The Bartolini Tazza and Column

Post by Daisy Watson

The Bartolini Tazza : The only known comparison is at Chatsworth House – Carved as a single piece of marble

Bartolini’s white marble Tazza and Column is comprised of a stylobate, an unfluted shaft, and a capital. A pipe-lined necking and an ornate echinus follow a similar motif to the decorated lower section of the shaft. Atop the capital, stands the entwined snake-handled tazza, carved from a single piece of marble, the top edge of the bowl is no more than 1 centimetre thick – revealing the astonishing skill and ambition of its maker.

Initially, themes that call to mind when looking at Bartolini’s Tazza and Column are erudition and prestige. As is with most forms of Graeco-Roman revivalism the patrons aim to display their knowledge and their status through the current vogue, in this case, Napoleonic neoclassicism. 

Tazze functioned either for drinking, serving small items of food, or just for display. Bartolini’s Tazza and Column at Nicholas Wells Antiques appears to function as a sculptural piece. In its monumentality, decorative and sculptural nature, one can identify this tazza’s aim to impress.

Lorenzo Bartolini

The colourful career of the Italian born sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini (1777-1850) was fruitful, with plentiful commissions and important patrons. His opera of work in many ways rivalled that of his contemporary and predecessor Antonio Canova, whose marble sculptures had a distinct signature style that drew from the Baroque, Graeco-Roman classicism and romanticism. An ardent revolutionary, Bartolini broke away from the all-encompassing influence of the strict Canovan classicism to emerge as the most highly esteemed Italian sculptor of his generation, albeit one of the most unreasonably neglected.

The Sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini by Ingres (1820). Current location at the Louvre. Ingres and Bartolini met in Paris where they became friends.

Born in Savignano di Prato, Bartolini studied and honed his skills in the arts at the Accademia di Firenze. In 1799 he transferred to Paris, studying under Jean-Baptiste Frédéric Desmarais, the sculptor François-Frédéric Lemot and joined the studio of Jacques-Louis David. However, Bartolini’s true rise to prominence occurred in the early 19th Century when he became sculptor to Elisa Baciocchi, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany. He was appointed Professor of Sculpture at Baciocchi’s Academy in Carrara, but it was thanks to her interest, and her family relations that he acquired his greatest patron, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. With his new role as quasi-official portrait sculptor to the Buonaparte’s, Bartolini was able to execute some of his greatest and most important sculptures. 

Bartolini was responsible for the vast output of quality portraits of members of the imperial family. His portraits of the Bonaparte dynasty induced other aristocratic and wealthy patrons to commission their take on these similar compositions, leading to an influx of patronage throughout the latter part of career. His career under Napoleon in Carrara was deemed the ideal place for the production of his portrait busts due to the exceptional quality of its marble. Alongside Bartolini’s semi-neoclassical approach and marble’s associations to the Roman empire, Carrara naturally appealed to Napoleon and his imperial aspirations. 

Monumental Bust of Napoleon attributed to Lorenzo Bartolini. Italian, Carrara, white marble.

Napoleon and the Empire Style

Napoleon Bonaparte was an Emperor obsessed with history.[1] Though the general public may remember Napoleon as France’s greatest ruler and military leader, the art historians and collectors opt to shine a light on his vast and prominent influence in the arts. In such a position of power, references had to be made to justify and legitimise his politics, thus validating his place and prominence in French history. The Empire style is now considered inseparable from Napoleon. It was a style that evolved from the already popular interest in antiquity. Scholarly enthusiasm for Etruscan civilisation was part of the cultural normality of Napoleon’s youth. 

In 1796, Napoleon told the world that “after so many centuries Caesar and Alexander had a successor”.[2] A new analogy was brewing. Rome was no longer in Rome, she was all in Paris.[3] Alongside Napoleon’s personal affirmations of his role as emperor reflecting that of Caesar, the affirmation of Paris as the new Rome also generated enthusiasm for Roman antique in arts and crafts. Antique forms already seen in the Louis XVI style now blended with imperial symbols to create a sense of formality, erudition, greatness, and monumentality. Animal motifs were frequently a feature of the empire style with lions, eagles, and snakes adorning the legs of furniture or acting as forms of illusionary supports as in the case of Bartolini’s Tazza and Column.

Bartolini, the Emperor’s favourite sculptor, aided in Napoleon’s remarkable artistic legacy. This empire style was defined by artists, such as Bartolini, as one that expressed wealth, knowledge, and the promise of all-encompassing power. The promise of a new Rome, a new empire.

There is a certain mystery surrounding the name Bartolini. Perhaps due to his lack of recognition, which in turn was perhaps due to his radical departure from Canovan classicism. Though his style is very easily prescribed to that of the neoclassical, it should be noted he did not see himself as a Neoclassical artist. Bartolini’s sculptures of portrait busts and figures demonstrate his ability to capture fleeting moments of emotions, glances, and moods. The charm of his works recall the Florentine Renaissance and the influence of Michelangelo and Verrocchio. Bartolini must too have been aware of this when he made the overtly quattrocento statue Carita Educatrice, which seemingly pays homage to his predecessors.

La Carità Educatrice, Bartolini
Exhibited at the Salon in 1824
White marble

Bartolini departed from the strict Canovan classicism that dominated and characterised most Florentine neoclassical sculptors at the time as ‘canoviani di modesto valore’. Rather, Bartolini took inspiration from Andrea del Verrocchio. This influence is clearly expressed in Bartolini’s L’Ammostatore which evokes Verrocchio’s David, yet with softer lines and a purer sense of naturalism. Bartolini was at ease with his artistic differences to his contemporaries. 

