"The Last Kiss," a monument to Volonte Vezzoli sculpted… (Courtesy of Albin O. Kuhn…)
Considering the extent to which art defines everyday life in Italy, it's not surprising that some Italians wanted to go out in style. That's an art-historical lesson imparted by the photography exhibit "A Legacy of Love: Italian Memorial Sculpture" at the University of Maryland Baltimore County's Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery.
Photographers Robert W. Fichter and Robert Freidus collaborated on this documentary project shot at cemeteries in central and northern Italy. By photographing funerary monuments that were sculpted from marble between the early 19th century and the 1940s, they are able to show how different stylistic trends in the art world are reflected in this architectural world of the dead.
One of the earliest monuments shot for the project clearly reflects the neoclassical esthetic of its period. Sculptor Giuseppe Bogliani's circa 1835 funerary monument for Marchioness Elisabetta Sanese in a Turin cemetery includes the prone figure resting on what resembles an Empire-style sofa.
A second figure standing next to the deceased is wearing the sort of gown deemed suitable as funerary wardrobe since the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Many of the monuments made during the surveyed decades rely upon the traditional figure of a weeping woman in a flowing gown as an integral part of the design. On a technical level, it's impressive to see how skillfully the sculptors were able to transform blocks of marble into gowns that gracefully cover these idealized depictions of feminine beauty.
That sensibility remains a constant, but the idealism took a more realistic stylistic turn in mid-19th-century monuments.
Sculptor Giovanni Battista Lombardi made a monument for the Maggi-Via family in Brescia in 1859. The veiled woman in this monument corresponds to the traditional sculptural type, but appears somewhat less dreamy and more realistic than the earlier norm. More significantly, the man standing next to her wears a business suit and corresponding facial expression that make him seem like a well-off citizen rather than a Greek god.
The most stunningly realistic funerary sculpture in this exhibit depicts Caterina Campodonico, who has rested in a Genoa cemetery since 1881. Sculptor Lorenzo Orengo presents her as a stout woman proudly holding two ring-shaped loaves of bread, as well as a string of hazlenuts deliberately resembling a rosary.
Unlike the great majority of funerary monuments, which were commissioned by wealthy patrons who wanted to make a statement about their status in the afterlife, this woman was an ordinary street vendor who saved up her money for this monument.
By the 1890s, one can see Italian variations on the international Art Nouveau movement. Sculptor Leonardo Bistolfi's 1895 monument for Sebastiano Grandis in Cuneo bears the name "The Beauty of Death." The deceased is depicted in a suitably prone and stylistically plain manner, but standing next to him is a woman whose already-flowing gown and hair are further enlivened with floral and other natural motifs.
Although such attractively curving female forms remain a constant in the early 20th century, the Art Nouveau style occasionally is given what amounts to an angular makeover by modernism.
Tullo Morgagni was memorialized in Milan with a monument made between 1921 and 1930 by sculptor Guido Micheletti and architect Enzo Bifoli. This pyramid-evocative mausoleum and the six female sculptures arranged on its sloping side are defined by the mixture of arcing and straight lines found in the so-called streamlined classicism that came into vogue with the regime of Benito Mussolini.
Artistic styles and, for that matter, political styles come and go over time, but these funerary monuments have endured. They're now beautifully documented through a photography exhibit that tastefully transforms an art gallery into a cemetery.
"A Legacy of Love: Italian Memorial Sculpture" runs through Dec. 21 at the University of Maryland Baltimore County's Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery, at 1000 Hilltop Circle, in Catonsville. Call 410-455-2270.