The first and only Italian and European tapestry whose image was inspired by a cartoon of impressionist.
THE LARGO FOUNTAIN OF VILLA BORGHESE
Tapestry : Wool and silk weft, cm 220 x 145 - Rome, Manufacture of San Michele a Ripa, under the direction of Giuseppe Prinotti, 1907-1909
Origin : the place where the work was first kept in unknown, but the subject suggests a commission by the Italian Crown, from a letter kept together with the handwork we can see that in 1948 the tapestry was sold by a Roman antiques dealer to the Senator Giuseppe Scalise.
The tapestry reproduces with meticulous accuracy a site in Rome ; a fountain situated in a park which, at the time the work was carried out, was the property of the Italian Crown, which then became State property, being incorporated in the park of Villa Borghese. In the foreground we can see a marble fountain surmounted by a statue of a Muse, erected on a pedestal decorated with relieves of eagles, which in its turn is posed on a dado decorated with grotesque masks from which water flows; this falls into three basins, disposed in the shape of a 3-leafed clover, from which it overflows to fall into a surrounding circular pond. Behind the fountain we can see the perspective view of a marmoreal balustrade which retreats in depth, overlooking a wood of trees whose leafy branches, rendered with autumnal reddish-rusty tints, spread out into the sky.
At the base of the fountain, in the lower, right corner, a group of pigeons fly around and peck, giving to the scenographic and almost timeless view a sense, on the contrary, of immanence and immediacy which is reinforced by the shining effects of the sunlight which is reflected on the leaves and the marble, and which also creates bright streaks on the veil of water which overflows from the basins. At the bottom is inscribed the synthetic signature of the manufacturer and the date of the work: “OSM 1090” ; the mark is composed of the initials of the Ospizio di San Michele a Ripa, in Rome (the building is now the site of the Ministry for the Arts) in which the handwork was kept. The scene is enclosed in a border which simulates a wooden frame engraved with a spiral motif, which is interrupted at the centre of the upper decoration to leave space for a nameplate on which “VILLA / UMBERTO I” can be read.
Carried out at the beginning of the 20th century, the tapestry was woven with an impeccable technique, on an extremely fine warp. It is in an excellent state of conservation. But these remarkable technical merits pass into the background compared to the work’s exceptional documentary value, which is not only a very rare example of a tapestry woven in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century, but, above all, for its style and iconography is unique in the history of tapestries, in fact it demonstrates an “impressionist” taste of which no parallels exist amongst the few Italian tapestries of the same era, nor in the more abundant production carried out in the same years in the French manufactures of Gobelins or Beauvais.
Not only is the tone of immediacy conferred on the image by the “verismo” of the light, the falling of water and the flight of pigeons, of a clear impressionist matrix, but also the filamentous setting out of the chromatic impasto comes from the same cultural environment, which the tapestry-weaver has copied from a model - a picture - painted with a pointillist technique. The pictorial model still has to be found, but the image itself suggests that it was based on a photographic reproduction of the site, which the painter reproduced and whose inevitable “instantaneous” tone of life has been passed, through the picture, to the tapestry. Whilst the tapestries woven in Europe (in Belgium, France, Italy) between the end of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th century generally reproduce the decorative, graphic, fluid and flattened out taste, typical of the Liberty style, this tapestry proceeds experimentally in countertendency and, uniquely at a European level, reduces the space, the light and, above all, communicates the casualty of a glance or the reality of the environment, in the manner of impressionist painting, born in France around 1860.
The signature and date certify the origin to the last years of activity of the last important historical manufacture active in Italy, that in Rome of San Michele a Ripa, founded by Pope Clemente XI in 1710 and active for over two centuries. The 18th century phase of this manufacture is particularly well-known. An ample bibliography about it exists, which has recently been synthesised with precious details by A.M. De Strobel, Le Arazzerie romane dal XVII al XIX secolo (Roman tapestries from the 17th to the 19th centuries), Città di Castello 1989 ; subsequent activity, from 1823, is less well known, when the manufacture, closed following the French conquest of Rome under Napoleon, was reopened and used for the production of religious tapestries under Papal commission, until 1926, when it was closed definitively.
After the seizure of Rome in 1870, the factory, now having few looms, passed to the Italian State, which guaranteed its further survival, marked by the production of few works, but of excellent quality ; towards 1890, when it was under the direction of Giuseppe Prinotti, the manufacture produced a tapestry representing the Sogno dell’arabo (Dream of an Arab) conserved at the Istituto di San Michele in Tor Marancia), from a model by Cesare Biseo, which obtained the gold medal at the Exhibition of Paris in 1900 ; it was then the turn of Apoteosi di Casa Savoia ( Apotheosis of the Savoia family), on paperboard by Cesare Mariani, destined for the Palazzo del Quirinale, perished in the fire at the Exhibition of Milan in 1906 (reproduced in G.B. Rossi’s L’arte dell’arazzo (the Art of tapestry), Milan 1907, p.77). From 1910 the factory was involved in the lengthy execution of a tapestry of the Grappolo mistico (Mystic cluster), reproducing a Flemish cloth from the beginning of the 16th century, conserved in the Vatican Collection, whose execution only ended at the same time as the closure of the manufacture in 1926. Between the conclusion of the Apoteosi di Casa Savoia and the beginning of the production of Grappolo mistico is interposed the execution of our Fontana del Largo di Villa Borghese, woven before 1909, as is certified by the date inscribed on the tapestry.
No information about its production can be found in the publications dedicated to the San Michele manufacture, but it can be documented on the basis of a document of exceptional importance ; in a photograph published by G.B. Rossi, op.cit. 1907, p. 149, showing tapestry-weavers at work on high-heald looms in the San Michele manufacture in the first and last photographic report existing on the work of the tapestry-weavers in the Roman firm. The weaver seen in the foreground is in fact working on our tapestry ; the cartoon, placed behind him, although largely cut off in the photograph, is clearly recognisable at that which illustrates the Fontana del Largo di Villa Borghese.
Thanks to this exceptional visual document, the chronology of our tapestry can be detailed as follows: in 1907 the work was already underway, to be completed by 1909. A curiosity: the execution of the first and only Italian and European tapestry whose image was inspired by a cartoon of impressionist taste composed in imitation of an instantaneous photograph if not copied from a real photograph of the site reproduced in the tapestry.
Bibliography : G.B. Rossi, L’arte dell’arazzo, Milan 1907, p. 149 ; Casa d’Aste Cambi, Genoa, sales catalogue 16 November 1998, n. 20 (reproduced) ; N. Forti Grazzini, Tecnica e funzione degli arazzi antichi : alcune considerazione introduttive, in “Kunst + Architektur in der Schweiz/Art + Architecture en Suisse/Arte + Architettura in Svizzera”, LIII, 2002, no. 1, pp. 7, 9-10, fig. 3 (reproduced).