This magnificent marble is the most important Italian Romantic sculpture to come to auction in recent years. Representing Iris, the Messenger of the Olympian Gods, emerging from a wave of foliage while holding aloft a veil, it epitomises the ambitious imagination and technical virtuosity of Lombard marble carvers in the second half of the nineteenth century.
In its exuberance and technical accomplishment, the present marble may be considered Metello Motelli’s chef-d’oeuvre. Presented here on an international stage, it represents an exciting rediscovery and sheds a new light on the sculptor’s accomplishment.
With the goddess Iris, Motelli chose a mythological subject whose allegorical evocation of nature embodied the Romantic ideal. Appearing as the messenger of the Gods in The Iliad, Iris also functioned as a personification of the rainbow and was thought to travel land and sea at the speed of wind. The sculptor beautifully translates these qualities into the medium of marble. In a gravity-defying tour-de-force, the goddess – personified as a graceful young girl – is seemingly lifted by a torrent of foliage and cloth, which, leaning forward, she suspends above her head as a billowing veil. The purity of the marble enhances the woman’s lithe, sensuous form, while the sculptor’s extraordinary skill is shown in the naturalistic detail of the base, whose wealth of flora and fauna is carved with vigorous finesse. A sculpture that benefits from viewing in the round, the marble exhibits an elegant S-curve in its side view, while its reverse reveals the godesses’s long, stream-like tresses, which merge into the wave that suspends and supports her figure.
Motelli’s ambitious composition is undoubtedly derived from the French sculptor Joseph Michel-Ange Pollet’s groundbreaking model, Une heure de la nuit. First shown at the Paris Salon in 1848, Pollet’s group became the sculptor’s most celebrated composition and was considered a sensation at the Exposition Universelle of 1855. Reproduced in both marble and bronze, the model would easily have been familiar to the Italian sculptor by the 1870s. Like Motelli’s marble, Pollet’s group represents a nude woman suspended from a base support – in this case her drapery and a small putto – and extending upwards in a slight S-curve. To rival this acclaimed balancing act in marble, Motelli exceeded Pollet’s daring with his Iris: Not only does his figure lean forward in a more extreme diagonal curve than Pollet’s, creating a sense of movement and exuberance, Iris raises both her arms to hold aloft the veil, adding height and volume to the composition. Cleverly, the veil serves to lend support to the figure while appearing utterly weightless and fragile. For this gesture, Motelli perhaps drew inspiration from the bronze figures after the model of Fortuna by the great Mannerist sculptor Giambologna, which similarly suspends a veil above its head. What may have been difficult to achieve in bronze casting is an even more astonishing feat in marble.
Like many of his contemporaries, Metello Motelli is today a rather elusive figure, though he clearly enjoyed considerable success in his lifetime. Referred to as a Milanese sculptor, Motelli’s activity seems to have taken place primarily in Lombardy. Among his most important works is the memorial plaque in stone and bronze to Giuseppe Garibaldi, which he executed for the Lombard town of Saronno in 1883. Earlier in his career Motelli focused on genre sculpture, exhibiting widely both in Italy and abroad. Panzetta (op. cit.) lists charming-sounding subjects such as Un nido d’amore, shown in Florence in 1861, alongside more poignant themes, like the Eva (…) dopo la caduta which he presented at the Promotrice di Belle Arti di Torino in 1880. As well as showing works in Milan and Rome, Motelli is recorded as having exhibited in London in 1851, and again in 1882. The sculptor’s success transported him as far as America, where he presented the teasingly entitled An Awkward Surprise at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.
Works by Metello Motelli rarely appear on the art market. Three of his marbles survive in the Raccolte d'Arte dell'Ospedale Maggiore in Milan. While showcasing the sculptor’s skilled handling of marble and interest in beauty of form, they represent rather sombre subjects: A Seated Girl gazing down at flowers in her hands, a Sleeping Angel in classical garb, and a haunting relief of a woman lying down, as if in a sarcophagus. The lively virtuosity exuded by the present marble appears to be unique in the sculptor’s extant oeuvre.
Not since the sale of Ambrogio Borghi’s Chioma di Berenice (Sotheby’s, 17 May 2011, lot 60) has a significant life-size Italian marble from the Romantic period appeared at auction. Like Ambrogio Borghi, Metello Motelli belonged to a school of sculptors based in and around Milan that flourished in the 1860s and 1870s. The sculptors’ ambition to achieve a both sensuous and spectacular representation of the female nude is evident in both these exceptional marbles. The sale of the present sculpture marks a rare opportunity to acquire an important testament to the dextrous artifice of Lombard sculptors and, arguably, Metello Motelli’s masterpiece.
A. Panzetta, Nuovo Dizionario degli Scultori Italiani dell'Ottocento e del Primo Novecento, Turin, 2003, vol. 2, p. 575; ‘Metello Motelli', Mapping the Practice and Profession of Sculpture in Britain and Ireland 1851-1951, University of Glasgow History of Art and HATII, online database 2011 [http://sculpture.gla.ac.uk/view/person.php?id=msib7_1220374487, accessed 1 November 2016;
http://www.lombardiabeniculturali.it/opere-arte/autori/21134/, accessed 1 November 2016