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Domenico Brucciani and the wandering Italians of nineteenth-century Britain

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Paul Mellon Centre

16 Bedford Square

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WC1B 3JA

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Fellows Lunch by Dr Rebecca Wade (Assistant Curator at Leeds Museums and Galleries and Postdoctoral Fellow at Paul Mellon Centre)

This paper examines the professional trajectory of the Italian formatore Domenico Brucciani (1814-80) and contextualises his practice against the seasonal migration of figurinai from Lucca to Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Travelling in small groups, the Lucchesi walked across Europe to Britain, making and selling small plaster figures along the journey before returning to Italy for the winter.

Described as ‘wandering Italians’ by the Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in 1833, the figure of the itinerant Italian ‘image seller’ became a compelling trope for nineteenth-century artists and writers. Arriving in London from Barga in around 1829, Domenico Brucciani entered the modest plaster figure making business of his uncle Antonio Luigi LewisBrucciani (1785-1848) in Covent Garden. The Bruccianis were part of a distinct second phase of emigration characterised by settlement in Britain and the establishment of workshops and showrooms, which employed a skilled workforce of Italian formatori trained in the production of new plaster moulds. Taking over the business in the early 1840s, Domenico rapidly expanded the stock of classical and contemporary sculpture and architectural ornament and secured prestigious contracts to supply museums, art galleries and schools of art across Britain and later, North America, India and Australasia.

Brucciani built a reputation for excellence and ingenuity and was often referred to as an artist, including by his obituary in the Builder: ‘although chiefly a plasterman in calling, he was an artist at heart’. This was not simply a sentimental epitaph, but a reflection of a respected sculptural practice which extended to carving original works in marble and modelling in clay and wax. Unlike the figurinai who were associated with street hawking, low quality casts and petty criminality, Brucciani used plaster as a mechanism for social mobility and assimilation, building a business that would become so crucial to the cultural life of the country that it was effectively nationalised after his death.

The Fellows Lunch Series is a series of free lunchtime research talks given by recipients of Paul Mellon Centre Fellowships. All are welcome but please book a ticket in advance.

Image credit: Anonymous, 'Taking a Plaster Cast of the Statue of Charles the First, at Charing Cross', Illustrated London News, 19 March 1853, wood engraving, 23 × 17.5 cm. Collection of the author.

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Paul Mellon Centre

16 Bedford Square

London

WC1B 3JA

United Kingdom

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