Tanadei was born in Locarno and trained under Giuseppe Maria Bonzanigo (1745-1820). Bonzanigo became one of the most prominent craftsmen working in Piedmont at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, introducing a greater emphasis on carving into Piedmontese furniture and interior design. It was Bonzanigo who first developed the concept of portrait plaques composed of elaborate microcarvings, examples of which can be found in the Musée du Louvre (inv. no. MR 364). Tanadei was Bonzanigo’s most talented disciple, with his virtuoso ivory carvings mesmerising both the public and patrons alike. In 1805, he exhibited no less than 34 microcarvings at an exhibition of Piedmontese art attended by the Emperor Napoleon and the Empress Josephine. With the restoration of the monarchy, King Victor Emmanuel I (1759-1824) appointed Tanadei regio nostre scultore in legno ed avorio, ‘our royal sculptor in wood and ivory’ (Schede vesme, op. cit., p. 1023).
The present plaques currently appear as pendants. However, they may have been made at different dates and subsequently paired, with King Charles Felix of Sardinia joining the first after 1821 when Charles Felix ascended to the throne. In the first we see Jesus Christ, surrounded by garlands of minutely carved flowers and surmounting the symbols of the Passion. Beneath Him we see Pope Pius VII flanked by the papal tiara, the crossed keys of St Peter, and the dove, representing the Peace of the Resurrection. Facing them, in his own pendant panel, is Charles Felix, King of Sardinia, and ruler of Piedmont. What at first glance appears to be a group of ornamental motifs surrounding him is, in fact, a complex group of symbols woven into the overall decorative scheme. A contemporary note in ink on the reverse of the panel explains the meanings of the various motifs. Charles Felix’s portrait sits atop an eagle with wings spread, representing majesty and power, and is surmounted with a star, signifying his soul. Flanking him is the caduceus, symbolising mercurial success, and the mirror entwined with a serpent, denoting Prudence. Further symbols include the Janus head, conveying the message that Charles Felix is able to look forward, with one eye on the past, and a bird killing a snake, representing moderation over indulgence and vice.
Tanadei’s ability to carve even the smallest details, such as the orders pinned to the King’s chest, is extraordinary. All of this superb near-microscopic carving is offset beautifully with a black stained wood ground, allowing the viewer to appreciate the workmanship to the fullest extent.
The present microcarvings will both be included in the forthcoming monographic exhibition on Francesco Tanadei being organised by the Palazzo Madama, Turin.
Schede vesme. L’arte in Piemonte dal XVI al XVIII secolo, vol. ii, Turin, 1968, pp. 1022-1023; P. Malgouyres and P. Ickowicz, Ivoires du musée du Louvre, Paris, 2005, pp. 154-155, no. 53
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