Surviving ‘hell and high water’

A sculptor whose works made history

Jane Fortune
March 28, 2013

Nineteenth-century Florence was home to many well-known writers, artists and political personalities who were women, from Elisabeth Browning to Carolina Bonaparte. Tuscan-born sculptor Félicie de Fauveau (1801; 1886; see TF 64 and 165) was embraced by the international intellectual community, gaining commissions from the likes of Anatolio Demidoff and Czar Nicholas I. De Fauveau had spent her early life in France as an artist and political activist in favor of the Bourbon monarchy. Born in Livorno to French parents, she left France shortly after her release from prison for being part of a royalist insurrection, the Vandee Rebellion, in 1832; she arrived in Florence in 1833, where she lived for the rest of her life.


This year, de Fauveau has been the focus of two French exhibitions and two recently completed restoration projects in Florence sponsored by the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA). On April 4 and 5, the artist will be at the center of AWA's free, two-day public lecture series in Florence, Félicie de Fauveau: The Workshop of a French Woman Artist in Nineteenth-Century Florence, which will welcome the city's top nineteenth-century scholars.


On April 4, 2013, at Santa Maria del Carmine, Silvia Mascalchi, author of the first Italian monograph on de Fauveau, will speak about the artist's home-studio on via degli Serragli, in the former convent of Santa Elisabetta delle Converite, which became a mecca for foreign travelers during their Grand Tour. Enrico Colle, superintendent of the Stibbert Museum, will follow with a lecture on neoclassic and neogothic styles, spotlighting Florentine workshops at the beginning of the 1800s.


The event continues on the afternoon of April 5 with 'Félicie de Fauveau's Artistic Maturity in Pre-unification Italy' by art historian Silvestra Bietoletti. Carlo Sisi, former director of Palazzo Pitti's Gallery of Modern Art and the Costume Gallery, will present research on the nineteenth-century revival of Dante and its link to de Fauveau's art.


On both days, restorer Gabriella Tonini from Nike Restauro Opere d'Arte will present the completed restoration of de Fauveau's sculptures (see TF 174).


Some artworks make history but then struggle to survive the vicissitudes of time. De Fauveau's sculptures were born from the hands of a revolutionary woman who trained in France at a time when high-society women were expected to practice art only as an amateur pursuit, not as an economic enterprise. With her most important Florentine commission, de Fauveau defied this social convention, creating an exquisitely carved monument dedicated to 17-year-old West Indian, Louise de Favreau. Originally intended for Santa Croce's Medici Chapel, the monument (1854) was instead placed in Santa Croce's subterranean former oratory della Compagnia della Maddalena, where, on November 4, 1966, the fury of the Arno River submerged it and the entire Santa Croce area under 22 feet of oil, mud and water, leaving it like so much else in the city, in a catastrophic state. De Fauveau's most recognized masterpiece is just one of the thousands of works of art gravely damaged by 600,000 tons of floating debris.


Entirely restored after the flood, the monument's home for the last 50 years has been the upper loggia of the church's first cloister. Over the decades, its daily exposure to harsh outdoor elements caused irregular discolorations on parts of its surface. During AWA's maintenance project in 2012, grime was removed from its surface and from within its marble pores. Next, a wax polish was used to reduce the marble's lack of moisture, a lasting side effect of its immersion in the ravaging flood waters.


Restorers had the opportunity to discover more about de Fauveau's sculptural methods, which differed from those of her contemporaries who were intent on copying Donatello. She used flat and toothed chisels to create linear movement and most likely learned carving techniques by working on medallions. The monument, which was inspired by a poem the deceased girl had written, has many Christian motifs and elements of realism. To understand her 'metal-working' techniques, have a look at the engraving of Florence at the bottom of the monument, a unqiue view of the city in which the artist spent over 50 years in voluntary exile.


De Fauveau's sepulchral monument to her aging mother, amateur artist Anne de la Pierre, was also damaged during the flood. Yet, sadly, this monument's story of survival began in 1943, when Nazi forces occupied Florence. During those infernal months, the Nazis ransacked the city's museums and churches to accumulate treasures for Hitler's planned Fuhrermuseum in Austria.


Though the monument was too deeply set in the wall to be stolen, it was vandalized by German soldiers, who damaged the portrait's left side. During the restoration, restorers gauged the size of her missing chin using a photo taken before the vandalism occurred. Later, they molded a sculptural prosthesis on-site, using gesso covered with slated lime. Working with lasers and solvents, restorers also removed the dust and debris that had infiltrated the white Carrara marble, subsequently applying patinas and wax polish to reveal the artist's original gilding effects.


Because of the monument's realism, it is considered one of the preeminent sculptures of the nineteenth century. 'This is the first time I've restored a work by a woman sculptor,' said Tonini. 'I couldn't help but notice de Fauveau's ability to uphold female characteristics in her treatment of narrative details and in the way she delicately conveyed the feelings represented.'


The lecture series, which includes a presentation on the restored sculptures, was created by AWA in collaboration with The Florentine and the Opera di Santa Croce, with the patronage of the Polo Museale Fiorentino and the City of Florence. For details, see above.



Félicie de Fauveau: The Workshop of a French Woman Artist in Nineteenth-Century Florence

Thursday, April 4, 2013, 3:30pm-5:30pm, Santa Maria del Carmine, Sala della Colonna

Friday, April 5, 2013, 3:30pm-5:30pm Santa Croce, Sala del Cenacolo

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