Acquired by The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, USA
Signed Calvi fece
White marble set with bronze, on a white marble socle
Height: 33¼ in (84.5cm)
Executed circa 1873
Pietro Calvi was born in Milan in 1833 and studied at the Milan Academy. He later went on to study under the renowned sculptor Giovanni Seleroni. It was under Seleroni’s guidance that Calvi developed the outstanding sensitivity and refinement that became the hallmark of his modelling. Calvi relished working in bronze and marble, often combining the two materials to create the most striking and effective results. Many of his works were exhibited throughout Europe and America, most notably at London’s Royal Academy between 1872 and 1883 (the year prior to the sculptor’s death).
Works exhibited at the Royal Academy included Selika and Othello in 1872, Lucifer in 1879 and Ariadne the following year (both marble statuettes), Uncle Tom, also exhibited in 1880 and three years later a Minstrel curiously entitled Oh Goodness Gracious Me! Calvi’s works were a great success, and several were repeated on occasion in order to meet the demand for them.
Calvi specialised in subjects from the arts, including several Shakespearean characters, his most well-known being this powerful marble and bronze bust of Othello. Othello was a well-respected Moor and a high-ranking official in the Venetian forces. He had recently married the beautiful Desdemona, daughter of a senator, and had just been posted to Cyprus to defend the Venetian army. Once in Cypress Othello promotes one of his officers, Cassio, to the fury of Iago, another officer who was also hoping for promotion. Iago decides to take his revenge on Othello by arousing his jealousy — he orchestrates a grand scheme insinuating, falsely, that Othello’s beloved Desdemona is having an affair with Cassio.
The culmination of the plan involves Cassio unwittingly coming into possession of Desdemona’s handkerchief — a love token from Othello. The Moor’s jealousy had already been aroused thanks to Iago’s insinuations, but when he sees Cassio with the handkerchief he assumes his wife is definitely having an affair. In a wild rage he strangles Desdemona as she lies in bed, and orders Cassio to be killed — only to discover later, from Iago’s wife, that it had all been a carefully prepared deception. Othello, traumatised by his mistake, stabs himself and dies next to the body of his beloved wife.
Calvi has chosen the moment that Othello realises Desdemona’s innocence. The mood of the piece is intense and tragic, the Moor’s arrogance and pride is lost as a single tear falls from his grief-stricken eyes as he stares at the handkerchief that instigated the tragedy. His head and hand are finely modelled in dark bronze, his robes and Desdemona’s handkerchief being carved in white marble.
Ira Aldridge (1805-67) was the first black actor to play Othello, making his debut in a small London theatre in 1826, and was therefore the perfect inspiration for Calvi’s masterpiece.
Other works taken from literature include busts of Ophelia, Hamlet, the Moor of Venice, Graziella, Zuleica and Aida, often being made from bronze and marble, sometimes with gilding. Pietro Calvi worked together with another Milanese sculptor, Constantino Corti, on numerous figures in Milan’s dominating cathedral including a statue of St Valeria which is positioned in one of the side windows, next to a figure by Giuseppe Grandi. He also sculpted works in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle nearby.
The sculptor died in his native Milan in 1884.