Santo Varni was born in Genoa in 1807. After taking his first steps in a goldsmith’s workshop, he discovered his talent for carving and modelling, then moved to the workshop of a woodcarver.
Not even twenty years old, he enrolled in 1821 at the Accademia Linguistica in Genoa, where he studied under Bartolomeo Carrea and Giuseppe Gaggini, a sculptor who introduced the young man to a classicist language steeped in purist values and certainly not indifferent to the naturalistic vein.
In this respect, the figure of Lorenzo Bartolini, whom the sculptor met in Florence after he moved there in 1835, is fundamental. In the Tuscan city, he studied 15th- and 16th-century sculpture, acquiring the characteristic timeless balance that he began to infuse into his solemn and harmonious sculptures. His study of antiquity brought him into contact with John Flaxmann, an English sculptor and engraver whom he met in Florence thanks to Bartolini’s intercession.
Erudition and collecting antiques
This passion for the classical past made Santo Varni a profound connoisseur of ancient art and archaeology. As a scholar and collector of classical pieces, he also had a long-standing correspondence with Pietro Selvatico, an architect from Veneto and curator of monuments and artistic events from the Middle Ages and Renaissance.
On his return to Genoa in 1838, Santo Varni was now open to the international language and ready to take over the chair of sculpture at the Accademia Linguistica from Giuseppe Gaggini. An established artist, surrounded by collectors and patrons who wanted his work, he was appointed honorary sculptor to King Carlo Alberto of Savoy in 1842.
The solemn, purist structure of his poetics is always combined with naturalistic references, the essential strong point of his production. This characteristic can be seen not only in his small private subjects, such as portraits and biblical or mythological episodes, but also in his monumental sculpture. This emerges in particular from the statues he made for the Staglieno Cemetery, for the famous Monument to Christopher Columbus erected in Genoa and for that of General Chiodo in La Spezia.
Between monuments and delicate private subjects
Other monumental works by Santo Varni include the statue of Emanuele Filiberto for the Royal Palace of Turin and the tomb for Queen Maria Theresa in the Basilica of Superga.
In 1851, he appeared at the International Exhibition in London, while in 1859, he took part in the Turin Exhibition with the Portrait of Princess Maria de Solms Bonaparte Wyse. In 1860 he exhibited The daughter of Jefte and Portrait of architect Canina in Genoa. He was again present at the Genoa Promotrice in 1865, with the Portrait of Princess Clotilde and the Portrait of the Queen of Portugal.
His sculptures, always characterised by a soft compositional balance and formal solidity, but also by a marked spiritual sensitivity, were always very close to Bartolini’s purism, as can be seen in Sappho in the Gallery of Prince Oddone in Nervi.