A Sculptural Allegory of Imperial France

April 3 2013, 2:42pm

Carlton Hobbs LLC This cockerel is rendered with striking naturalism and elaborate attention to detail. Its feathers are highly refined and arranged in sections at intervals with subtly worked spaces in between, which gives the subject a strong sense of movement. The tension of the arched body, with its feathers seeming to have been inflated from within, conveys the excitement of the bird, who has just subdued its cunning prey. Even the various surface textures, such as the calloused feet, the flaccid comb and wattle, the scaly skin of the snakes and the covering of grass on the base, are intricately worked. The extraordinary technical skill of the sculptor is evidenced by the use of a single block of marble, a considerable achievement, particularly where the subtleties like the feathers, the complexly coiling bodies of the snakes, and the positioning of the feet of the bird are concerned. The composition takes its inspiration from the late Baroque period and is closely related to the oeuvre of the sculptor, Francesco Antonio Franzoni (Carrara 1734-Rome 1818), whose work is characterized by his profound understanding of archaeology, the striking naturalism of the animals he created, and his painstaking attention to detail and ornament. In fact, he was considered the undisputed master of the animal genre. In a portrait by Domenico De Angelis (Ponzano 1735-Roma 1804) Franzoni is depicted working on a sculpture of an eagle (figure 1) (Fine Arts Academy, Carrara), while Oreste Raggi recalled that his animals “were wrought with much artful labor and expressiveness,” an observation that tallies perfectly with the present work.1 Figure 1, Fine Arts Academy, Carrara The work that made Franzoni famous was the Room of the Animals in the Pio-Clementino Museum in the Vatican, started by Pope Clement XIV at the beginning of the 1770s and finished in 1782. It comprised vivid animal groups carved from archaeological remains or made from scratch using rare marbles, sometimes excavated from archeological sites. The extraordinary collection of sculptures, accurate in zoological terms and portraying the many characteristic traits and behaviors of the animal subjects, represented a celebration of the animal kingdom. Particularly relevant to the present piece is the fact that, among the sculptures in the Room of the Animals, the theme of combat recurs frequently, depicted in different ways and in various groups. Examples include the goat beset by a mastiff,2 a work made entirely by Franzoni, and a similar group restored by him, depicting a deer attacked by a mastiff. There are also numerous images of birds and other animals struggling with snakes (Inventory Nos. 80,88) (figure 2). Figure 2, Museo Pio-Clementino, Vatican The heron with a frog (Inventory no. 536) a contemporary sculpture, and the crow attacking a hedgehog (Inventory Nos. 537), integrating an antique fragment found in Hadrian’s Villa in 1773, have stylistic similarities to the present sculpture. The crow, of contemporary date except for the middle part of its body, has the same detailed treatment of the plumage at the back as the present piece. In both cases, this highly realistic rendering of the feathers suggests that the sculptures were based on studies from life. Numerous further similarities, including the detail of the hollow eye ringed round the edge, the curvilinear shape of the body and the detailed grass-covered base strongly suggest that the execution of this sculpture and the present one, are by the same hand. The theme of the present sculpture also shares similarities with other groups of birds fighting reptiles. Here, however, the pair of snakes, while yet alive, has already been clearly defeated. Another significant detail in the present piece, not represented in the Room of the Animals, is a bee carved on the crest of the cockerel (figure 3). This aspect appears to be unique and gives the work a heraldic attribute, as well as being allegorical. The image of the cockerel, emblem of France, and a bee, a Napoleonic device, suggest that the sculpture was an allusion to Imperial France and two of its enemies, who have been beaten. It might also indicate a more particular Napoleonic allegory made for an actual member of the Imperial family. Figure 3, detail, Carlton Hobbs LLC The exact circumstances of how the present sculpture was made are unknown, but according to documents relating to the activities of Franzoni and his closest collaborator Vincenzo Pacetti, there were obvious French sympathies and