Saturday, February 21, 2009

Polychrome Wax Relief of a Plague Scene, Gaetano Zumbo, Late 17th C

With so few remaining works by Sicilian wax artist and anatomical wax pioneer Gaetano Zumbo, I was quite surprised to find this one, a rendering of a plague scene "depicting three dismembered and decaying bodies in a grotto," on the Christies auction results website. The piece was sold for £12,600 in 2006 as part of an auction entitled, incongruously, "Important European Furniture, Sculpture and Tapestries Including Reflected Glory: A Private Collection of Magnificent Mirrors;" the pre-lot text reads, provocatively, "the property of a lady." The lot notes from the Christie's site are a pretty great read, too:

Although his artistic career was extremely short-lived, Gaetano Zumbo was arguably one of the finest wax modellers active in the second half of the 17th century. Born to noble parents in Syracuse, Sicily, he took up art after a long period of self-criticism and self-tuition. He made his debut as an artist in Bologna in 1691 and was soon after taken into the service of Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany. By 1695 Zumbo left Florence for Bologna, and then went on to Genoa where he entered into partnership with Guillaume Desnoues, a French surgeon, for whom he made exact models in coloured wax of the human anatomy to assist medical studies. His collaboration with Desnoues was, again, short-lived and by 1700 he had moved to Paris and obtained a royal privilege for the manufacture of anatomical preparations in coloured wax. He died in Paris in 1701.

Zumbo's work demonstrates a rigorous and scientific observation of the various stages of decomposition of the human body and, essentially, the inevitable decay of human beauty and power. The present lot, which is identified by Pyke (loc. cit.) as C.68 in Zumbo's oeuvre, is extremely comparable to Zumbo's other documented works (see Pratesi, loc. cit.) in terms of style, composition and details, and combines formidable realism with almost romantic images of young, well developed, bodies condemned to the vilest metamorphoses. The Marquis de Sade's first impressions upon seeing Zumbo's work are as follows:

'So powerful is the impression produced by this masterpiece that even as you gaze at it your other senses are played upon, moans audible, you wrinkle your nose as if you could detect the evil odours of mortality… These scenes of the plague appealed to my cruel imagination: and I mused, how many persons had undergone these awful metamorphoses thanks to my wickedness?' (Sade, op. cit.).

What lucky lady or gentleman now cites this marvelous object among their possessions? I, for one, would like to know them.

You can find out more about this object here. You can read more about Zumbo and his work on the Curious Expeditions website by clicking here.

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