Bonzanigo and the micro-sculptural frame

by Luca Burzio and The Frame Blog

0 Cover Bonzanigo Self portrait 1786 Sotheby s Treasure sale 2018

Giuseppe Maria Bonzanigo was born in Asti in 1745 into a family of sculptors.  He was almost certainly trained in the workshop of his father, Giovanni Margherita Burzio, carver and cabinetmaker, but the provincial horizons of Asti must soon have proved too confining for his exceptional talents.  By 1773 he was working in Turin, capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia and seat of the court of Savoy, and was already receiving royal commissions. By the following year, 1774, he had been elected a member of the prestigious Compagnia di San Luca, which counted amongst its ranks the most famous artists active in Piedmont at the time. He became the head of an important workshop of carvers and cabinetmakers catering for the Piedmontese aristocracy, as well as the royal court; by 1792 he was employing thirteen craftsmen and apprentices [1]

1 Bonzanigo designed firescreen Carved by Vittorio Amedeo Rapous Painted by Michele Antonio Rapous c1775 Sala della Colazione Palazzo Reale Turin

NeoClassical firescreen, designed by Bonzanigo, carved by Vittorio Rapous and painted by Michele Rapous, 1775, Sala della Colazione, Palazzo Reale, Turin. Photo: Noel S. McFerran 

In the last quarter of the 18th century his workshop is documented as having supplied a huge array of furniture to the Royal Palace in Turin, and to the other royal residences at Moncalieri, Rivoli, Stupinigi and Venaria. The firescreen above, designed by Bonzanigo, is believed to have been commissioned by Vittorio Amedeo III, King of Sardinia (1726-96),  as a wedding gift for his son and his bride. It consists of a framed screen on a supporting console in an Italian interpretation of goût grec; the screen has outset corners, a swan’s neck pediment supporting a basket with doves of Venus, branches of bay leaves and floral festoons, and an oval grisaille portrait of Vittorio Amedeo depending from ribbons in the centre. On the sill of the screen, further branches of bay leaves are heaped up, supporting a quiver of Cupid’s arrows and a flaming torch, symbolizing love. It is gilded in red and green gold leaf, and the ground painted with a trellised pattern of floral posies, creating altogether an extremely rich and ornamental ensemble. This is the goût grec two decades after its invention in Paris, softened from a sober and heavy classicism into something still weighty, but opulently decorative; hung with flowers and bristling with ornament like the Rubenesque goddess of marchands-merciers.

2 Bonzanigo attrib NeoClassical firescreen c1780 65.25x36.25ins 166x92.5cm Sotheby s NY 26Oct2012 Lot177

Bonzanigo (attrib.; 1745-1820), NeoClassical firescreen, c.1780, 65.25 x 36.25 ins (166 x 92.5 cm.), Sotheby’s New York, 26 October 2012, Lot 177 

A firescreen in a lighter version of the NeoClassical, and dating from about five years later, is also attributed to Bonzanigo. This seems much more in keeping with the stylistic vocabulary he was most comfortable with; its richness depends, not on a weighty opulence of carved ornament and a restless horror vacui of surface – which may have seemed appropriate towards the beginning of his relationship with the court – but on the accretion of small-scale decorative mouldings, slender rails, and a greater elegance of proportion. A frame like this, minus the stand and urn at the base, can almost be imagined as holding a decorative painting, perhaps by Angelica Kauffmann. It has architrave mouldings with elongated outset corners, and oval paterae set in leaves; rails with bay leaf sprigs, Vitruvian wave ornament and beads; festoons and drops of roses, sunflowers and narcissus; pineapple finials, and an open ring fronton, capped with the torch and arrow-sheaf of love, and a crown of myrtles (sacred to Venus). The top rail has a shaped frieze, carved with delicately scrolling sprays of acanthus and myrtle, which morph into the Vitruvian wave. The open ring is decorated with running husks and flutes, and is supported on either side by the spiralling curves of further rings, which Bonzanigo also used in his wall-hung looking-glass frames (below).

