It is said that Calvi based the present bust on the likeness of Ira Aldridge (c. 1805-67), who was the first African actor in Europe to play Othello, William Shakespeare's great Moorish tragic hero, who, consumed with jealousy over his wife's imagined infidelity, brutally murders her. Aldridge was born in New York City to migrants from Africa and his grandfather had been the Christian chief of the Senegalese Fula tribe. He subsequently travelled to Europe to become a missionary, but it soon became apparent that his talents and passions lay in the dramatic arts. The actor made his debut in London in the role of Othello in 1826 and he quickly established an esteemed reputation for himself abroad for his powerful performances. Aldridge died in the year that Calvi's first rendition of the bust was exhibited in Milan.
Central to Calvi's work is capturing the intensity of human emotion. Such energy is exemplified in this important bust of Othello, which demonstrates the sculptor's passion for exploring theatrical and operatic subjects. In order to maximise theatricality, Calvi selected the pivotal moment in Shakespeare’s play: after demanding the return of his handkerchief, which he had given to his wife Desdemona as a token of his affections, Othello contemplates her murder. A single tear of despair and rage begins to well in his eye - transfixed on the fateful handkerchief in his hand, a symbol of his wife's perceived infidelity. A weighty hooded cloak is wrapped around him, with only his face and hand clutching the handkerchief exposed.
Pietro Calvi studied at the Accademia di Brera in Milan and trained under Giovanni Seleroni, who encouraged his experiments with different materials. Calvi went on to work at the Duomo in Milan, for which he carved the statue of St. Valeria, and also executed decorative works for the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. Othello was his international breakthrough. It was among the Italian entries at international expositions at the Brera in Milan in 1867 (no. 259), the Paris Salon of 1870 (no. 4318), the Royal Academy in London in 1872 (no. 1526) and in the Exposition Universelle of 1878 in Paris (no. 48). Further versions of the Othello were subsequently produced by Calvi.
F. Griffin Stokes, Who’s Who in Shakespeare, London, 1989, pp. 239-240; A. Panzetta, Nuovo dizionario delgi scultori Italiani. Dell’ottocento e del primo novocento, Milan, 1990, vol. 1, p. 193; The Color of Life. Polychromy in Sculpture from Antiquity to Present, exh. cat. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, 2008, pp. 160-161; The Colour of Sculpture 1840-1910, exh. cat. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 1996, pp. 125-126.
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