medical historian has noted in the French doctors' description the full compatibility with symptoms induced by arsenic poisoning.  

  Between art and science

In the constant counterpoint between an artistic virtuosity with strong theatrical overtones and analytical scientific observation, Zumbo reveals himself to be an exemplary son of his century, that of Galileo and the Holy Inquisition. Yet his sublime technique, nurtured by constant experimentation with style and color, distances him so far from the artists trying their hand in his own field as to make him an isolated one.

Rats, worms and cockroaches: death and resurrection in the work of Gaetano Zumbo

For the wax on auction at Bertolami's, Paolo Giansiracusa proposes a date between 1699 and 1700; it would therefore have been made during his stay in Marseilles, when, thanks to the protection of Louis XIV's Intendant of the Navy, Zumbo could conduct his studies and experiments on forty corpses sent for him from all the hospitals in the city.  

The composition is a happy example of the aesthetics of disgust that beguiled the great ceraiolo's contemporaries and, from the early 1800s, outraged the delicate palates of devotees of the new neoclassical taste. De Sade's words echo when confronted with the ferocious spectacle of a decaying head attacked by rats, cockroaches and worms: "The impression before this masterpiece is so strong that the senses seem to alarm one another: without meaning to, one brings one's hand to one's nose." In reality, however, a careful reading of the iconography chosen for the work reveals a message of hope and the possibility of a destiny of salvation even for the young man whose deep wounds in the neck and face betray a violent death. For if the rat and the black cockroaches are negative symbols of death, the worms and the moth speak of the metamorphosis of a creature that is born crawling but is destined for flight, and the bones glimpsed beneath the decaying flesh are an incorruptible symbol of eternal life.

There is also hope for life in the Nativity scenes of the death of the terrible Abbot Zumbo.



Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial