The Demidoff statue

From Russia, with love

Deirdre Pirro
June 30, 2011

Grieving the sudden death in Florence in 1828 of their father, Count Nicholas Demidoff, Tsar Alexander I's ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, brothers Paul and Anatole Demidoff commissioned Lorenzo Bartolini to sculpt a memorial to him. It was to be placed in the grounds of the sumptuous villa he had built on 42 hectares of marshland to the north of Florence at San Donato in Polverosa.


Bartolini, the artist Demindoff's sons chose for the commission, was Italy's most prominent sculptor in the years following the death of Antonio Canova. He was born into a family of blacksmiths in Savignano, near Prato, on January 7, 1777. After studying sculpture at the Accademia di Belle Arti of Florence, he left for Paris in 1799, where he apprenticed in the important atelier of Jacques-Luis David and began receiving his first commissions. In 1807, through the influence of Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon's sister, he was appointed professor of sculpture at the Accademia di Belle Arti of Carrara as well as official sculptor to the Bonaparte family.


After the fall of Napoleon in 1815, Bartolini returned to Florence, where he opened a studio in Borgo Pinti. Although ostracised for his Bonapartist political ideas and his ?too naturalistic' style in sculpture (so-called purism), he continued working, largely through commissions from foreigners in Florence, including the one entrusted to him by the Demidoff brothers. But Paul Demidoff died unexpectedly in 1840, and Bartolini died on January 20, 1850 before he could complete the monument. The work, therefore, remained unfinished until 1871, when Bartolini's pupil, Romano Romanelli, completed it. By then, the monument was no longer destined for the Villa at San Donato. Instead, Anatole, whom the Grand Duke had named Prince of San Donato so he could marry Napoleon's niece, Mathilde of Monfort, gave it to the Comune, which erected it in the garden in front of Palazzo Serristori in piazza Demidoff, which had previously been the ambassador's official residence.


Sculpted in crystalline marble from the Ravaccione quarry in Carrara, the full-sized figure of Nicholas Demidoff is seated in the centre of the group with Anatole in his arms, the figure of Gratitude by his son's side. Other allegorical figures, Mercy, Siberia with the god Pluto, the Muse of Festivals and the Truth as it revealed to Art, occupy the four corners of the composition. In bass relief is a depiction of the death of Nicholas Demidoff. On the right of this, is a figure representing the charity of his sons, the strongest element of all, as it was fully executed by Bartolini. The family crest appears on the back of the statue, and the front bears an inscription dedicated to Nicholas Demidoff as the ?untiring munificent benefactor' he was. Because of the fragility of the marble, in 1911, a canopy resembling a Victorian bandstand was erected to protect it.


Who was this ?untiring munificent benefactor?' Nicholas Demidoff, the immensely wealthy owner of a mining empire in the Urals and an arms factory, arrived in Florence in 1819, a year after the death of Elizabeth Stroganoff, his wife and the mother of his sons. To decorate his new homes, Nicholas soon amassed a vast art collection and enjoyed entertaining lavishly. Above all, however, he was a committed philanthropist, opening an orphanage and elementary school for needy children in the San Niccol? area of the city and contributing generously to building the Russian Church in Florence and a new hospital in Bagni di Lucca, among other acts of civic generosity. In recognition of his service, in 1827, the grand duke bestowed on him the title of the Count of San Donato.


Today, as Demidoff did nearly two centuries ago, many nouveau riche Russians come to Italy. Although not all millionaires, in the first three months of 2010 alone, the Italian embassy in Moscow issued about 52,000 visas to Russians coming here on holiday or business (for comparison, approximately 23,000 Americans arrived in the same period). From the Adriatic coast to Sardinia, Puglia and Versilia, Russian oligarchs spend millions of euro to stay in posh hotels, rent summer villas or buy seaside apartments. Some locals love it as they skip to the bank with their profits, arguing that this is their tickets out of the economic crisis. Others, however, say that this money-driven revolution has caused real estate prices to soar far out of reach for locals. To prevent this, Forte dei Marmi, for instance, passed a law reserving some of the town's homes for local residents. Moreover, because these well-heeled foreigners spend so much on products ?Made in Italy,' many traditional beach resorts have seen their local artisans disappear, to be replaced by high-end boutiques with well-known names, thus drastically changing the character and uniqueness of these locales. Therefore, before all these places start to look alike, perhaps a kind of ?cultural' philanthropy is needed: giving to as well as taking from a community-by both natives and newcomers alike.


Through November 6, 2011, the first exhibition focused entirely on Bartolini, Lorenzo Bartolini: Sculptor of Natural Beauty, at the Galleria dell'Accademia, displays over 70 works, including busts of the Demidoff princes, Liszt, and Byron.


For further information, see


To escape the hot, steamy summer in Florence, there is no better place to visit than Villa Demidoff, 12 km north of the city. Originally a Medicean villa, it was sold in 1872 to Nicholas' grandson, Prince Paul Demidoff (1839-1885), who redeveloped the property. While savouring the coolness of the park, you can see the Colossus of the Apennines, the Fountain of Jupiter, the Mugnone fountain, the Maschera fishpond and the aviary, the pheasant house, Cupid's grotto and the Montili lodge. Enjoy the shade of the centuries-old oaks, cedars and chestnut trees that abound in the park. For more information on the Villa and adjacent Pratolino Park, see TF 103 and



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