3A Bonzanigo attrib Italian polychrome painted carved giltwood mirror 227.5x99cm fr Vigna Corte di Bonvicino, Moncalieri Sothebys NY 27Oct2017 Lot187

Bonzanigo (attrib.; 1745-1820), Italian polychrome painted parcel-gilt looking-glass, 227.5 x 99 cm., from Vigna Corte di Bonvicino, Moncalieri, Sotheby’s New York, 27 October 2017, Lot 187 

3B Bonzanigo looking glasses & detail Palazzina di Caccia Palazzo di Stupinigi Turin

Two of the four looking-glasses (& a close-up of one) by Bonzanigo, 1784, Royal apartments in the Palazzina di Caccia, Palazzo di Stupinigi, Turin 

The furnishings from his workshop included ‘stools, chairs, armchairs, benches, sofas, screens, beds, beds’ and looking-glasses, ‘as well as many ornamental panels and chests of drawers’ [2]. The first looking-glass above was made for the king’s First Secretary of State and later Grand Chancellor, Giuseppe Ignazio Corte, and below it is one from a set of four in the king’s apartments in the Palazzina di Caccia, or hunting lodge, Palazzo Stupinigi. Bonzanigo based his designs on earlier models, using for their execution some of the craftsmen who had made the firescreen for the king, such as Michele Rapous. A note of Rapous’s work, submitted by the painter himself, exists in the accounts of work for the Palazzina, in the apartment which was then occupied by Princess Felicita:

‘Works executed by me, Michele Rapos, Painter to His Majesty, which are located in in the Royal apartments of Madama Felicita in the Palazzo Stupinigi: I have painted these individual ornaments, part of 2 looking-glasses, which include the pieces described below:

4 baskets filled with flowers, and leaves, or with three small cords with a green branch in the middle.

Plus 2 large garlands of roses with a vase placed in the middle, which are all above the glass, forming the crest of the looking-glass

4 drops [of flowers], which crown the baskets

4 leaf terminals forming the feet of the looking-glasses

4 branches of bay leaves, adorning the top of the said glasses

2 painted flowers placed at the bottom and in the middle of the [friezes of the] said glasses

4 pendants of roses, which are placed on top of the [lateral] mouldings

2 rose branches placed above, and in the middle of the said glasses

8 small painted pieces which cover the junctions of the mouldings

Painted around 1 frame surrounding the said glass, a frieze with a green branch in the midst, with green leaves…’ [3]

The hallmark of these looking-glasses is the paring-down of the NeoClassical structure to a skeletal contour, which is lightened and uplifted by scrolls of fringed acanthus and garlands of roses, and the use of vibrant colour. The looking-glasses in the Palazzina di Caccia have the garlands looped into those characteristic wedding-ring curves and garnished with doves, or thrust into tall golden baskets; the effect is as though the NeoClassical had mated with the Rococo to produce a beautiful classical frivolity.

3C Bonzanigo looking glass detail Palazzina di Caccia Palazzo di Stupinigi Turin

Bonzanigo, detail of roses on one of the looking-glasses in the Palazzina di Caccia

Bonzanigo’s own ‘Nota’ on these pieces records that he carved:

‘two looking-glasses  in Grecian style, c. 5 ½ piedi high and a generous 2 ½ piedi wide, with foliage, and flowers twined with olive branches; in the lateral corners a basket full of flowers resting on the outset corner of the  frame and in the crest a garland of flowers carved in the round and in the middle of the said crest a vase with various decorations’ [4].

He describes the decoration of the other two frames as having:

‘two intertwined circles crowned with flowers wound with myrtle branches and two turtle doves in different positions’[5]

He adds that the drops of leaves and flowers

‘are also worked around the sides so that from every angle the carved decoration can be seen’ [6].

4A Bonzanigo Giuseppe Placido 89x71 cm Palazzina di Caccia

Bonzanigo (1745-1820), Giuseppe Benedetto Maria Placido, Prince of Savoy (1766-1802), c.1776-80, o/c, 89 x 71 cm., Palazzina di Caccia, Palazzo di Stupinigi, Turin

As well as looking-glass frames, he produced picture frames for his royal patron. This NeoClassical trophy frame contains a portrait of the king’s youngest child, Giuseppe of Savoy, Count of Moriana and Count of Asti, and illustrates the influence of French Louis XVI structures and styles as they diffused across the Alps to blend with the final vestiges of Italian Baroque. The architrave profile with its decorative fluting is avant-garde and anti-Roman for an Italian frame of the 1770s: moving away from the juxtaposition of deep concave and convex mouldings to a sparer and simpler form. It allows the complex trophies above and below the level of the canvas to riot in dramatic animation, without distracting from the portrait itself.

4B Giuseppe Maria Bonzanigo c1744to1820 Vittorio Amedeo III of Savoy Asta Antiquariato e Dipinti Antichi Genoa 29Sept2009 copy

Bonzanigo (1745-1820), Vittorio Amedeo III of Savoy, Asta Antiquariato e Dipinti Antichi, Genoa, 29 September 2009

Bonzanigo’s use of composition, ornament, colour and imagination, along with his versatility and his extraordinary skill in carving, ensured that in 1787 he was appointed court woodcarver to Vittorio Amedeo III. He retained his position until 1796, when Napoleon’s invasion ousted the House of Savoy, but was re-instated on its restoration 1815, remaining royal woodcarver until his death five years later. As the citation for his appointment declared,

‘The particular skill and expertise demonstrated by Giuseppe Maria Bonzanigo, sculptor in wood, in the execution of the various works commissioned over several years in our service, and in each of those individual pieces, which he has executed with singular and perfect mastery, inviting us to honour him with the mark of our favour, we have willed that he be installed as our sculptor in wood, with the object of giving him a greater spur to distinguish himself in the said art.’ [7]

Bonzanigo was renowned throughout Europe, during his lifetime, for the breathtaking finesse of his craftsmanship, evident in his more conventional pieces of furniture, but above all in the minutely-detailed carvings in ivory and different coloured woods known as ‘microsculptures’. In 1817 the Piedmontese ambassador to Paris discovered that Bonzanigo’s work was not only greatly appreciated in France, but also admired in many other countries, and that his name had become supreme amongst sculptors in wood.  During a visit to Turin in 1812, for example, Philippe Petit-Radel, the surgeon and author, described Bonzanigo as one of the major artists of the city; and in 1813 the writer and postal inspector Régis-Jean-François Vaysse de Villiers (husband of the pastellist Rosalie Lebrun [8]) celebrated him as the only artist active in Piedmont whose name was worth mentioning.

5A Bonzanigo Mars c1785 carved in ebony lemongrass tulip tree & precious woods Art Mart sale 19to20Sept2018

5B Bonzanigo Mars c1785 carved in ebony lemongrass tulip tree & precious woods detail

Bonzanigo (attrib.; 1745-1820), Mars, c.1785, walnut, ebony, lemongrass, tulipwood, boxwood, with shaped bead-&-bobbin moulding and daisy paterae; 8 ½ x & ½ ins (21.5 x 19 cm.), and detail, Burzio 

Perhaps the most evocative description of Bonzanigo as both artist and man is given by the Danish Romanic poet Adam Oehlenschläger (1779-1850) in his diaries. In 1809, Oehlenschläger broke his journey to meet the German painter Thorvaldsen in Rome by calling briefly at Turin, with the expressed intention of meeting Bonzanigo. After visiting his workshop he described the royal woodcarver as the highest exponent of ‘the refined Italian art’, as he put it, and a worthy heir of the Renaissance sculptor Benvenuto Cellini.  He went on to explain how, by that time, the larger workshops for sculpture and carving in France had already developed what could be called ‘industrial’ practices, whilst Bonzanigo’s works remained highly individual: the result of his own genius and invention; expressions of ‘true poetry’ characterized by ‘beauty, well-proportioned figures and the refined style of the ancients’.

6A Bonzanigo The School of Greek Anatomy 1793 Pinacoteca Accademia Albertina Turin

Bonzanigo (1745-1820), frame for Louis Lafitte (1770-1828),  Lezione di anatomia in Grecia, sepia wash and gouache, 1793, 36 x 53 cm., the frame with a portrait of the artist; Pinacoteca dell’Accademia Albertina, Turin 

This must be the reason that a collector, acquiring the drawing above from Louis Lafitte, a pensionary and honorary professor at the Académie de France à Rome, had the idea of commissioning a unique and custom-made frame from Bonzanigo. Frames which are solely frames, and don’t hold one of his own carved relief portraits or classical scenes, are rarer in his oeuvre; this one is a virtuoso response to the commission:

‘The iconography of the frame fits the subject of the drawing. The carver has depicted Aesculapius [in the plaque], top centre; at the corners are the famous physicians, Hippocrates, [Albrecht von] Haller, and [Giovanni Battista] Morgagni. Galen, in the bottom left-hand corner, is missing. The frieze is decorated with medicinal plants and insects (scorpion, cantharid, fly, and scarab): the realization of Bonzanigo’s imagination and great technical skill. Trophies symbolizing medicine and surgery alternate with those of painting and mathematics. Urns [and] bucrania… punctuate swags… of ribbon… Uncharacteristically, he has added his signature to the urn on the right-hand side of the bottom rail: ‘G. Bon. o’. ’ [9]

