A Rare Central Italian Polychrome Cartapesta Statue of the Madonna

17th Century

Height: 2 ft. 6 in. (76 cm)
Width: 2 ft. 11 ½ in. (60 cm)
Depth: 1 ft. 4 in. (41 cm)

Literature: M. Teresa Cuomo and Caterina Ragusa, Splendore dell’arte della cartapesta dal XVIII al XX secolo, Exhibition Catalogue, Fondazione Memmo, Lecce, 2001

The earliest published description of the Italian technique of creating works of art in cartapesta (papier mâché) first appears in F. Baldinucci’s Vocabulario Toscana dell’Arte del Disegno (1681), but it was already in practice as early as the 15th century, when Florentine sculptors such as Verrocchio, the Della Robbia family and Donatello experimented with unusual materials. The earliest surviving example is a mirror frame decorated with applied female figures in cartapesta by Neroccio di Bartolomeo Landi (1446-1500; Victoria & Albert Museum, London) and the most important extant work from the sixteenth century is the large papier mâché relief of the Virgin and Child by the mannerist sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570; Museo del Cenedese, Vittorio Veneto).

Although cartapesta was widely used in later centuries for ‘popular’ arts such as statues for religious processions and Carnival masks, the medium was still often employed by leading sculptors in connection with their important commissions. Documents in the Rome State Archives indicate that Bernini produced cartapesta models for his larger-scale works in bronze and marble, and the baroque Neapolitan artist and architect Ferdinando Sanfelice (1675-1748) regularly designed and executed temporary décors for religious and secular festivals using this material. Finally, 18th century archives in Bologna list numerous artists who provided cartapesta sculpture for several churches in the city, including a Pietà delivered by Angello Gabriellio Piò (1690-1768) for the church of Santa Maria dei Servi. The tradition has continued to flourish in Italy to the present day, especially in Salento and other southern regions.