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: A Monument of Rome


Mario Praz



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
With the addition of Pius VI's writing desk and inkstand, The Morse Foundation has given the Institute a truly remarkable masterpiece of Italian art. This magnificent architectural and sculptural piece joins the Giardini Holy Water Stoup and the floral frame of the De Mura Madonna (reported elsewhere in this issue) to form a group of surely the most important Italian works in silver on this continent.The French Revolution and Napoleonic plunderings rid Italian collections of most of their magnificent silver. During these periods of economic catastrophe, silver was melted down for coin, to the extent that today few pieces from one of the important centers of silver reproduction-Rome-survive.1It is through inventories of Roman collections, contemporary accounts, and biographies of Roman artists that one realized the great wealth and opulence of the table ornaments, dining services, and liturgical silver that were produced and the importance that was placed on their manufacture. Truly royal and magnificent silver was demanded by the private and ecclesiastical patrons to the extent that, on occasion, prominent architects, sculptors, and painters were commissioned to design and direct the work of the silversmiths, who were in their own right highly trained and professional artists. Most of the famous silversmiths were, in fact, specialists in all things sculptural, and are noted for important commissions executed in other metals or materials. The result of their exposure and inclusion in monumental projects, their highly sophisticated and versatile training, was a silver that was distinguished by its great quality and autonomy as a sculptural form. It is interesting to observe that Italy, more than any other country, admired and exploited the use of silver for objects of sculpture. This prized characteristic is fully recognized in the magnificent and monumental inkstand by Vincenzo Coaci,2 which the Institute must consider to be one of the outstanding pieces of decorative arts to enter an American or European museum in the past decade.Signed and dated Vincentis Coacius fecit, Roma 1792,3 the inkstand was commissioned by Marchese Luigi Ercolani to be presented to Pope Pius VI. Taking as its form the recently created monument outside the Quirinal Palace, the inkstand, which sits on a highly ornamented writing desk of rosso antico marble, was so fantastically conceived as to be appreciated on many levels: as a piece of virtuoso silverwork, as a work of sculpture, and as both an artistic and historical document.According to Ludwig von Pastor, the noted historian of the Popes,4 Pius VI set about re-erecting the three Egyptian obelisks that came to light under his Pontificate. That now in the Piazza Quirinale was found in 1781 near the Mausoleum of Augustus, which it once adorned. The Pope decided to have it brought to the Piazza Quirinale, to be installed between the two statues of the Horse Tamers, ancient-Roman copies of some Greek originals, which already graced the hill.5 Giovanni Atinori was appointed architect of the project, which included the restoration of the broken obelisk, its transportation to the site, and its installation between the repositioned sculpture groups. His success was such that he was called upon again to erect the obelisks at Trinitá dei Monti (1789) and at the Palazzo Montecitorio (1792).Antinori set about busily on the project, presenting proposals for the design of the monument as early as December, 1782.6 The selected model necessitated repositioning the horse tamers (so that they faced the Quirinal more directly and acted as well as a focal point for what is now the via del Quirinale), turning them at oblique angles towards each other, and placing the obelisk in between. The horse tamer groups were so positioned in 1782 and 1783, with the erection of the obelisk following in 1786.7 Antinori also produced designs for different types of fountains to decorate the monument. A print now found in the Gabinetto delle Stampe, Rome, depicts almost exactly the fanciful and elaborate fountain that is seen on the Coaci inkstand, with its two triton figures.8 Yet the model of the monument, or what we know of it from the wall fresco in the Vatican library, which shows Antinori presenting the stucco model to Pius VI, does not include a fountain, nor does the completed ensemble of 1786.9 Though documents insist that the addition of the simple basin-fountain, to be taken from the Temple of the Dioscuri in The Forum, was planned, "at this time," the project was never carried out until 1818, under Pius VII.10 This background information substantiates the inkstand's role as an historical document, which commemorates an important event in the urban decoration of Rome, as well as an important papal project to ameliorate the exterior appearance of the Quirinal Palace, then the papal residence. The creation of an inkstand in the form of the new monument was one of the many enthusiastic responses to its construction. The fact that the event took place some six years previous is not at all alarming.Its presentation to Pope Pius VI caused such a stir that the event, along with a thorough description of the work, appears in three of the major diaristic accounts of the 18th century: the diary of the Minister to the Vatican from the Republic of Lucca (Lorenzo Prospero Bottini), Cancellieri's Il Mercato, and the Diario Ordinario, a Roman newspaper founded by Giovan Francesco Cracas.11 The notices of the last two bear the date April 14th, 1792, but strangely enough, Bottini's account is dated December 8, 1787!12 The enigma of this discovery is as yet unresolved.Aside from the inkstand's historical associations and complexities, it can be appreciated simply as a magnificent and delightful tour-de-force. A testament to the creative efforts of Roman silversmiths and to the wit and imagination of the artist himself, the inkstand with its writing desk and traveling case is a work of the highest originality and artistry, and serves to illustrate Italian neo-classical trends in decorative arts.Little is known of the life of Vincenzo Coaci, except that he was the student and colleague of the important papal goldsmith, Luigi Valadier, and eventually headed his master's workshop.13 The inkstand is surely the work of a master silversmith and sculptor, endowed with great mechanical skills. The sculptural groups of the Horse Tamers are actually lids on the pedestals, which swing out to reveal the containers for ink and sand. A lever under the Bernini-like fountain causes the two turtle doves on the rim of the fountain to come together. The serpent and lion's-head handle on the front of the inkstand can be pulled out, an action which caused the pedestals of the Horse Tamers groups to pivot and come into direct alignment with the obelisk. In such a manner, Pius VI could view the alternative arrangement which had been under consideration for the positioning of the obelisk and colossal sculptures.Furthermore, the headdresses of the sphinxes, a delightful and majestic neo-classical feature, come out to disclose sockets for candles. On opening the drawer at the base, which is intended to hold the writing implements, one spies a charming assemblage of engraved images which are a further, and highly personal, whim of the artist: the calling card of the artist, which is tinted red, a sheet of music, cards depicting an ancient Roman building, an ancient roman decorative motif, and a male figure, all of whose associations or meanings are as yet unidentified.Just as the fantastic sculptural conception of the inkstand belies its utilitarian function, the construction of its traveling case visually denies its use as a container. Resembling a walled town or encampment, the embossed leather case reflects the imaginative architectural drawings of Giuseppe Valadier, son of Luigi and the leading neo-classical architect in Rome, who at an early age actively worked in the workshop with his father and Coaci. One would like to speculate that Guise Valadier indeed cooperated with Coaci on this important commission, though no supporting documentation has yet been found.One can well imagine that Pope's initial impression of pleasure, awe, and amusement upon receipt of his splendid gift. It is no wonder that he immediately hailed the Marquis "Prince."Endnotes
