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Italian bronze statue, Narcissus, attributed to Vincenzo Gemito

Italian bronze statue, Narcissus, attributed to Vincenzo Gemito

The best-known telling of the tale of Narcissus comes from Ovid, who describes his experiences in the Metamorphoses. Narcissus was known for his incredible beauty, and lived for the hunt. Although many were infatuated with him, he was never able to reciprocate another’s love, cruelly rejecting all suitors. One of these rejections ultimately led to his own demise: in the throes of sorrow, a young woman prayed to the gods to make Narcissus experience what it was like to love someone who did not return the feeling. Shortly after, Narcissus found a beautiful pond with crystal-clear water and decided to rest there for a moment. When he bowed his head to drink from the water’s surface, he caught sight of his own reflection in the water, and, believing that he was looking at a beautiful spirit that lived beneath the surface, fell in love with his own mirror image.

In an attempt to kiss the apparition, he brought his lips to the water, and stretched out his arms to embrace it, only for the image to disappear. When the water’s surface was calm again, it reappeared, drawing his attention once more. Unable to tear his attention away from the water’s surface, Narcissus forgot to eat, drink, or sleep. He tried to speak to the image, but it would not answer. He wept, but his tears disturbed the image, provoking him to scream and beg the apparition to stop abandoning him. Day after day this continued, and Narcissus’s health worsened. He lost his colour, his vitality and his beauty, wasting away until his death. Water nymphs mourned and prepared a pyre for him, but his body was nowhere to be found. All that was left of him was a flower by the water’s edge, its yellow head bowed towards the water. Daffodils continue to remind us of Narcissus, who wasted away as a result of an unattainable, unrequited love.

This statue by Vincenzo Gemito (1852-1929) is known as Narcissus, and was modelled after the original that was rediscovered in Pompeii during the excavation of the Casa Narcisso in 1862. The statue was identified as Narcissus at the time, and has been known as such ever since. Gemito created several versions of the statue, sometimes with the title Narcissus engraved upon them. However, it is doubtful that the figure in question was ever intended to represent Narcissus. The grapes in the figure’s hair, the buck goat’s skin draped over his shoulder and his general posture are more reminiscent of Bacchus feeding grapes to the panther. Such portrayals of Bacchus were created as far back as Roman antiquity.

Vincenzo Gemito was abandoned as a baby and subsequently adopted. His artistic ability emerged at a young age, and he took classes at the Academy of Fine Arts in Naples. He exhibited his first sculpture at the age of 17, causing an immediate sensation: the piece’s exceptional realism and naturalism broke with academic tradition, and it was purchased by the king himself. In the 1870s Gemito resided in Paris, where his naturalist and unfinished style continued to garner praise.

The series of discoveries made in Pompeii led to a surge in visitors and curious individuals who all wanted a piece of Pompeii to decorate their homes. This led to a veritable deluge of copies of the Roman statues and vases that had been found during the excavations. The demand for souvenirs led to a mass-production of luxury mementoes, as well as an upwelling of interest among artists who rediscovered the statues of Roman antiquity during this period.
The statue described here is an example of the latter, and can be distinguished from mass-produced statues by its composition, its highly detailed finish (such as the chasing), as well as the manner of its production, which required a great deal of attention and skill to be devoted to each statue. The statue’s skin bears countless small patches that reveal the artisanal quality of its finish. These minute imperfections and scars provide insight into the casting process.

Italian bronze statue, Narcissus, attributed to Vincenzo Gemito
Price on request
ca. 1865
patinated bronze
60 cm

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