A Preview of the Upcoming Exhibition Devoted to Rome’s Master Silversmith
This fall, The Frick Collection will present the first monographic exhibition in the United States devoted to Luigi Valadier, the foremost silversmith in Rome during the second half of the eighteenth century. Valadier’s astonishing creations were admired by popes, monarchs, and aristocrats throughout Europe. He is best known for the variety of works he produced in different media that echoed the iconography of ancient Rome.
Sometime after 1716, Valadier’s father, André, moved from Avignon, in the south of France, to Rome, where he established a silversmith workshop that became one of the best known in the city. Luigi inherited his father’s business in 1759, and his unsurpassed technical expertise combined with his aesthetic taste led to a successful career marked by the production of extraordinary objects in gold, silver, and bronze. Antique sculptures, cameos, architectural details, and ruins of Roman monuments served as the inspiration for his imaginative candelabra, tableware, church altars, and centerpieces. The financial state of the Valadier workshop, however, was often precarious, and it seems the artist suffered as a result of commissions that were never paid. He committed suicide in 1785, drowning himself in the Tiber, presumably because of the debts he had accumulated.
Two years ago, the Frick Art Reference Library purchased a manuscript inventory of Valadier’s workshop, compiled after the master’s death. This important document details the artist’s production and sheds light on his working methods. The Frick also recently acquired its first work by Valadier, his only known marble object decorated with gilt-silver mounts. Although a number of similar vases exist, they feature decorations in gilt bronze, rather than the more costly gilt silver. The Frick vase is carved from Rosso Appennino, a rarely seen blood-red marble quarried in central Italy. The precious materials of the vase and the quality of the chasing of its mounts suggest that it was a private commission for an especially wealthy client.
The vase’s design — an ovoid body adorned with lanceolate leaves and the heads of two lions with rings in their jaws — appears in a number of Valadier drawings for vases. Four vases similar to the Frick vase but executed in alabaster rather than marble were given by the Roman senator Abbondio Rezzonico to Cardinal Giuseppe Doria Pamphilj and are still displayed in the Pamphilj family palace in Rome. A drawing in the Museo Napoleonico in Rome shows yet another vase, also comparable to the Frick’s. The measurements noted at the bottom of the drawing are in Genoese palmi (a measurement used only in that city), suggesting that the vase was intended for Palazzo Spinola, in Genoa, which was designed in 1779 by the French architect Charles de Wailly, who was collaborating with Valadier at the time.
Unlike the lids of similar vases by Valadier, the top of the Frick’s vase is not detachable, indicating that it is entirely ornamental. It is crowned by an acorn, whereas the finials of the four Pamphilj vases and those depicted in the Valadier drawings take the form of a pine cone. This acorn may allude to the acorns and oak branches found in the coat of arms of the Chigi, one of Rome’s most prominent aristocratic families. It is possible that the vase was commissioned by Prince Sigismondo Chigi, one of Valadier’s most important patrons in the 1770s and early 1780s.
This outstanding example of the silversmith’s art makes an exciting addition to the permanent collection and will be featured in the upcoming exhibition surrounded by other major works by the artist.