Romano Romanelli, born in Florence in 1882, was the son of Raffaello (1856-1928) and grandson of Pasquale (1812-1887), both sculptors. He was thus initiated, at a very young age, into the study of modelling, but before finally settling on sculpture, he decided to pursue a military career in the navy, enrolling at the Naval Academy in Livorno.
The beginnings: sculpture between classicism and secessionist elegance
Having become a naval officer, for several years he combined his work with his artistic vocation, which he developed more and more thanks also to his numerous trips to Africa and the East, places from which he drew a series of suggestions that would soon characterise his poetics, steeped in archaic and oriental references. At the turn of the century, Romanelli’s stylistic language still drew on that of his father, from whom he inherited the distinctive celebratory, classicist and monumental traits typical of late 19th-century plastic art, as can be seen in the youthful group Hercules strangling the lion, begun in 1906 and exhibited at the 1911 International Exhibition in Rome.
It was precisely between 1910 and 1911 that he undertook the classic stay in Paris to perfect himself. This experience, in fact, produced the germ of the language that would characterise all his future production. In Paris, he attended the studios of several sculptors, including that of Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). It was in contact with the tendencies of French aesthetics that the traditional compositional balance and stylistic outline that bound him to his father weakened in favour of a new decorative line, resulting in some groups of plastic strength and rhythmic elegance that reveal secessionist leanings. With Narcissus – Scherzo and Prelude by Chopin, Romanelli participated in the Roman Secession of 1914, showing precious affinities with the language of the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929). The latter, a pupil of Rodin, accentuated Michelangelo’s features, often working on the instability of poses and the dynamic tension of the whole, without undermining the harmonic counterpoint. Then, in the frieze of the façade of the theatre on the Champs-Elysées in the 1910s, he is now fully implicated in an archaism made up of linear synthetisms and a majestic allegorical monumentality, resolved in an architectural rationalism that must surely have struck the young Romanelli on his trip to Paris.
In this formal context, it is also necessary to emphasise the stylistic affinities with Aristide Maillol (1861-1944). The compact, smooth, regular and harmonious bodies of Maillol’s female figures exude a silent, timeless primitivism and an extraordinary expressive power, an aspect conferred by the choice of compact lines and the solidity of the masses. It is therefore in this firm contrast to the formal disruption introduced by Impressionist sculpture that Romanelli’s works of the 1920s are inserted.
Between the two wars: primitivism
After the First World War, having definitively abandoned his career in the navy, he continued his artistic career by embodying the most archaic aspects of the Italian return to order. He gave birth to extremely vigorous works endowed with solemn transcendence, due to the energetic stylisation of the volumes of the mighty figures sculpted in marble or bronze. Not to be underestimated in this context is the rich formal and thematic baggage that, as mentioned, Romanelli brought with him from his travels to the East. The exotic connotations of certain subjects, set in absorbed and timeless expressions, such as the Head of a Woman in the Florence Trade Union of 1927, also bring him close to the dreamlike and primitivist atmospheres of the Nabis, and in particular Maurice Denis (1870-1943) and René Piot (1869-1934), whose pastoral-themed frescoes in Bernard Berenson’s house Romanelli may have studied in Florence. Akin to these artists in the treatment of female subjects with an incisive expressive force, charged with memories of the depiction of women in archaic and classical Greece, he also re-proposes their evocative and idyllic sensitivity to oriental lines.
It is in this specific interweaving of suggestions and experimentation, coming above all from contemporary French plastic culture, that Romano Romanelli’s elegant and vigorous archaism fits in, fully summed up in the works presented in 1920 at the Esposizione Artistica Lombarda at the Galleria Pesaro in Milan, Child with Grapes, Eve, Idol of Sarcasm and Woman and Fish (or Fishwoman).
The latter sculpture, executed between 1918 and 1919, is delicately permeated with a serene primal force that emanates from the woman’s full, hieratic pose and harks back to the resolute solidity of the korai, but also to the archetypal lyricism of the closest Etruscan sculpture. The accentuated belly, together with the basket of fresh fish, makes the Fishwoman a kind of votive statue, a symbol of fertility and prosperity. The broad face and exotic features of the so-called ‘archaic smile’ also provide a clear comparison with the antiquated models of the Viennese sculptor Joseph Bernard (1866-1931), who not only exerted his influence on Romanelli, but also on his fellow sculptor Libero Andreotti (1875-1933). Present in several editions of the Venice Biennale between the 1910s and 1920s, Bernard’s works offer themselves as a direct parallel and inspiration to Romanelli’s, especially in the handling of the soft, turned volumes of female figures. Effective examples of this are the Little Girl with a Pitcher, the Dancer and above all the Little Bacchante (born from the Great Bacchante exhibited at the Salon d’Automne of 1912), which seems to share with the Fisherman that pure, ancestral primitivism of the full limbs and also the position of the raised arm next to the exotically shaped face.
The solid rhythm of the line, the roundness of the volumes and the irregularity of the bronze surface of the Fish Woman encapsulate in a few lines the founding characteristics of the idea of sculpture that Romanelli pursued during the 1920s. The rappel à l’ordre seen predominantly in a primitivist key, the primordial energy and vague exoticism of the woman holding the basket with fish conveys the need for the narration of an intimate and vital everyday reality.