Giacomo Manzù, born with the surname Manzoni, was born in Bergamo in 1908. Coming from a humble and large family from Bergamo, he entered a woodcarver’s workshop as an apprentice at a very young age. This experience introduced him to the world of sculpture and he soon discovered his innate talents as a carver and modeller. From 1921, he attended evening courses in sculpture at the Andrea Fantoni School in Bergamo.
During his military service in 1927, he moved to Verona, where he attended courses at the Accademia Cignaroli with little regularity. But by then his destiny as a sculptor was certain: intending to broaden his training, in 1929 he made a stay in Paris that lasted very little due to the financial straits in which he found himself. At this point, he did not return to Bergamo, but decided to settle in Milan, a city that would soon bring him success. His youthful years were marked by a language that went beyond the static solidity of the Novecento and was nourished by the new expressionist currents of the early 1930s.
The beginnings: Primitivist Sculpture
He became the interpreter of a vibrant, at times rough, profoundly primitivist sculpture, which can already be seen in his first important work, the decoration of the Sacro Cuore Chapel at the Catholic University of Milan. The mixture of Donatello’s stiacciato and an entirely personal expression rich in lyricism distinguishes these early works, which were approved by the critics (Giovanni Scheiwiller wrote an early monograph on him shortly afterwards) followed by his participation in the Triennale d’Arti Decorative in Milan. There he exhibited a crystal lamp with a diamond point engraving and the terracotta sculpture Philemon and Baucis placed in the courtyard of the Triennale building.
Giacomo Manzù’s characteristic style gradually developed between decorativism and archaic plasticism, similar to that of Arturo Martini, but also very personal and intimate, anti-celebratory and anti-monumental, even in his collaborations with architects during the 1930s, including Giovanni Muzio. His first solo exhibition at Selvino also dates from 1933, with catalogue texts by Carlo Carrà and Giovanni Scheiwiller, among others.
A new plasticism: between solidity and lyricism
During these years, he also began to devote himself to his first sacred subjects, including the embossed relief Jesus and the Pious Women exhibited at the 1934 Sindacale in Milan. In 1937, presented by Carrà, he exhibited at the Galleria La Cometa in Rome, achieving success also in the capital and inaugurating a new stylistic dimension that reworked the hieratic static nature of the return to order of the 1920s, declining it in research on the male figure and in particular on the subject of the cardinal.
His success at the Venice Biennale in 1938 was followed by that at the Rome Quadriennale in 1939, where his new language emerged, firmer in its volumes and at the same time vibrant in its surfaces, as can be seen in the Portrait of his Wife in wax and the Cardinal in bronze. The reflection on naturalistic sculpture of the second half of the 19th century also returns, as can be seen in the delicate bronze Francesca Blanc, exhibited at the Quadriennale in Rome in 1943. In the figures of cardinals and bishops, including the seated Cardinal of 1940, there is a reflection on the static nature of the figure, on the use of a few synthetic lines and on the human drama that is manifested in the gazes, in the absorbed expressions, in the absence of movement, in the almost geometric and essential dimension of some figures. With the elaboration of a modern sacred art, Giacomo Manzù’s sculptural experience was completed also after World War II, when he collaborated with the Vatican, up to the execution of the Door of Death for St. Peter’s Basilica, completed in 1964. Active as a teacher and sculptor until the 1970s, he died in Aprilia in 1991, in the villa he had moved to in the 1960s.