Elia Sala was the brother of the painter Paolo Sala (1859 -1924), and they were both pupils of Camillo Boito at the Brera Academy. He initially studied architecture and this is something that influenced his sculptures over the years, which were often characterised by the presence of an underlying architectural structure.
Towards the end of the century, at a very young age, Sala moved to Russia with his brother. He worked in Saint Petersburg and Kiev, where he gave his contribution to the artistic development of the city and was particularly appreciated as an architect, a portraitist, and a sculptor of bronze busts with a strong Art Nouveau connotation. In 1898 and in 1902, he was one of the organisers of the two editions of the Italian Artistic Exhibition in Petersburg. An article from 1906 reads: “the General Governor of Kiev visited sculptor Elia Sala’s studio, our fellow countryman […] he repeatedly called him a representative of Italian genius. Elia Sala, a tireless worker, improved the architecture of Kiev with very valuable works – such as the synagogue, the Museum, and more recently the Central Bank – while developing a project for the new railway station and sending to Milan two life-size statues …” (1906, p. 743). The author refers to the works Elia Sala presented at the National Exhibition in Milan, made for the Simplon Tunnel in 1906 – the bronze Dream, and the two plaster sculptures Mujyk From Small Russia, and After the Raid in Russia. This exhibition was followed by several others, such as the Annual Exhibition in Milan (in 1911 and 1912) where he presented small anecdotal bronzes, including The Throwing of the Ball, and Dangerous Kiss. He even exhibited Art Nouveau works and applied art objects at the Pesaro Gallery for the Lombard Artistic Federation, where he also displayed the animalier bronzes Dogs in 1918 and Turkey in 1919 – which certainly weren’t Elia Sala’s first approach to that genre.
When he was engaged in the decoration of the House with Chimaeras in Kiev in fact, designed by architect Władysław Gorodeckij in the early twentieth century, he had made a series of protomes and sculptures for both the facades and the interiors, which aimed at emphasising the architect’s passion for safaris. This exuberant and extravagant decoration, which seems to recall a fantastic bestiary from a Wunderkammer, consists of deer, rhinoceros, dolphins, elephants, panthers, giant frogs, hunting trophies. It is a fusion of nature and artifice as part of a complex allegorical scheme, where it’s impossible not to recognise references to Mannerist sculpture, and in particular to the Grotto of the Animals made in 1567 by Giambologna at Villa Medicea di Castello. The rocaille decoration is combined with real and fantastic animals, such as a series of birds perched on rocks that are now exhibited at the National Museum of Bargello. Turkey by Elia Sala is certainly a tribute to the turkey sculpted by Giambologna in the late sixteenth century, when it was still considered an exotic animal from the New World. They have the same abundant plumage on the chest and on the back, as well as a static pose that is regal and bizarre at the same time. Sala also used to add animalier sculptures to decorations, as he did in his work Clock with Titans, where titans are holding up the Earth surmounted by a sun chariot led by imperious running horses, a “decorative work of art that does honour to the artist” (1914, p. 206).