Description & Technical information

The body of Christ of this exquisitely carved crucifix is made from one large section of tusk allowing the author to exploit expertly the natural curvature of the material to convey the anguish of the suffering Saviour. The anatomy of the torso, the highlighted outline and details of the rib cage and contracted abdomen, is extraordinary. The legs, carved with equal skill, appear bent by the weight of the body, the right protruding further forward that the left, the finess of the kneecaps noteworthy. The perizonium, carved separately, consists of soft folds of material, wrapped repeatedly on a double rope tie terminating in two ruffled flourishes. The surface of the arms, hands and feet is characterised by an extensive network of veins and tendons represented with great naturalism. The head of Christ is tilted to the right, his hair parted, flowing wavy locks falling over his shoulders.

The elongated face, mouth open, is enhanced by a thick curled beard, divided in the middle, which frames the chin and cheeks, a sloping moustache beneath the nose. His features furrowed, with tears carved in relief, the Saviour’s eyes are made without pupils, defined by well-marked eyelids and highlighted by thick eyebrows. In exceptional original condition, old drill holes suggest the mounting of a crown of thorns or halo, now lost, possibly made in another material.

Christ is fixed by four original silver nails to a cross of ebonised pear wood finished with silver terminals contemporary to the carving, INRI ('King of the Jews') inscribed on a separate ivory plaque fixed above him. The work is decorated above his head at the intersection of the arms with an ivory sunburst with multiple lanceolates fastened to the centre of the cross with a six-pointed silver star. The cross sits in its original quadrangular marble base made of speckled pink Sicilian jasper, standing overall more than a metre and a half in height.

This masterpiece belonged to Elena Petrović (1873 – 1952), sixth daughter of Nicholas I of Montenegro (1841 – 1921), who was married to Victor Emmanuel III of Italy (1869 – 1947) and crowned Queen of Italy in 1900. During the 1920s the work was gifted by the Queen to the Countess Wilhelmina Boncompagni Ludovisi (1881 – 1973), courtier and wife of Count Pompeo Campello della Spina (1874 – 1927). Although the precise circumstances remain unknown, there can be no doubt, given its considerable size, the preciousness of the materials used and the virtuosity of the carving, that the present crucifix was created pursuant to a highly prestigious commission. The masterly rendition of the wrinkles and stretched skin at the points where the nails pierce the flesh, the hands contracted with fingers shown with the finest of detail, is matched by the realism found on those sections of the body hidden to the eye on a frontal view, such as the soles of the feet.

Our sculpture shows strong stylistic affinity with the crucified Christ of the Church of San Pietro Apostolo in Giglio Castello (Isola del Giglio), previously attributed, wrongly, to Giambologna and now given convincingly by Eike Schmidt to Giovanni Battista Bissoni (c. 1600-10 – Genoa – 1657), among the most important of Genovese sculptors working in the first half of the 17th century (see Schmidt, op. cit.). The representation of the defined chest and abdomen, including the naval, the tilt of the torso, the style and form of the perizonium marked by the soft pleated folds of material, the rendition of the thick locks of hair falling over the shoulders, the shape of the eyes and the tear streaked cheeks, are all comparable features. Similar ivory crucifix, long assigned to Giovanni Battista Bissoni, may be found in the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein in Vienna (Inv. no. SK 944) and in the Thomson collection in the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (Inv. no. 107450). Comparisons of the flow of the body, its anatomical treatment and the lateral flourish of the material of the perizonium, may also be drawn with certain of Bissoni's monumental sculptures, such as his dying Christ in the choir of the Church of San Bartolomeo degli Armeni, formerly in San Paolo in Campetto.

The son of sculptor Domenico Bissoni (Bissone before 1574 – 1637 Genoa), Giovanni Battista Bissoni did his apprenticeship in his father's studio, which he inherited in 1637. He was married in 1633 and died in 1657. The precise date of his birth remains unclear although it seems very likely that was born in the first decade of the 17th century.

Known as the Veneziano, Giovanni Battista Bissoni made a significant contribution to the renewal of the typological structure of crucifix, reworking the basic models offered by Georg Petel (1601-02 – 1634) and Anthony Van Dyck (1599 – 1641), who was present in Genoa from 1621 to 1622 and again between 1623 and the following year. He is known to have produced a number of large ivory sculptures of between 99 and 124 cm in overall height, an extraordinary fact given the high cost of precious materials, albeit that these could be found in Genoa at the time relatively easily given the trade with Spain and North Africa. Many of these objects produced by way of the most important commissions left the city during the second half of the 19th century with the disbursement of significant collections, one such example being the 'Christ in ivory … mounted on a walnut … cross of India … on … a pink marble base, with green marble plinth’ referred to in the sales catalogue of the impressive collection of the anonymous Marquis ‘D ***’ auctioned in Genoa by the Milanese house of Giulio Sambon in 1888.

The present Cristo Vivo is a rare masterpiece by a Genovese virtuoso of early Baroque ivory carving, a treasure made all the more exceptional by its near perfect condition and royal provenance.

We are grateful to Dr. Riccardo Gennaioli for confirming the attribution to Giovanni Battista Bissoni based on first hand examination of the work.

Date:  1630-1640
Period:  1600-1750, 17th century
Origin:  Italy, Genoa
Medium: Ivory, Ebonised pear wood, Silver terminal
Dimensions: 72.5 x 49.5 cm (28¹/₂ x 19¹/₂ inches)
Provenance: Elena of Montenegro, Queen Consort of Italy (1873-1952)
Marquise Guglielmina Campello della Spina (born Boncompagni Ludovisi, 1881-1973),
as a gift from the Queen, c. 1920
Private collection, Naples
Private collection, Rome
Literature: M. Bartoletti, 'ad vocem Bissoni (Bissone), Giovanni Battista' in SAUR Allgemeines Künstler-Lexikon, Vol. 11 (München, Leipzig, 1995), p. 244
J. Kräftner (ed.), Liechenstein Museum Wien. Der Fürst als Sammler. Neuerwerbungen unter Hans-Adam II. von und zu Liechtenstein, exhibition catalogue (Lichtenstein Museum, Vienna, 12 February – 24 August 2010), p. 269
L. Leoncini, 'Anton van Dyck: il Cristo spirante di Palazzo Reale' in L. Leoncini and D. Sanguineti (eds.), Van Dyck e il Cristo spirante, exhibition catalogue (Palazzo Reale, Genoa, 12 April – 9 December 2012), pp. 54-59
D. Sanguineti, 'I Cristi spiranti di Anton van Dyck: riscontro genovesi' in L. Leoncini and D. Sanguineti (eds.), Van Dyck e il Cristo spirante, exhibition catalogue (Palazzo Reale, Genoa, 12 April – 9 December 2012), pp. 6-41
E. D. Schmidt, ‘Un ponte d'avorio tra l'Italia e l'Europa’ in Diafane Passioni: Avori barocchi dalle corti europee, exhibition catalogue (Palazzo Pitti, Museo degli Argenti, Firenze, 16 July – 3 November 2013), pp. 14 ff, p. 192, no. 53
D. Sanguineti, Scultura genovese in legno policromo dal secondo Cinquecento al Settecento (Umberto Allemandi, Torino, 2013), pp. 152-159, 390-393
A. Casati, 'Circolazione di artisti e modelli nella scultura barocca tra Liguria e Lombardia. Segnalazioni per Tomaso Carlone, Tomaso Orsolino, Giovanni Battista Bissoni e Bernardo Orsati' in Viglevanum, Vol. XXVI (2016), pp. 14-37, figs. 29-30
Categories: Sculpture