Pietro Calvi was born in Milan in 1833 and trained at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts, studying under Giovanni Seleroni, a sculptor from Cremona, who soon introduced him to the mixing of different materials, an aspect that was to become his hallmark.
The Orientalist busts: the mixture of bronze and marble
At a very early stage, Pietro Calvi collaborated with his master in the execution of statues for Milan Cathedral and the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, but he made his debut at the Turin Exhibition of 1868 with one of his most distinctive sculptures, Othello, whose bronze face contrasts with the white marble of his robe and the handkerchief in his hands. It is likely that for this work Calvi took as his model the first African actor to play Othello in Europe in 1826, Ira Aldrige.
A fascination for exoticism characterised all of the sculptor’s production, together with a focus on the everyday and the more popular dimension: after Othello, he exhibited a Sleeping Putto in Florence in 1869 and the following year took part in the Parisian Salon, where it was an extraordinary success with critics and the public. Again in 1870 he appeared at the Parma Exhibition with Othello and then with a sensual Bacchante in marble. From 1872 he took part in the exhibitions of the Royal Academy in London for over ten years, successfully entering the English market, which was especially sought after for its combination of different, often precious materials such as polychrome marble.
The charm of the exotic
He also exhibited at Milan’s Autumn and Spring, Nennella a bust reflecting a popular Roman costume and above all Selika, a marble and bronze bust representing Queen Selika, the protagonist of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Africaine. At the Naples Exhibition of 1877, he exhibited Mariuccia, Gennariello and Arianna.
In 1883 he took part in the Esposizione di Belle Arti in Rome with Un’alba di carnevale, Menestrello and the more intense Aida and Moro di Venezia, while the following year he was at his last exhibition in Turin with the precious marble and bronze busts Aleydah and Ben Alì – Ben Ladiar, where white marble turbans envelop the bronze heads of the Moors. His career came to an end in 1884, when the sculptor died prematurely, aged just fifty-one.