Giovanni Cappelli was born in Sassuolo in 1813. Having trained at the Atestina Academy of Fine Arts in Modena, he was encouraged by Adeodato Malatesta to complete his studies at the Academy of Carrara, where he was a pupil of Francesco Tenerani and Ferdinando Pelliccia. The sculptor’s first essays include some copies by Pietro Tenerani which already hint at the purist direction of his poetics.
His favourite subjects were graceful and polished female figures taken from mythology, history, biblical episodes, or from the simplest and most sincere daily life, enveloped in a serene intimism that can be seen in one of his first works, Little orphan, exhibited at the Academy in 1844. Between patheticism, the expression of serene and melancholic affections and the elegant and sophisticated handling of surfaces, Giovanni Cappelli became the interpreter of a purist sculptural research, halfway between the simplicity of everyday life and the aspiration towards ideal beauty and the sublime.
Purist sculpture, between ideal beauty and intimate everyday life
Influenced in particular by Pietro Tenerani, but also by Lorenzo Bartolini, whose studio he frequented in Florence between 1846 and 1847 thanks to financing from Modena through the intercession of Malatesta, he returned to his city at the end of the 1840s. These were the years in which he made a name for himself with sculptures always dedicated to female figures, including Gratitude, begun in Florence and exhibited in Modena in 1851. Having become famous among local patrons, Giovanni Cappelli also obtained the appointment of master of elements of sculpture at the Atestina Academy, where he was to become professor of sculpture from 1858.
The grace with which he continued to work as a sculptor can be seen in the models of sublime feminine gentleness that he produced between the 1860s and 1870s, including The little poor, in which the simplicity of the chiaroscuro passages and the extreme smoothness of the surfaces combine with a pietism and sentimentality that can also be seen in the Beggar exhibited in Turin in 1860 and in Rest and The slave presented at the Parma Exhibition in 1870. The latter work, in particular, reveals Cappelli’s specific investigation into the psychological introspection of the enslaved woman, a theme that was very present in mid-nineteenth-century statuary, allowing him to compare himself with other artists and to propose his own introverted and reflective version of the figure.
A skilful portraitist, he also introduced into his busts that light sweetness accompanied by compositional balance which is certainly reminiscent of 15th-century Tuscan sculpture, filtered through a greater Canova-like gentleness. In addition to his intimate production, the sculptor was also involved in the execution of several public and celebratory works, including the Monument to Archduke Ferdinand of Austria d’Este erected in 1855 in the church of Sant’Antonio della Cittadella and later transferred to San Vincenzo.
Around the Seventies, the Modenese sculptor’s research became more sensitive to realism, which can be seen above all in his portraits, which, however, never lose that serene grace that characterises all his work. Active until his last years, he died in Modena in 1885, after having donated most of his possessions to the Accademia Atestina.