Chatsworth House

On his return to Italy after the downfall of Napoleon, Bartolini found it difficult to re-establish himself in Florence due to his revolutionary convictions and staunch support of Napoleon. Despite this, his lively fleeting portrait busts which overcame static neoclassicism were well received, particularly with British clientele. One notable client was William Spencer Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire. His passion for contemporary Italian marble sculpture was manifested in the sculpture gallery at Chatsworth House, showing the strong Anglo-Italian cultural exchange of the 19th Century. 

The Duke was a keen collector of the arts and formed a particularly important collection of sculptures, housed in a purpose-built Sculpture Gallery. It was the pursuit of pleasure and his interest in Italy that motivated the Duke’s creation of this elite space. He aimed to evoke Italy in Derbyshire, adapting features from the Vatican’s Braccio Nuovo in the fabric of the gallery interior. The Duke played a part in Rome’s resurgence from Napoleonic rule. As the Duke stated himself his ‘gallery was intended for modern sculpture’, devoted to intellectual and sensory pleasures whilst nourishing his love of marble. Thus, Bartolini was commissioned by the Duke due to his enthusiasm for contemporary Italian sculpture. Whilst Canova was seen as the main focus, during the evolution of the sculpture gallery, a selection of ‘souvenir’ pedestals, columns, and tazze were carefully orchestrated amongst the figurative sculpture. In the early arrangement of the gallery, Canova’s modelling tools, ‘an interesting relic’, as the Duke described them, were placed in one of the two Bartolini tazze placed on either side of Canova’s Colossal head of Napoleon Bonaparte.

A Chatsworth House tazza in the sculpture gallery is made to the same design as the Tazza and Column at Nicholas Wells Antiques. They share the same motif of the entwined snakes. From the base of their tales to the biting head, small puncture details are used to describe the scales of the snake. Their overlapping bodies are expressed through deep undercutting that elevates the bodies from the surface of the tazza. 

Detail of Chatsworth House Tazza. Entwining snake motif

Materiality and ornamentation

The technique of carving marble in the 19th Century was the same as it had been in the Renaissance. Marble sculpture is often monolithic and caved from a single block of stone, it has low tensile strength and therefore can be manipulated to create fine detailing, undercutting, and deep recesses. The point chisel was initially used to force the stone away and once the bulk was removed a tooth chisel could model form. The surface of marble can be finished with different textures. As seen in Bartolini’s Tazza and Column, the beautiful soft glow of the surface has been achieved through extreme polishing. However, the glow of this tazza goes beyond Bartolini’s surface manipulation. Marble when polished can become partially translucent. The Duke took this property of marble and used it to great effect in his gallery. The north wing of the sculpture gallery was a heady mix of sensation, mixing art, light, music, and taste into an entrancing bel composto. For evening entertainment the Duke would place powerful lamps in the full-scale copy of the Medici vase by Bartolini, emitting a magic light that would play off the other sculptures in the gallery. With the tazze design at both Chatsworth House and at Nicholas Wells Antiques, the ornate decoration and undercutting would create deep tenebrism, enabled by the interplay of light.

The present tazza at Nicholas Wells Antiques is a near identical to a drawing by Bartolini which is preserved in the Museo Civico, Prato. Bartolini’s sketch illustrates a similar overall formation, with the unfluted column supporting an ornate grand tazza, adorned by two sets of twisted snakes that bite onto the rimmed edge. The sketch expresses the importance of this snake motif and the desired effect of its apparent independence from the tazza. 

Drawing by Bartolini, Museo Civico, (no. 7; inv. no. 1027) Sotheby’s Lot 60

Throughout the neoclassical style, animal motifs were featured frequently due to their heavy associations with Graeco-Roman antiquity. Motifs such as the lion and eagle displayed signs of power and particularly imperial power. On Bartolini’s Tazza and Column, a pair of entwined snakes act as handles to the vase. Their bodies are sculpturally separated and elevated from the exterior of the tazza, projecting outwards in a curve to re-joining the rim as the snake heads bite and hold. In Greek and Roman mythology the snake represented rebirth, healing, and protection. In Pompeii serpents decorated household shrines and public temples. They were not there to represent evil as commonly associated with snakes, but as guardian deities. Visually, the entwining snakes are a pleasing and playful feature. From afar, the snakes are not completely identifiable and could easily be mistaken for regular curved handles. This addition of the animal motif adds a sense of play whilst simultaneously displaying the sculptor’s adept craftsmanship.

The Bartolini Tazza: detail of snake-motif

Bartolini’s Tazza and Column encompasses many themes. As a piece of art, it is both historically and stylistic significant, but altogether is a beautiful sculpture that displays Bartolini’s skill with marble.


[1] Annie Jourdan Napoléon, héros, imperator et mécène, Aubier 1998 chapter 1

[2] Stendhal The Charterhouse of Parma

[3] Song of 9 Thermidor Year VI (July 27 1798)


Ingres Collections at the Louvre

Lorenzo Bartolini Monumental bust of Napoleon Sotheby’s Lot 84

La Carità Educatrice, Bartolini []

Andrea del Verrocchio, David with the Head of Goliath [national gallery of art]

Lorenzo Bartolini, L’Ammostatore [finestresullarte]

Drawing by Bartolini Museo Civico, Prato, Pianetti bequest (no. 7; inv. no. 1027) Sotheby’s Lot 60