the base inscribed: BERENICES CRINIS
white marble on gilded white and grey veined marble revolving column and wood base
Offered in the sale of 60 marbres italiens ayant figurée à l'Exposition Universelle de 1878, Hotel Drouot, 20th Decembre 1878;
Withdrawn from the above sale, probably sold prior to the auction;
Sold at auction in Brussels at the sale of Les Collections de Somzée, 24th May 1904;
Purchased at the above sale by M. Rouleau and installed in his house in Brussels until the present day
Le corps de la statue est d'une beauté si parfaite, qu'on la croirait moulée sur la plus belle jeune fille de toute Italie.
Charles Blanc, 1878
Ambrogio Borghi's Chioma di Berenice is perhaps the most magnificant nineteenth-century sculpture to appear on the art market in recent years. At just under three metres tall, in exceptional condition and complete with her original, revolving base, Borghi's Berenice is an extremely rare souvenir from the pinnacle of Italian late nineteenth-century sculpture.
The fame and popularity of Italian sculpture was much aided in the second half of the nineteenth century by the advent of the World Fairs. Vast numbers came to view the wonders of art and industry at exhibitions across Europe and as far afield as the United States and Australia. It was an incredible opportunity for artists and one which the Italian sculptors enthusiastically grasped, to great acclaim. Their dexterous feats of carving and emotionally sensitive rendering of narrative were exactly suited to a public who had purposefully come to be amazed and delighted. Chioma di Berenice was no exception.
Borghi sent four sculptures to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878, but it was his Berenice which caught the attention of the critics. Pesquidoux prophesised that Berenice was the proof of a talent which would place Borghi amongst the most original and modern; and Blanc simply called it 'a prodigy.' The marble has an almost startling verisimilitude, as the supple surface of the skin and the carefully observed anatomy are thrown into movement, leaving the extraordinary curled tresses of hair to flutter behind. The figure is distanced, goddess-like, from the viewer on its narrow column, but the curved body and outstretched arms overstep the column so much so that visitors to the Exposition Universelle could have had the impression that the figure might launch herself into the crowd.
As Maria Grazia Schinetti has written, Borghi's artistic language was one of 'sentiment' and 'sensation'. The subject of this narrative was particularly well-suited to the sculptor. Queen Berenice II of Egypt was the wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes, and the present sculpture illustrates a legend told of her famously beautiful hair. Fearing for her husband's life whilst he was on a military expedition in Syria, Berenice offered her hair to the gods for his safe return. When the locks mysteriously disappeared from the temple, the court astronomer explained the loss by saying that they had been wafted to the heavens and transformed into the constellation of Berenice. Borghi depicts the queen in the temple, an incense burner at her feet, in the intense anxiety of the moments before she sacrifices her hair.
Ambrogio Borghi was a pupil at the Accademia di Brera from 1861 to 1869. In 1871 he won the coveted Oggioni prize – a scholarship to study for three years in Rome. At the young age of 32, Borghi was given the chair of modelling at his alma mater and his pupils included Medardo Rosso. He was awarded a number of prestigious public commissions and won the competition to create the monument to Garibaldi in Milan, but died before he was able to complete it. He was only 38.
Unlike some of his contemporaries Borghi does not appear to have run a large workshop and produced only a few exhibition marbles. In his own lifetime he was best-known for his public monuments and his skill at modelling in clay, for which he was awarded the teaching position at the Accademia di Brera. A lively clay bozetto for Berenice exists in a private collection in Monza. In modern scholarship Borghi's masterpiece has been known only in the form of this bozetto and a plaster model in the Civici Musei di Villa Reale in Monza. The plaster was recently included in the exhibition Sacro e Profano: Temi mitologici e religiosi dalle collezioni civiche monzesi at the Serrone della Villa Reale, Monza from October 2010 to January 2011. An undocumented bronze version of Berenice was sold in these rooms on 13th June 2006.
Borghi offered the present marble in Alexandro Rossi's auction of sixty Italian marbles which had featured at the Exposition Universelle. In the preface of the catalogue it was described as 'the most beautiful young female form ever to escape, alive and pulsating, from the block of Carrara.'
Berenice next appeared in Brussels in 1904 in a sale of the Collections de Somzée, where it was purchased by a Monsieur Rouleau. Rouleau was building a house in Brussels and constructed part of the interior of the salon specifically to frame the sculpture. It remained in this alcove for over a hundred years until its re-discovery this year.
M. Schinetti, 'Un maestro poco conoscuito: Ambrogio Borghi altri meastri di fine '800', in G. Accame et al. ed., Due secoli di scultura, Milan, 1995, pp. 90-99; M. Schinetti, 'Ambrogio Borghi. Un contributo per la storia della scultura a Milano nel secondo Ottocento', in Arte lombarda, 1995, 2-4, pp. 140-146; M. Gardonio, Sculturi italiani alle Esposizioni Universali di Parigi 1855-1889, thesis, Università degli Studi di Trieste, 2008; V. Alfredo, Sacro e Profano, ex. cat., Monza, Serrone della Villa Reale, 2010
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