Born in Florence in 1886, Sirio Tofanari was among the greatest animalier sculptors of the early twentieth century in Italy. He was an artist with an independent nature who, after attending the Academy of Fine Arts for just one year, preferred to escape from traditional training paths. He left for Paris in 1906 and shortly after went to London, where he soon showed a vocation for animal sculpture. He used to spend whole days at the city zoo in Regent’s Park, observing all kinds of animals and then studying their anatomies at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. Back in Italy in 1908, he made his debut at the Faenza Exhibition, where he was immediately appreciated by the critics and the public. The following year he participated in the Venice Biennale for the first time – as he would do until 1936 – and immediately won the favour of Ugo Ojetti that in the catalogue, referring to the sculpture The Caress, described the young artist as “passionate and dramatic” (Ojetti 1909, p. 26). The Caress is a sculpture of two felines “joined together in a group of masterful harmony and expression” (Ojetti 1909, p. 26). It shows a concise and elegant style, made up of sinuous lines and soft volumes that intertwine.
It was after the war however, that Tofanari reached the height of his success, when he participated in the Fiorentina Primaverile in 1922 and was the subject of a personal exhibition at the III Roman Biennale in 1925. His marked Classical and at the same time plain naturalism, based on powerful and regular lines, emerges with precise clarity from the animals he made in the twenties. The sculpture Baboons (1923) is an example of it – exhibited at Venice Biennale in 1924, and characterised by “minute details meticulously carved and skilfully shaped forms” (Milan 1923, p. 19), it highlights the attitude of the chiseller which recalls “some refined Japanese bronze sculptures where animals are realistically stylised” (Nebbia 1924, p. 360). The gracefulness of the forms and the firmness of the lines are entrusted to the meticulous finish of the chisel, and make the walk of the baboons grandiose and quivering with energy.
Like other animalier sculptors, Tofanari read Rudyard Kipling and his works inspired some evocative representations. The wrinkled skins of his Female Elephants with intertwined trunks, where the light spreads across a meticulously designed surface, is one of them. The knowledge of the material and the versatility of his style were particularly appreciated abroad and, in 1928, the French catalogue Sirio Tofanari – Sculptures d’Animaux was published, complemented by a small collection of reviews by Ugo Ojetti, Antonio Maraini, Roberto Papini, Vincenzo Bucci and Pietro Scarpa. Papini wrote: “Tofanari observes and works. He observes the agility of the gazelle […]. He looks at the owl and sees that it often likes to blink” (Papini 1928, p.13). In this last description, reference is made to the tiny, but precious, silver Owl – a sculpture that moves away from his repertoire of exotic fauna and portrays a local species with a somewhat bizarre appearance (given by the half-open eye made of glass paste) and a perfect plumage chiseled with a lively decorative rhythm. In other sculptures such as Panther, on the contrary, detailed naturalism gives way to a simplification of the planes, a harmonious synthesis that perfectly grasps the nature of the animal. Because of this aspect, ceramist Melandri described Tofanari as an “investigator of nature [who] deserves admiration for his thorough study, his fervid mind and his peculiar personality.”