Known as “’o scultore pazzo” (“the mad sculptor”) in Naples for the profound mental instability that tormented him, his real name was Vincenzo Gemito (Naples, 1852-1929), a goldsmith and sculptor who was often forced by his condition to take long breaks in his creative activity.
His life was never easy, right from the start: he was abandoned as an infant by his parents, who placed him in the foundling wheel of the Sant’Annunziata orphanage. Indeed, he was originally given the surname Genito – that is, generato (“born” or “generated” in Italian) – commonly associated with orphans. A transcription error turned the N into an M.
Adopted and raised by a destitute family, Gemito showed an incredible talent for plastic arts early on. His meticulous eye loved to dwell mainly on scenes of Neapolitan slums, and his favourite subjects were children dressed in rags, lower-class people and card players.
The Gallerie d’Italia in Naples house one of the most important groups of works by the artist, from the collection belonging to lawyer Gabriele Consolazio: terracotta figures, bronze sculptures and drawings produced between the 1870s and the 1920s.
His early heads modelled in terracotta – such as the impressive “Scugnizzo”, “Fiociniere” and “Moretto” (“Young Boy”, “Harpooner” and “Black Boy”) – attest to Gemito’s tendency towards naturalism.
More sophisticated are his bronze portraits of notable figures such as Spanish painter Mariano Fortuny and his contemporary Domenico Morelli.
Gemito’s indefatigable plastic study is embodied, in particular, by his “Testa di filosofo” (“Head of a Philospher”) and his later “Busto di fanciulla napoletana” (“Bust of a Young Neapolitan Girl”), both infused by a sensual classicism reminiscent of the seductions and virtuosities of Ancient Hellenistic sculpture.
No less magnificent are the drawings made with a range of materials and methods: indeed, Gemito was equally skilled with pencils, charcoal, ink, watercolours, sanguine and white tempera.
Palazzo Zevallos Stigliano showcases a series of fascinating self-portraits, harsh proof of the painful changes in Gemito’s features over the years; another important series on display is made up of female figures where we can observe the style research inspired by 17th-century models that made Vincenzo Gemito the last follower of Neapolitan naturalism.
Photos © Archivio dell’Arte/Luciano Pedicini