Giovanni Maria Benzoni, born in Songavazzo in the province of Bergamo in 1809, to a family of humble conditions, began to show an aptitude for sculpture at a young age, when he became an apprentice in his uncle’s carpenter’s workshop in Riva di Solto, where he studied the technique of carving and made his first wooden models, including a Crucifix with Mary Magdalene.
First noticed by Giuseppe Fontana and then by Count Luigi Tadini of Crema, who was to become his protector and patron, he was encouraged to enrol at the Academy of Fine Arts in Lovere. It was here that he began to receive his first awards for his neoclassical sculptures in plaster, wood and marble. These include Spring, Winter, a copy of Canova’s Triumph of Agriculture and his first marble bas-relief of the Sleeping Mars.
Classicism in Rome
In 1828, the young sculptor went to Rome to study, again thanks to Count Tadini’s financial support. He attended the Accademia di San Luca, where he was never actually officially admitted. One of his first works in Rome was Silent Love, a sculpture that allowed him to be noticed by collectors and patrons of the aristocracy of the time. From the 1930s onwards, his studio was constantly invaded by senators, deputies and legates from other countries who commissioned him to create allegories, sacred, mythological and literary subjects, small decorative works, but also and above all busts, celebratory and funerary statues. Gradually, Giovanni Maria Benzoni became one of the greatest sculptors of Roman academicism, heir to the language of Antonio Canova (1757-1822).
He opened a studio in Via Sant’Isidoro, where he began his incessant activity, supported by the help of about fifty apprentices, in a veritable “industry” of classicist sculpture. Known by all the most important Roman collectors and patrons as the “novello Canova”, he also received the attention of Prince Alessandro Torlonia, who commissioned several works from him in 1836, including The Muse Euterpe. Given the number of commissions, Benzoni was even forced to move to a larger studio, first in Via del Borghetto, then in Via del Babuino and finally in Piazza del Popolo. His fame soon spread to England, France and Holland, where he exhibited during the 1850s and 1860s.
One of his most famous groups dates back to 1846: Amore e Psiche (Cupid and Psyche), commissioned by Antonio Bisleri of Milan and characterised by the grace and softness of the flesh, in an elegant dance involving the two lovers which has all the flavour of classical and purist art. Penthesilea expiring in the arms of Achilles, Insidious Love and Innocence Defended by Loyalty can still be dated to the fourth decade. In the 1950s and 1960s he produced Eve, Diana, Maternal Love, The Dance of Zephyrus and Flora and a series of funerary and commemorative monuments, including the Monument to Cardinal Angelo Mai and the Monument to Count Luigi Tadini, his patron, for Lovere.
The sculptor’s relations with the Pontifical Irish College were very fruitful, for which he executed the Funeral Monument to Daniel O’Connell in 1855, born of his contact and friendship with the Irish sculptor John Hogan. Another important milestone for Giovanni Maria Benzoni was the visit to his studio by Pope Pius IX in 1857, an event that earned him the commission for the panel depicting the Coronation of the Virgin for the column of the Immaculate Conception in Rome. While in his official and large-scale works he seems to adhere perfectly to Canova’s language, in his private and smaller works he indulges in intimate compositions with a language freer from academicism and linked to the observation of reality. One of the last works he produced shortly before his death was Hector and Andromache of 1871, in which the artist seems to have given in to an increasingly accentuated naturalism, far removed from the rigid academic and neoclassical demands.
Fleeing Pompeii, a late work by Giovanni Maria Benzoni, executed in 1868, is also known as The Pompeians or The Last Days of Pompeii. The original sculptural group – of which he later made at least three replicas – was made for Mrs Marietta Reed Stevens, a collector and philanthropist, the wife of Paran Stevens, one of the most prominent property and hotel owners in New York in the second half of the 19th century. Their prestigious collection of European art was housed in one of Manhattan’s most elegant buildings, Marble Row (since torn down), between 5th Avenue and 57th Street, which Mrs Marietta Stevens had lived in since 1891. Fleeing Pompeii stood out among other sculptures in the vast gallery on the second floor and was commissioned from Giovanni Maria Benzoni who, by now famous throughout Europe, had also made his reputation overseas.
Having visited Naples and Pompeii in the 1950s and 1960s, the sculptor was impressed not only by the archaeological excavations but also by the devastating power of Vesuvius. In the sculpture, he depicts a family fleeing from their painful fate, with the male figure trying to protect his wife and child by energetically pulling a cloak over himself, while the woman instinctively covers the newborn child in her arms to shield him from the lapilli. The terracotta sketch heralds the dynamism of the finished sculpture and, above all, the direction of gentle, delicate realism that Benzoni took towards the end of his career.
Compared to the finished group, there are some particularities in the model that make it truly unique: not only the couple’s desperate and frightened gestures and faces (which are partly softened in the marble sculpture, dissolving into a sort of restrained pathos), but also the wavy drapery and, above all, the lapilli that are deposited on the ground and on the figures, some executed in relief, others painted in a darker shade than the terracotta, a truly unusual technique that gives a decidedly fresh and realistic effect to the sketch. Another sign of this tendency to search for the real are the objects that can be glimpsed at the feet of the two figures, which in the finished sculpture are further back and less visible: an amphora, a torch and two loaves of spelt bread, which the sculptor undoubtedly studied at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, when it was still known as the Real Museo Borbonico. Moreover, the dynamism of the composition, the flight from the flames, and the choice of the three fleeing figures find their model in the ancient iconography of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises on his shoulders and his son Ascanius away from the flames of the Trojan fire. Benzoni had certainly seen Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s group in the Borghese collection, but also the depiction of the same scene in Raphael’s Incendio di borgo in the Vatican Rooms, from which the sculptor from Bergamo seems to have quoted the same position of the legs spread apart and the drapery covering the man’s stomach, in the excitement of the flight.