Ambrogio Borghi's Chioma di Berenice is one of the iconic masterpieces of Italian novecento sculpture. When the marble was sold for £553,250 at Sotheby's in 2011 it achieved a record for a 19th-century female nude at auction, which was only surpassed this year with Loysel's La grande névrose. Sotheby's is privileged to offer this magnificent period bronze version, which captures the innate eroticism and sumptuousness of Borghi's seminal model.
Exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878, 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 sculpture 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. 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. 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 bozzetto for Berenice exists in a private collection in Monza. In modern scholarship Borghi's masterpiece has been known only in the form of this bozzetto and a plaster model in the Civici Musei di Villa Reale in Monza. The plaster was 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.
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, exh. cat., Monza, Serrone della Villa Reale, 2010