  1. The Museum of the Church of St. Roch in Lisbon is one of the few extensive public collections.
  2. 69.80. Gift of The Morse Foundation. Silver, silver gilt, lapis lazuli on a base of rosso antico; contemporary embossed leather case. Inkstand on base: H. 28 1/2"; W. 20 1/2"; Depth 14 3/4".
  3. The inscription appears twice on both pedestals supporting the sculptural depictions of the Horse Tamers. Vincenzo Coaci signed his name again in the tray for writing implements.
  4. Ludwig von Pastor, The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages (St. Louis, 1952), vol. 39, pp. 68-69.
  5. The ancient sculptures since the Middle Ages have been the focal point of the square, called the Monte Cavallo. They most probably came from the neighboring Baths of Constantine. Sixtus V had them moved north of the square in 1587 with a fountain placed between them (see Pastor op. cit., vol. 22, p. 301; Erik Iversen, Obelisks in Exile; Copenhagen, 1968, p. 118). This arrangement was maintained into the 18th century (see the depiction of the Quirinal Palace and Piazza by Vanvitelli, Corsini Gallery, Rome).
  6. Iversen, Obelisks, p. 121.
  7. Op. cit. p. 122.
  8. Engraved by Gioachino Filidoni. See Carlo Pietrangeli "L'Obelisco del Quirinale," Roma, vol. XXI (1942), figure 1, pg. 445.
  9. Pietrangeli, op. cit., plate LXXVI, figure A (painted in 1786 on the completion of the monument). Various engravings of the piazza after 1786 do not show a fountain included in the monument.
  10. Pastor, op. cit., vol. 39, p. 68. The base of the obelisk bears an inscription to Pius VII dated 1818.
  11. "Episodi della storia di Roma nel secolo XVIII. Brani inediti dei dispacci delgi agenti Lucchesi presso la corte Papale. Parte V. Saggio de' dispacci di Lorenzo Prospero Bottini" Archivio Storico Italiano, 4th series, vol. XX, (1887), p. 432. Cancellieri, Il Mercato, Roma, p. 168. Cracas, Diariio Ordinario, No. 1804, 14. IV. 1792.
  12. Archivio Storico Italiano, op. cit., p. 432.
    "The silversmith Sig. Vincenzo Coaci having been placed young in the workshop of the deceased Cav. Luigi Valadier, and having succeeded him in the most distinguished and difficult silverwork, no less deserving reputation, has finished a superb writing desk commissioned by Sig. Marchese Ercolani, given as a gift to the Holy Father, without realizing in whose name. It represented the same in silver as the new obelisk with its colossal (statues), horses, fountain, and (existing parts) at the Quirinale, of the same size of the not small model in stucco, already distributed by the Architect Antinori to various distinguished personnages in the dominion. Inside the pedestals are the inkwell and sand box and the other items for the use of the writing desk, and by simply touching a lion's head in the base that serves as ornament, one can turn the two horses to the old arrangement. The work in all its parts is executed with total exactitude and mastery; its richness is increased by various gold ornamentation and a base of lapis lazuli and corresponding frame, making the whole value at around 1000 scudi" (translated from the Italian by the author).
  13. See Constantino Bulgari, Argentieri, Gemmari, e Orafi d' Italia (Rome, 1958), vol. I, p. 299.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Inkstand Representing the Quirinal Monument, Rome, with Writing Desk, signed and dated Vincenzo Coaci, Roma 1792. Vincenzo Coaci. Italian (Roman), ca. 1756-ca. 1794. Silver, silver gilt, lapis lazuli on a base of rosso antico. Inkstand on base, 28 1/2" x 20 1/2" x 14 3/4". Gift of The Morse Foundation, 69.80.
  2. A view of the monument as it stands today in the Piazza Quirinale. (Photo Anderson)
  3. Detail: View of the inkstand with Horse Tamers sculptures swung out to reveal containers for ink and sand.
  4. Detail of the interior of the tray to hold writing implements.
  5. The embossed leather case (resembling a walled town) which held the inkstand proper.
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Source: Mario Praz, "A Monument of Rome," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 58 (1969): 46-53.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009