THE COLLECTION OF WOOD SCULPTURES IN THE MUSEO NAZIONALE DEL PALAZZO DI VENEZIA IN ROME
The collection of wood sculptures in the Palazzo Venezia Museum in Rome is undoubtedly the most important in Italy. Its importance is primarily due to its size: taking into consideration only works of a figurative nature, there are over 170 pieces, which were catalogued in 1954 by the then curator of the museum, Antonino Santangelo.
The Palazzo Venezia wood sculptures came from various sources in the course of the 20th century, including works previously held at Castel Sant'Angelo or the Museo Artistico Industriale, pieces bought by Federico Hermanin, works saved from churches and monasteries affected by the 1915 earthquake in Marsica, and bequests from private individuals such as the opera singer Evan Gorga. Almost half of the works, though, came from the interesting and diverse collection of George Wurts and his wife, which was assembled during their numerous trips around Europe. George Wurts (1843-1928) came from a wealthy family in Philadelphia: he enjoyed a career as an international diplomat, though never became an ambassador. When he came to Europe he first lived in Madrid, then Florence, Rome and St. Petersburg, buying numerous works of art (including wood sculptures, which were at that time generally little appreciated), before settling in Rome in 1893. The author of An American in Rome (1951), Giorgio Nelson Page (1906-1982), described Wurts and his wife and their frenetic social life in the splendid surroundings of Villa Sciarra on the Janiculum hill:
"The Wurts were a couple who were as original as they were rich. George Wurts was a vain and grumpy man of modest intellect, but he was endowed with artistic sensibilities that made him a fine connoisseur of music, painting and antiques. He married an old spinster of the Tower family, also from Philadelphia, a person who combined a striking ugliness with a vast fortune, which made her one of the wealthiest heiresses in America. Never has a woman possessed so few feminine graces. She dressed clumsily and spoke with little discretion, capable of saying the most embarrassing things to no matter whom on no matter what."
In 1933, several years after George's death, his wife bequeathed the family collection to the Italian state, in accordance with her husband's will. The works in the Wurts collection were in the most part German, featuring stylistic traits more precisely found in southern Germany, between the former Franconia and Swabia. Technical-scientific research conducted by the IVALSA-CNR in Florence also indicated the German origins of the works, identifying tilia wood as the most frequently used material, common to that region. There are also works from the Alpine region, made from pinewood, from Brabant and the Netherlands, often made from oak or walnut.
The Palazzo Venezia collection of wood sculptures does not only consist of the Wurts collection, but also contains other Italian works, most of which originate from Umbria, Tuscany, Lazio and Marche, but also come from regions further afield, and are usually made from poplar wood. Analysis conducted by the CNR-ICVBD in Florence has enabled a different type of polychromy to be identified in these works when compared to German pieces, which are characterized in some instances by a deliberate absence of polychromy, with the wood treated so as to simulate the effect of other materials, such as gold or bronze. Polychromy is usually a fundamental and integral part of the creation of wood sculptures.
All the wood sculptures held at Palazzo Venezia are, however, highly expressive and strikingly lifelike, and almost all represent sacred subjects. Some of the works have been carved in the round, intended for public worship (sometimes in groups, where sacred scenes are represented), and often made lighter to be carried as part of a procession. Other works are ‘fragments' of larger compositions, such as altarpieces, which are almost always only worked on the front so as then to be placed against a flat surface. There are smaller scale pieces too, such as mannequins, ex-votos, and statuettes from nativity scenes, as well as works from liturgical settings (relic holders, consoles etc.), or domestic decoration (such as beams, coat-of-arms, and coffers), where the artistic ambition is less keenly felt than elsewhere. The works span a very broad period, from the 12th to the 20th centuries, though the majority of works can be dated between the 14th and 16th centuries. There are numerous examples of works of extraordinary quality, some of which are well-known, such as the Acuto Madonna, the monumental Magi kings, and St. Michael the Archangel by the circle of Pacher; others have surprisingly received little attention, such as Christ and Saints Peter and Paul, the wonderful Lansquenets, the post-Byzantine crosses, and more besides. And now there are fewer secrets than before.
Grazia Maria Fachechi