Tabacchi’s masterpiece is a poignant and emotive tribute to the brilliant female classical mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher, Hypatia of Alexandria (circa 350/370 - 415 AD), who was head of the Neoplatonic School of Alexandria. Relatively little has survived of Hypatia’s work. However, she is understood to have written many collaborative works with her father Theon Alexandricus, and is credited with revising Ptolemy’s Almagest. Hypatia died as a result of being caught in a feud between the Roman governor of Alexandria, Orestes, and Cyril, the zealous rabble-rousing Bishop of Alexandria. Regarding her as a Pagan confident of Orestes, a Christian mob set upon the mathematician as she walked through the streets of the city. They dragged her to a church and stoned her to death with tiles, before flaying her, mutilating her body, and burning her limbs. Reciting her murder, the Christian church historian Socrates Scholasticus concluded: "Surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort” (Historia Ecclesiastica). Her murder was viewed by her contemporaries as an abomination, and has subsequently been seen as marking the death of Classical civilisation.
Tabacchi’s marble captures the moment before Hypatia’s agonising death. Tied to a post with a titular plaque inscribed with her name, Hypatia confronts her gruesome fate with shocked, open-mouthed expression, but intense, piercing, gaze. Stripped of her clothing and bound to a stake, Tabacchi’s statue embodies the appalling indignity of the scholar’s death. It is a reminder of the fate of intellectuals in history who have found themselves at odds with brutish ideology, and, viewed through a modern lense, is, perhaps, a symbol of the oppression of womankind, embodied in Hypatia, who was a rare example of a high ranking and renowned female public figure in antiquity.
The Hypatia fits into a group of sculptures by Tabacchi which represent human tragedy or loss and the emotional responses of the individuals involved. These include the Super flumina Babylonis (By the Rivers of Babylon), sold in these rooms on 6 July 2010, lot 164, in which a young Jewish grieves for Jerusalem, and the Ugo Foscolo after the treaty of Campoformio (1867, Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Rome). The facial type is typical of Tabacchi and, together with the extraordinary realism and variated surface textures, compares closely with the aforementioned groups. Tabacchi appears to have been very interested in creating complex compositional arrangements in which the protagonists arc forward and look over the viewer. This is particularly the case with his most famous work, the Tuffolina, in which a diving girl lunges forward as if jumping into the sea.
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