frequent contacts with Imperial figures linked to the Napoleonic circle. Among the eminent figures for whom Franzoni procured antiquities was Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother-in-law, Gioacchino Napoleone Murat (1767-1815), the eccentric King of Naples and a lover of luxury and antiquities, with whom Franzoni had formed a strong friendship. The association of the cockerel with the French nation is rooted in the ancient history of Gallia and derives from the play on words in Latin between Gallus, meaning both inhabitant of Gaul, as well as cockerel or rooster. The popularity of the Gallic cockerel, colloquially named Chanteclair, as a national personification resurged during the French Revolution (1789). On the present sculpture, the detail of the bee on the crest of the cockerel seems anything but casual. In fact, it is a sign of a return to heraldry, and indicates that the piece is not only a virtuoso exercise made by an expert hand, probably Francesco Franzoni, but also a perfect synthesis of symbols, which, though difficult to fathom for a modern viewer must have seemed obvious at the time it was made. The combined use of the proud cocq gaulois and the presence of a bee, one of Napoleon’s favorite emblems regularly adopted by him from the time of his coronation, suggests an allusion to the French Empire and either to the figure of the Emperor Napoleon, or to a member of the imperial family. Figure 4 In the portrait by Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres of 1803, where Napoleon is depicted dressed in the uniform of First Consul (Museum of Fine Arts, Liège), the bee emblem does not feature, whilst from the date of his coronation in Paris, 2 December 1804, it is invariably there. In the large painting by Jacques-Louis David (Paris, Louvre Museum) between 1805 and 1807, in which the solemn event is recorded for posterity, we see the rich cloaks worn by Napoleon and the Empress Josephine designed by Louis-Hippolyte Leroy, made of purple velvet, lined with ermine and covered with gold bees. David also painted Napoleon in his study (1812) standing beside a chair with gold embroidered bees on its red upholstery (figure 4). The snakes play a key role in the symbolic meaning of the present sculpture. This animal typically embodies shrewdness or eternity, when shown biting its own tail, however, when it is trodden on or being devoured by another animal, it represents an enemy, who has been overcome. In this context, the cockerel is holding one of the snakes effortlessly in its beak, while the other lies motionless as if dead: both are enemies defeated. The snakes might allude to a military triumph or territory annexed in Napoleonic lands. Carlton Hobbs LLC   On the basis of the above interpretation, which leads us to see the sculpture as a kind of synthesis of Napoleonic symbols, it seems to be appropriate to surmise that the present cockerel was made by Franzoni as a gift for a member of the Napoleonic family. The royal couple of Naples, who showed appreciation for Franzoni’s astonishing animals and invited him to Naples to practice and teach this specific genre of sculpture, was certainly a possible recipient of this celebratory tribute.

The snakes might allude to a military triumph or territory annexed in Napoleonic lands. In 1808 Joseph was appointed King of Spain and replaced by Gioacchino Murat (Labastide-Fortunière 1767—Pizzo 1815). This sculpture of a bold cocq gaulois, could easily allude to the proud Murat, known for his daring and charisma, as well as his flamboyant sense of dress. The Napoleonic bee on the comb of the cockerel can be connected to his wife, the princess Caroline, while the two snakes are reminiscent of the two snakes framing the head of the hideous Trinacria, which features on the Napoleonic flag of the Kingdom as symbol of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, captured by Napoleon and governed by Murat from 1808 to 1815. Murat’s predilection for the animal genre is also documented by the acquisition of a painting by the Bohemian artist, Johann  Wenzel (Wenceslaus) Peter (1745-1829), who was active in Rome and specialized in animal themes. The dramatic end of Murat, shot at Pizzo Calabro in 1815, and the subsequent departure of his wife Carolina from Naples, resulted in the dispersal of the royal couple’s furniture,8 objects and works of art during the 19th century, which were mostly absorbed into private collections. We are extremely grateful to Dottoressa Anna Maria Massinelli for compiling this entry. For full research visit our website.