Winged Figure with Elephant

In the third courtyard of the Procuratie Nuove, Piazza San Marco, just behind Caffe Florian and facing a staircase leading to the apartments of the ex-Palazzo Reale, there is an allegorical stone sculpture of a winged female figure with a small elephant. After years of exposure to the elements, both figures were cracked and covered with mossy green algae. Following a request from the Venetian authorities, Venice in Peril raised the funds for restorative treatment and conservation, at a cost of approximately £10,000. Work was completed in 2014.

As soon as the Winged Figure with Elephant was adopted in 2013 it attracted lots of interest and suggestions – from among Friends of the Fund, Trustees and scholars. What did it symbolise and where did it come from?

Monica de Vincenti’s historical report – carried out alongside conservation treatment looked again at the iconography relating it to representations of Victory and Virtue. The mystery is still not entirely solved –because the figure is likely to be a new invention by someone drawing on a variety of literary and artistic sources possibly to create a new representation. She suggests that on stylistic grounds the figure is probably by Giambattista Albanese (1573-1630) who came from a family of sculptors in Vicenza.

He and his brother belonged to the entourage of the noble Gualdo family and worked with Vincenzo Scamozzi sculpting garden statuary for the Veneto villas including the Villa Rotonda. The Nymphaeum at the Villa Rinaldi Barbini at Casella d’Asolo, which was inspired by the gardens at the Villa Barbaro at Maser and the Villa Cornaro at Castelfranco Veneto, is attributed to them. The learning and literary interests of these patrons appears to have extended the repertoire of figures chosen to ornament their gardens. Giambattista was responsible for the six mythological deities now in the garden of the Villa Fietta at Altivole, although their original provenance is unknown.

Amongst his Venetian commissions were the four warrior saints on the facade of the basilica of San Marco (sculpted in 1618 to replace the four sculptures that had fallen during an earthquake in 1511) and the five statues crowning the facade of San Giorgio Maggiore, as well as two angels and other figures inside the church. His early Mannerist style developed to become more fluid and early Baroque in character with naturalistic modelling and substantial volume, which allowed for striking chiaroscuro light effects. He was the most distinguished artist in his family and died of the plague in 1630.

The Winged Figure would appear to date from about 1610-1620, on the basis of its affinities with the San Marco figures, which have the same richly rendered curling hair, lion faces on the sandals and scrolling on the armour.
The San Giorgio angels are even closer, sharing the same vigorous movement, the contrapposto of legs and arms, of neck and face as well as the facial details, the spreading drapery, the solidity and volume, the careful detailing of wings and sleeve revers. Another close analogy is provided by the angels in the relief of the Pietà in the church of San Vicenzo, Vicenza. Finally De Vincenti suggests that the face of the Venus with Cupid at villa Fietta, Altivole, is almost identical to our Winged Figure.

Ducale Restauro’s detailed illustrated technical report described the three main elements of the project, the removal of the green algae, investigation and consolidation of visible cracks and old repairs, conservation and protection against future damage. The biggest cracks ran down the right side of the elephant’s head while another affected the statue’s left shoulder and arm. These were related to the weight of these parts of the object.

Throughout the project tests were carried out by the Laboratorio Analisi di Materiali Antichi (set up in 1993 and part of the Venice University IUAV), which worked with Ducale and the Soprintendenza to establish what previous treatments had been used and to inform the course of the project. Fuller technical details and illustrations are available on request.

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