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Carving

  • Place of origin:

    Genoa (made)

  • Date:

    1798 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Arrigoni, Giuseppe (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Carved boxwood and ebony, with pearwood, walnut and maple

  • Museum number:

    748-1875

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This panel and its pair (749-1875), dated 1799, are both a demonstration of supremely fine carving and a commentary on contemporary political events in Genoa, where they were made. They reflect the popularity of the classical style at the time, derived from the architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. The profile of Alexander the Great is carved in ebony, a hard, close-grained wood, probably chosen here to imitate a hardstone cameo. The eagle, military trophies, lion mask and floral swags are of boxwood.

In 1797 Genoa had been invaded by the French revolutionary army of Napoleon Bonaparte. On 14 June Napoleon overthrew the Most Serene Republic of Genoa, established in 1005, and replaced it with the Ligurian Republic as a state fully under the control of France. Clearly, Alexander represents the invading Napoleon but we have yet to identify the individual within the Genose ruling party who may be represented by Porus.

Physical description

Carved relief, in the manner of a cameo, showing the head of Alexander the Great, in ebony and other woods, in a frame of ebonizsed wood.
The helmeted head of the emperor is shown in profile, facing to the left. It is carved in low relief, in ebony, against a roundel of maple edged with a bead and real framing in box and a narrow fillet of pearwood. The helmet is crested with a winged putto (child) holding a wreath above the head of the hero. To either side, in ebony are the words 'ALEXANDER MAGNUS'. The roundel is set into a ground of a dark hardwood (possibly plum or pear)
with the grain running vertically. Three spandrel panels are inset into this ground above and below the roundel. These have grounds of ebony and are edged with a plain fillet of boxwood. The two lower ones are set with swags of fruit carved in boxwood, hanging from boxwood ribbon bows and tied at the centre with boxwood ribbons behind the mask of a lion, also in boxwood, this motif set on the walnut ground between the spandrels. Small, formal motifs in boxwood are set either side of the roundel. The upper inset panel spans the roundel and is filled with a boxwood trophiy of arms laid aside (these including the knotted club of Hercules and a spiked mace), with laurel leaves (indicating victory), over which an eagle, facing to the left, grasps in its claws a sword and a cornucopia spilling coins.

The frame is of ebonized pearwood,enclosing the attached frame of the panel, in ebony with a carved sight edge in boxwood. The framed relief is backed with blue paper with an ink inscriiption by the maker.

Place of Origin

Genoa (made)

Date

1798 (made)

Artist/maker

Arrigoni, Giuseppe (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Carved boxwood and ebony, with pearwood, walnut and maple

Marks and inscriptions

ALEXANDER
MAGNUS
Alexander the Great
Inlaid and carved to either side of the head

Giuse Arigoni
fece Genova 1798
Made by Giuseppe Arrigoni, Genoa, 1798
In ink script on blue lining paper on the backe of the frame

Fece Genova 1798
In ink script on a blue paper lining the back

Dimensions

Height: 18.3 cm, Width: 15.1 cm, Depth: 23 mm

Object history note

This carving, and its pair (749-1875) was purchased on 28 June 1875 from Mr JM Whitehead (RF 3717/75). The Art Referees Report, by Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt, written on 29 January, recommended their purchase with the following report: 'These are good specimens of wood carving on a cabinet scale by an Artworkman of the school of Albertolli who excercised so powerful an influence upon ornamental design throughout North Italy at the close of the last century. There have existed at Milan for the last half century various members of the"Arrigoni" family who have continued as dealers in works of Art to show considerable dexterity and good judgments [sic]. These specimens are certainly very delicate and pretty but are somewhat "mesquiso" in style. The touch with the woodcarvers [sic] gouge is better however than usual. I would recommend the purchase of the pair if they could be got for say one hundred and fifty pounds the pair [they had been offered for £200] but I should be disinclined to recommend them at a higher price.' They were purchased for £150 from Mr T.M. Whitehead.

Historical significance: When this carving and its pair were acquired by the Museum, not only was carving a highly valued skill, but the unification of Italy had only just been completed (in 1871). This cause, championed by Giuseppe Garibaldi, had been actively supported in Britain.

The subject matter of the carvings seems to relate to the overthrow of the Most Serene Republic of Genoa (created 1005) and the establishment of the Ligurian republic on 14 June 1797 by the French Revolutionary army, led by Napoleon. The new republic became, in effect, a client state of France. This lasted until 1805, when France absorbed the area into her own territories. This carving shows Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), ruler of the Kingdom of Macedon in Ancient Greece. By the age of 30 he had created one of the largest empires in the ancient world through his military triumphs, extending as far as Egypt and North-West India. The parallel with Napoleon was clear but the inclusion of a carved fly, that appears to have settled on the eagle above Alexander, may imply criticism of the present military stranglehold on Genoa. The other carving shows King Porus (here written 'Porrus') who fought against Alexander at the Battle of the Hydaspes River 326 BC. The sons of Porus all chose death rather than defeat, and although Porus was defeated, the battle was generally accepted to be Alexander's fiercest and led to mutiny amongst his troops. As a result of his brave behaviour, Porus was released and given rewards of land, later joining Alexander in other conquests. The figure of Porus may relate to a member or members of the oligarchy that ruled Genoa, and who supported Napoleon once he had taken power.

This form of carving (known as 'microscultura') was inspired by the work of Giuseppe Maria Bonzanigo (1745-1820), who served for many years as cabinet-maker and carver to the King of Sardinia, producing furniture and carving for the royal palace in Turin from 1773 onwards. In 1787 he was appointed 'sculptor to the King of Sardinia'. A particularly finely carved panel, similar in workmanship to the two panels by Giuseppe Arrigoni (this one and 749-1875) was sold at Sotheby's 'Treasures' sale, 4 July 2018, lot 27. That panel was a self portrait in relief and carried the date 1796, so was completed just before the two V&A panels were made. At the Sotheby's, London 'Treasures' sale, 3 July 2019, a larger portrait of the young General Bonaparte, attributed to Bonzanigo and dated to about 1800, was offered for sale as lot 27. This piece was similar in technique but was 55.5 cm high.

Historical context note

On 14 June 1797, Napoleon, as part of his Italian campaign, abolished the Republic of Genoa, which had ruled Liguria since 1005, and created the Ligurian Republic, which was, in effect, a client state of France. This lasted until 1805, when France absorbed the area into her own territories.

Descriptive line

Carved relief, in the manner of a cameo, of the head of Alexander the Great in ebony, with boxwood swags and eagle, against a dark hardwood ground, in an ebonized frame

Production Note

Signed and dated on reverse, spelling of Arrigoni checked from Allgemeines Kunstlerlexikon

Materials

Pearwood; Ebony; Boxwood; Boxwood; Sycamore; Maple; Walnut

Techniques

Hand carving; Ebonising

Subjects depicted

Trophies (motif); Eagle; Lion masks; Flowers; Swags (design element)

Categories

Woodwork

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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