6B Bonzanigo The School of Greek Anatomy 1793 Pinacoteca Accademia Albertina Turin details

Bonzanigo, frame for Louis Lafitte, Lezione di anatomia in Grecia, details

Perhaps because there are no spandrels or other areas inside the pictorial enclosure, the frame itself is exceptionally rich, with a very varied use of contrasted tone, an outer frieze containing masks with further swags of drapery, and an inner, wider one with the medical trophies mentioned above on three sides.  The fourth, at the top,

‘…is an echo of the frieze with classical scenes which Lafitte drew in his imaginary hall of anatomical teaching. Bonzanigo’s classical frieze is directly inspired by a Greek bas-relief in the Palace Farnese, which was engraved by Pietro Santi Bartoli; on one side, there is a funeral scene, and the other, the journey of the dead in Charon’s boat.’ [10]

Then there is the portrait of Lafitte himself at the bottom, balancing Aesculapius at the top; the little plaque with his profile stands against an eagle holding the trumpet of Fame, from which a scroll issues, telling the spectator that ‘The arts will render homage to Nature’. Beside it, trophies of Lafitte’s own profession are carved. This is a frame which contains a whole exegesis of the drawing inside it and also of the man who made it.

Returning to the meeting of Oehlenschläger and Bonzanigo, the poet was impressed by the latter’s simple manners and candid character, as much as by his innate understanding of classical ornament and proportion, and his artistic genius. He described his encounter with Bonzanigo like this:

‘The old sculptor came and showed me his works, as if he were a common carpenter. And please do not think that this annoyed me, or diminished him in my eyes; on the contrary, it raised him. This is probably also how German, Flemish and many Italian artists of the past must have behaved.’

In Oehlenschläger’s eyes, Bonzanigo appeared to be an reincarnation of the great masters of the Renaissance, from Dürer to Raphael. Such a picturesque description of the artist contributed to his idealization in the German-speaking world, explaining his presence as a character – der bild-hauer Bonzanigo – in the 1839 novel, Die hohe Braut by Heinrich Josef König (1790-1869); which Wagner adapted into an opera libretto in 1848 (Bianca und Giuseppe, oder die Franzosen vor Nizza, the musical part for which was never written).

0 Cover Bonzanigo Self portrait 1786 Sotheby s Treasure sale 2018

Bonzanigo (1745-1820), Self-portrait, 1786/96, limewood, walnut, tulipwood, ebony and fruitwood, 24 ¾ x 23 ¼ ins (62.7 x 59 cm.), Burzio 

Bonzanigo’s technical virtuosity, as well as his self-consciousness as an artist, is fully revealed in his self-portrait. This was executed at the peak of his career, and is one of the largest and most ambitious carved portraits which the artist ever produced. The panel is composed around the central oval, with his likeness in profile, a cartouche beneath it identifying him (in French) as ‘Joseph Marie Bonzanigo. Sculpteur. du Roi de Sardaigne’. His portrait has an inner ‘frame’ of a fillet with beading, held by two pendant branches of olive leaves, whilst the spandrels behind it are decorated at the sides with candelabrum ornaments containing two elegant, elongated urns, with the respective initials ‘V’ and ‘R’, for ‘Victor Rex’, a reference to Bonzanigo’s main patron, Vittorio Amedeo.

7B Bonzanigo Self portrait Medallions w different sculptors Details

Bonzanigo, Self-portrait, 1786/96, top left corner & right-hand chain of medallions; with detail of Canova’s portrait medallion, below left

Lilies, acanthus leaves and ears of wheat grow from the urns, and are wound with NeoClassical garlands of bay leaves.  A tiny framed head of a lion sits at the top centre, supported by the acanthus leaves from which the oval portrait and olive branches depend, and which also hold two swagged ribbons strung with portrait medallions. Each medallion is carved with a raised silhouette of some of the greatest sculptors in the western canon: for example, Michelangelo’s profile can be seen quite clearly on the left-hand swag, towards the left side; whilst recent research has identified another of these silhouette portraits as that of Antonio Canova (possibly after a drawing by Hugh Douglas Hamilton). Interestingly Bonzanigo was known to his contemporaries as ‘the Canova of wood’.

