Abbate, V. et al., Coralli, talismani sacri e profani. (exh. cat. L'arte del corallo in Sicilia), Trapani, 1986;
Di Natale, M.C. (ed.), Il Corallo Trapanese nei Secoli XVI e XVII, Brescia, 2002.
Napoleone, C., Enciclopedia della Sicilia, Parma 2006;
Li Vigni, V.P., Di Natale, M.C., Abbate, V., I grandi capolavori del corallo. I coralli di Trapani del XVII e XVIII secolo, Milano 2013;
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These exquisite rock crystal candlesticks are exceptional examples of Baroque Sicilian inventiveness during the first decades of the 17th century, and of the fortunate encounter of two different regional artistic traditions, those of Sicily and Lombardy. A joint effort between a craftsman familiar with the “transparent art” of rock crystal and a corallaro from Trapani, these candlesticks, inspired by coeval silver models made for liturgical use, are wondrous and fascinating objects created in two materials long admired by their physical splendour and symbolic attributes.
Formed by five sections of rock crystal, the base is nonetheless made of a single block, which reveals, through its transparency, the metal rod which holds together the separate sections and terminates in the pricket. These are linked by gilt-copper mounts that join the different crystal elements, further enhanced by one ring to the upper baluster stem and plain moulding to the top of the base. Together with the garland and the charming feet “a chiocchiola” (snail), the mounts contrast with the material’s transparency enhancing its ethereal quality.
The gilt-copper is inset with polished coral in the Trapanese technique of "retro incastro", which consisted in inserting the coral elements in purpose-made apertures in the copper and securing them from behind with an adhesive mixture.
Both coral and rock crystal have always been prized materials through the ages and both were believed to be associated with magical, protective or curative properties. Rock crystal, which is the common name for colourless translucent quartz, known today as hyaline quartz, was thought in classical antiquity to be ice that had hardened through intense freezing, and later associated with diamonds and frequently used in a jewellery context. By the mid-16th century, sophisticated carved and engraved rock crystal objects were being conceived, with Milan gaining international recognition as its main production centre.
On the other hand, the rich colour and unusual texture, together with its sea origins, made coral a very attractive and prized trophy for princely wunderkammern. When in the early 15th century, a large coral bay was discovered by the small Sicilian village of Trapani, a production of small objects made in this material quickly flourished and by the middle of the following century, coral workers - corallari (craftsmen) and corallini (coral fishermen) - in this village was around five hundred, assuming the role of main production centre for coral objects for the next centuries with a distinctive and still very much celebrated output.
The combined use of these two exquisite materials in the impressive candlesticks here presented has a striking and wondrous result which certainly amazed those who viewed them in the 17th century, especially in a liturgical context. In the Christian tradition, the light passing through rock crystal was associated with the Immaculate Conception and one can speculate if these could have been made for an altar dedicated to Our Lady.
There are numerous examples of Sicilian silver candlesticks from the first years of the 17th century which replicate the overall line of the present lot, but closer to the present lot in its conception are candlesticks in gilt copper and coral such as the ones in the Museo della Basilica Cattedrale di Messina which present the same dimensions and a five section structure. Another related copper and coral example is the large set of four candlesticks, from the collection of Trapani objects of Manolo March sold in Paris in 2014 (Christie’s, 16 June 2015, lot, €805,500).
Nevertheless, candlesticks combining these two materials are particularly rare and until now only three were known. An identical pair to the present lot, with exactly the same dimensions, is in the Collection Petrucci, and only recently published (Guido, op.cit., p.234-236) (fig.1). The third candlestick is mentioned in Enciclopedia della Sicilia, p.976, although without measurements. This example differs from the other two pairs on minor details in mounted copper elements and to the bulbous element of the stem which seems to be inverted, and one wonders if it might not have been refitted incorrectly at a later stage in its history.
The aforementioned rarity of these type of pieces, together with the fact that the Petrucci pair is virtually identical to the present lot suggest that these two pairs were actually a set of four conceived as an altar set, possibly complemented by a cross or a reliquary.
Interestingly, another comparable to aid our understanding of this production is the reliquary cross of San Francesco Saverio from the Church of Il Gesù in Palermo and datable from 1619-1624 (fig.2) This cross has been attributed to the Milan-trained goldsmith Marzio Cazzola, together with the silversmith Andrea Oliveri and the corallaro Thomas Pompeiano, both from Trapani. This attribution derives from documents related to commissions from a wealthy palermitana – Caterina Papè-Vignola – who not only commissioned the above mentioned reliquary cross but also employed this group of artisans for another pieces in these combined materials, two documented crosses commissioned between 1619-1624 (Di Natale, op.cit. 2016, p.36). One other rock crystal, gilt-copper and enamel cross by Cazzola and Oliveri is documented in 1601 as a gift sent to Pope Gregory XIII by the Jesuit cardinal Francesco Toledo. Finally one last cross in gilt bronze, rock crystal, coral and lapis-lazuli cross, commissioned by the brother of Caterina, Cristoforo Pape, is known in a private collection in Palermo, (ill. in di Natale, op.cit., 2016, p.36) and has also been attributed to Cazzola.
The production of rock crystal objects in Sicily did not have a particular tradition and and with the Lombard Cazzola, together with his brother Giovanni Antonio, documented in Palermo in the early 17th century, the rich Milanese tradition of rock crystal carving can therefore be assumed to have infiltrated the island through craftsmen such as them, who were happy to imbue their work with the local skills.
On the basis of this documentation and known collaboration, these rare and small group of works in rock crystal made in Sicily in the first decades of the 16th century have recently been associated to this trio of expert artisans - Cazzola, Pompeiano and Olivieri - a group in which the current lot can certainly be included.
Together with the Petrucci candlesticks, this unpublished pair is therefore a pertinent addition to an important growing corpus of works made of these mesmerising materials, which enrich the compelling history of Sicilian Baroque Art.
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