Everyone likes to be wowed by technical skill – even a curmudgeon. When I was learning to carve during my formative years, a test of skill in wood was to carve an interlocking chain. The project sounded easy-schmeasy. Never mind the fact that I skipped nearly 2 million lessons leading up to that challenge. I was determined to show myself that I had skills.
I carved that chain, complete with nasty nicks, gouges, and splinters. Obviously, I was aiming for a distressed, aged look. Yeah, right. What I really created was an interlocking pile of kindling. Sometimes wood doesn’t burn fast enough.
From that little project I learned that, like any other artistic discipline, sculpting takes years of experience to master – LOTS of years. It doesn’t matter if your material of choice is basswood or basalt – you can’t cut corners on the path to excellence.
The chain project also taught me to admire those whose skill level is light years beyond my own limitations. One such example of technical skill is obvious in “The Veiled Virgin” by the Italian sculptor Giovanni Strazza (1818-1875). While the date of the piece’s completion is unknown, what is known is that the Carrara marble bust was shipped from Rome during 1856 to St. John’s Cathedral in Newfoundland, where it remains.
This piece is a jaw-dropper. What it lacks in scale is countered by mastery over material. The artist made full use of a characteristic of marble – its partial translucency – that has been implemented, since ancient days, in the mimicry of human skin. But the sculptor didn’t stop at recreating the appearance of youthful skin. Strazza compounded the illusion by adding a translucent veil over the face. The viewer’s brain puts together what the sculptor chose to leave to the imagination – parts of the face hidden by deeper folds of gauzy fabric. Of course, there is no filmy gauze. Neither is there a face – only a chunk of stone. [Cue the mind-blowing explosions.]
Strazza was well-known in his day and created a respectable portfolio of memorials and busts. The 20 inch-tall bust of the Virgin remains his most famous piece. However, it was neither unique nor groundbreaking.
“The Veiled Virgin” belongs to a small genre of veiled figures that date back to ancient Greece and that reappears throughout history. Ancient Greek artists often sculpted drapery in “wet” form so that it clung to every anatomical feature – legs, arms, and, um, you get the point. Draping the face, however, was not common. A battered stone head of a woman with her face partially veiled is among the very few surviving exceptions. To revisit the theme, one has to skip ahead a few centuries.
“Veiled truth,” by Venetian sculptor Antonio Corradini (1688-1752), was commissioned as an allegorical piece for the Chapel of Santa Maria della Pieta in Naples. While technically superb, the figure’s wetter-than-wet drapery is decidedly indulgent and it’s hard to get past the gal’s outward appearance to understand any intended allegorical meaning. Another piece commissioned for the same chapel is the “Veiled Christ,” sculpted by Giuseepe Sanmartino. It is a rare draped male figure that over-shoots the sacred sensitivity of an entombed Christ and ends up at a rather disturbing conclusion.
A contemporary of Strazza was Raffaelle Monti (1818-1881). He sculpted a bevy of veiled beauties, including “La Donna Velata,” “Veiled Vestal” and “The Sleep of Sorrow and the Dream of Joy.” Some of his works eased the “Virgin” idea from any religious connection into the stream of a youthful nationalistic symbol of Italy.
Modern artist Livio Scarpella’s series, “Ghost Underground,” picks up where others have left off. Unfortunately, adding crystals turns his veiled pieces, sporting some rather pained expressions, into art that is more appropriate for the dashboard of a 1980 Subaru than a religious or national shrine.
Even with all my nit-picking, all of these pieces are inspiring in their own way. They just might cause me to revisit the wooden chain idea, but probably not. I know my limits. When it comes to excellence in art in general and sculpture in particular, there aren’t may veils behind which I can hide.
|“The Veiled Virgin,” Giovanni Strazza. c. 1855 (Presentation Convent, St. John’s Cathedral, Newfoundland)|