8 Bonzanigo Self portrait Top right corner

Bonzanigo, Self-portrait, top right-hand corner of frieze, with portrait of Laurent Pécheux

The outer frame contains, on the ebonized frieze of the lateral rails, ten more portraits of Bonzanigo’s peers, who were, like him, involved with commissions from the court of Savoy. Those in the four corners are almost certainly the directors of the Reale Accademia di pittori, scultori e Architetti of Turin (now the Accademia Albertina di Belle Arti) – for example, the painter Laurent Pécheux (1729-1821) can be identified in the top right-hand corner. Between these four, the remaining six figures are identified by the lozenge-shaped plaques hung on the cords which support their portraits; they hold the attributes of each man’s profession. The portraits include those of the marble sculptor Ignazio Collino (1736-93), the bronze sculptor Francesco Ladatte (1706-87), the silversmith Giovanni Battista Boucheron (1742-1815), the engraver and medallist Carlo Lavy (1765-1813), and the architect Giuseppe Battista Piacenza (1735-1818). The remaining profile belongs to a stuccatore, who is currently still to be identified.

9 Bonzanigo Self portrait Detail of lower left side

Bonzanigo, Self-portrait, lower left-hand side, showing detail of urn and pedestal

Bonzanigo sets himself at the centre of this artistic assembly: he is, both literally and metaphorically, the largest of the eleven characters represented. This assumption of superiority is expressed even more emphatically through the technical sophistication of the whole piece – in details of such unimaginable bravura as the three-dimensional swinging chains and ribbons holding the festoons of medallions in place, or the pedestals which support the two urns at the sides: each of these is decorated with a female mascaron, and crowned with an arrangement of fruit. It is difficult to comprehend how tiny these details are – some are only a few millimetres in size.

10A Bonzanigo Military trophy 1793-1814 Palazzo Madama Turin

Bonzanigo (1745-1820), Trofeo militare, 1793-1814, rosewood, chestnut, laurel, poplar, ebony, olive wood, boxwood, rose, lime, holly, fruitwood; ivory portrait of Vittorio Emanuele I at centre; 172 x 116 cm., Palazzo Madama, Turin 

At the other end of the scale in terms of dimensions (although just as minute in detail and spectacular in achievement), Bonzanigo’s Trofeo militare in the Palazzo Madama takes, as it were, the biscuit.  Cut loose from association with a conventional picture frame, a wall panel or overdoor and given its own reliquary cabinet, this monumental trophy occupied him for more than twenty years; it charted his ability to remain in position, like a woodworking Vicar of Bray [11], whatever the régime in charge happened to be. Works of such complexity and ambition were threatened in the wake of the French Revolution and the subsequent wave of political unrest under Napoleon’s military expansion. With the court of Savoy forced into exile in 1796, Bonzanigo lost his main patrons. He had begun the Trofeo militare under the rule of Vittorio Amedeo III (1773-96), recast it once under the Napoleonic régime, and then again in 1814-15 to reflect the restoration of the House of Savoy under Vittorio Emanuele I (1802-21), whose tiny portrait gleams out at the centre. During the middle period (so to speak) of the Trophy’s life, when presumably it was Napoleon’s portrait at the centre, Bonzanigo

‘…obtained, from General Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, governor of Piedmont from 1801 to 1803, rooms free of charge in the convent of San Francesco da Paola, which he could use as both studio and shopfront for his work.  In May 1803 Jourdan himself agreed to purchase the great military trophy for 50,000 francs for the Musée Central des Arts in Paris; but the price must have been too high and the acquisition was not authorized by the French Ministry of the Interior, in spite of the General’s lobbying for it. In 1814 the trophy remained unsold in the workshop. The following year Bonzanigo, now in his seventies, published a description of the work in a 13-page booklet printed in Turin.’ [12]

10B Bonzanigo Military trophy 1793-1814 Palazzo Madama Turin detail 1

10C Bonzanigo Military trophy 1793-1814 Palazzo Madama Turin detail 2

Bonzanigo, Trofeo militare, details of Zeus’s eagle & head of Athena; and of shields with Ares & Medusa’s head

The inscription in Latin near the top of the trophy celebrates ‘the virtues of War and the wisdom of Peace’ beneath the head of Athena (who sums up both) and the eagle with thunderbolts signifying her father, Zeus; however, the drama of the work is rather on the side of War, with its standards, banners and weapons, lions’ heads and chains, the shield of Ares, god of war on the left, and of Athena, with the head of Medusa, on the right.

10D Bonzanigo Military trophy 1793-1814 Palazzo Madama Turin details

Bonzanigo, Trofeo militare, details of crest, and left-hand corners, top and bottom

These practically conceal the fasces of uneventful government, just as the bay leaves of victory hide the peaceful cornucopiae at each side; whilst the figure of Peace is a minute figure in the roundel at the crest of the frame. She is supported by two swans, who are hissing at the small military trophies beneath them; but the finials on the corners are decorated with demon-like gargoyles, also looking down on any evidence below them for the security of peace. Bonzanigo’s life had weathered two major political upheavals, and he must have passed from an unreflective reliance on the strength of Savoyard rule, through a diplomatic struggle to maintain his work under an invasion, and on to a cynical wariness as to the return of stability in his country. All of this is reflected in the evolution of his Trofeo militare.

11 Bonzanigo attrib Portrait of a young Napoleon Bonaparte c1800 Sotheby s Treasures 3July2019 London Lot27

Bonzanigo (attrib.; 1745-1820), Portrait of a young Napoleon Bonaparte, c.1800, and detail, Sotheby’s Treasures, 3 July 2019, Lot 27 

He must have worked particularly hard to move from beneath the aegis of the fallen court of Savoy, and up into the circles of patronage of the invading force. His portraits of Napoleon are evidence of the need to make the best of whatever was the ruling power in Piedmont at the time. This earlier portrait, made from a drawing of 1796 by Longhi, uses the ebony frieze of the frame to highlight two long slender arrangements of military trophies on the laterals rails, centred on shields depicting Abundance, and Heracles wrestling the Nemean lion. Further trophies fill the spandrels, and two crossed swords the bottom frieze; all the arrangements of weapons are twined with flattering branches of oak leaves, bay leaves, olives and palms. The oval ‘sight edge’ of the portrait is lined with these symbols of strength, victory, peace and even more victory, rising in a crescendo of leaves to the crest with its fanned shields. The weight of symbolism contrasts sharply with the bust of the 27 year-old Commander.

12 Details of bead mouldings

Details of bead-&-bobbin and pearl mouldings from various microsculptures

The carving is, as always, striking, brilliant and impeccable; however, it is one of the more modest mouldings which makes itself felt in this piece – as in many others – with such structural emphasis: the shaped bead-&-bobbin ornament between outer frame and spandrel, which echoes but does not in any way reproduce the pearls around the oval portrait panel.  Both are carved with great refinement, and alert the viewer to their other appearances, or to those of related ornaments; they may be minuscule, but their regularity and crispness highlight the various areas of the frame and the boundaries of frieze and portrait panel. Bonzanigo almost certainly used these small repetitive ornaments to train the apprentices in his workshop, creating, through the imitation of his own meticulous skill and sense of detail, a small school of craftsmen in Piedmont in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

13 Bonzanigo Napoleón as First Consul of the French Republic c1800 33x26.7cm Art mart 2013

Bonzanigo (1745-1820), Napoleón as First Consul of the French Republic, c.1800, 13 x 10 ½ ins (33 x 26.7 cm.), Sotheby’s New York, 31 January 2013, Lot 412 

A contemporary portrait of Bonaparte as First Consul is a particularly impressive statement of outward support. The piece overall – portrait and frame – is less crowded and hectic than in the depiction of the younger Napoleon; it is just as richly ornamented and meticulously carved, but is more balanced, considered and sophisticated in its composition. The moulding in the outer hollow is an extraordinary variation on a traditional ribbon-&-stave ornament: the stave appears to be carved into a mere thread of wood on which disc-shaped beads are strung, while the ribbon has an airy thinness; it is fringed with a minutely scalloped edging, and is engraved with a foliate decoration, and yet it is only a little over a centimetre wide. The inner frieze has two vertebrate candelabrum ornaments on the lateral rails, foliage sprigs in an undulating ribbon at the base, and along the top scrolling foliate ornament with sunflowers in the volutes and a central eagle. The two trophies which surround the portrait oval confine the symbols of militarism and government to the bottom, whilst around the top are attributes of art, architecture, music, medicine, wisdom, geography and literature: all of which are presumably the benefits brought to Europe by Napoleonic rule.

14 Bonzanigo Marechal André Massena 1758to1817 Christie s Paris 15June2016 Lot151

Bonzanigo (attrib., or his workshop; 1745-1820), Marechal André Massena (probably; 1758-1817), early 19th century, carved wood, 32 1/3 x 26 1/5 ins (83 x 66.5 cm.), Christie’s Paris, 15 June 2016, Lot 151

Bonzanigo’s new clientele now consisted of politicians, military leaders such as Napoleon’s maréchal (above; although this looks more like one of Bonzanigo’s workshop members or followers ) and the imperial aristocracy. He provided for them works which were often smaller in scale, but still monumental from a technical point of view, such as snuff boxes, and small portraits inspired by the carved cameos so fashionable throughout Europe at the time. Once again, his reputation propelled him to the top. Josephine Bonaparte’s commissions from Bonzanigo are well documented: in 1806, for instance, she paid him 350 francs for twelve portraits in wood; a few years later she commissioned a portrait in ivory of Napoleon’s new wife, Marie Louise of Austria, presenting it to the Emperor in 1811 (now in Paris, in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs).

By 1816, however, the Bonapartist regime had vanished like the snow, and the House of Savoy had returned to claim back its throne. Bonzanigo was reinstated as carver to the king; he had only four years more to live, and his last pieces are possibly more the work of his studio than of his own hand.

15 Bonzanigo 1745to1820 Maria Theresa of AustriaEste c1815to20 Sothebys NY 27Jan2011 lot 492

15 Bonzanigo 1745to1820 Maria Theresa of AustriaEste c1815to20 Sothebys NY 27Jan2011 lot 492 detail

Bonzanigo (and workshop; 1745-1820), Maria Theresa of Austria-Este, Queen of Sardinia, c.1815-20, wood and ivory, 12 x 8 ¾ ins (30.5 x 22.2 cm.), and detail, Sotheby’s New York, 27 January 2011, lot 492 

This portrait of Maria Theresa, wife of one of the three sons of Vittorio Amedeo III who became kings of Sardinia after him, is another virtuoso performance, this time marrying ivory (rather than blond boxwood) with black and brown woods, which show off the fineness and fragility of the carving. Tiny trophies, slung on a cord on the lateral friezes, represent the arts on the left and the sciences on the right, between portraits which depict either contemporaries or classical figures associated with them. Small beading outlines the entablature at the top, inside which carved rais-de-coeur surround the picture plane on three sides. The portrait of the queen is set in a microscopically fine garland of flowers, including sunflowers, carnations, roses and daisies, with a figure of Fame at the top and a crown and branch of roses beneath. A putto representing sculpture and another depicting painting stand beside the plinth, the whole composition reflecting the influence of engraved framed portraits. Even if it owes as much to his workers as to Bonzanigo himself, it is a striking note to bow out on.

In 1818 he sold some of the contents of his academy and workshop to three of his students, who would take possession of them – as his successors – after his death. The works of art chosen, along with tools, models and drawings, almost certainly included the Trofeo militare, and Bonzanigo’s self-portrait [13].

9 Bonzanigo Self portrait Detail of bottom rail with cockerels


Luca Burzio is a descendant of Giuseppe Bonzanigo’s family, and a dealer in fine art and antiques


[1] See the catalogue note for Bonzanigo’s Self-portrait, Sotheby’s, 4 July 2018, lot 27 

[2] See the catalogue entry for an Italian polychrome and parcel-gilt looking-glass attrib. to Bonzanigo, Sotheby’s New York, 27 October 2017, lot 187 

[3] From the Royal accounts for 1784, but dated February and March 1785; quoted in Giancarlo Ferraris, Giuseppe Maria Bonzanigo e la scultura decorativa in legno a Torino nel periodo neoclassico (1770-1830), 1991

[4] Ibid., p. 346

[5] Ibid., p. 347

[6] Ibid., p.346

[7] Ibid., p. 49

[8]  See Neil Jeffares, Dictionary of pastellists before 1800, ‘Mlle Rosalie

[9]   Veronique Mathis, Louis Lafitte : un peintre d’histoire de la Révolution à la Restauration, Normandie Université, 2020, p. 109

[10]  Ibid.

[11] The Vicar of Bray 

[12] See the catalogue entry for the Trofeo on the Palazzo Madama website 

[13] Research by Arabella Cifani