Museum  November 27, 2018  Allison C. Meier

Rediscovering Rome’s 18th-Century Master of Decorative Arts

Before he leapt into the Tiber River in 1785, master craftsman Luigi Valadier created ornate objects in precious materials for Europe's elite.
Michael Bodycomb

Installation view of Deser for Jacques-Laure Le Tonnelier, Bailli de Breteuil (detail), ca. 1778. Gilt bronze, enamel, colored marbles, amber, lapis lazuli, amethyst, garnets, ivory, and agate.

Sprawled across the Frick Collection’s Oval Room is an array of ancient architecture in miniature. Triumphal arches, obelisks, and temples—some inspired by real Roman ruins like the Arch of Trajan in Ancona and the Temple of Tivoli—are made from precious materials, with lapis lazuli columns, gilt-bronze Corinthian capitals, amethyst inlay, and amber bas-reliefs. Nestled among the diminutive structures are little dishes on metal feet. This grand assemblage of the classical world was designed around 1778 as a deser, or banquet centerpiece, for an ambassador to the royal court of Paris named Jacques-Laure Le Tonnelier de Breteuil. Elite Europeans dining at its splendor may have even known the name of the deser’s creator: Luigi Valadier, a major decorative artist of Rome from 1759 until he leapt into the Tiber River in 1785.

Museo Arqueológico Nacional, Madrid

Reduction of the Temple of Mercury, ca. 1778. Lapis lazuli, amethyst, garnet, red porphyry, portasanta, green porphyry, and gilt bronze.

Today, Valadier’s name is no longer prominent. Much of his elaborate metalwork was melted in the decades following his death. A small 1783 spoon adorned with the face of Medusa, for instance, is one of the few extant pieces from a huge silver service he crafted for Rome’s Borghese family. Others, like his bombastic desers, were broken apart. For Luigi Valadier: Splendor in Eighteenth-Century Rome on view through January 20, 2019, at the Frick in New York, Breteuil’s deser, now divided between two institutions in Spain, was reunited. Over 50 objects and drawings join it in visualizing what survives from Valadier’s oeuvre, with drawings and inventories hinting at what has been lost.

“We’ve been doing a series of exhibitions at the Frick on great artists in the decorative arts who are not very well known by the public,” said Xavier Salomon, the Frick’s chief curator. Luigi Valadier follows the Frick’s 2016-17 exhibition on 18th-century artist Pierre Gouthière who created gilt bronze work for the French Court. Similarly, it was the first monographic exhibition to examine Gouthière’s career. “They’re just great figures who produced works of art for the most important patrons in the world, but are now lesser known,” Salomon added.

Musée du Louvre, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. Photo: Les frères Chuzeville

The Triumph of Bacchus, 1780. Agate, alabaster, ancient hardstones, ancient glass paste, gold, gilt metal, and gilt bronze.

Salomon co-curated Luigi Valadier: Splendor in Eighteenth-Century Rome with Alvar González-Palacious, the leading expert on Valadier. His decades of research feature in a new book, the first comprehensive English publication on Valadier, published by the Frick Collection in association with D Giles Limited. The monograph draws on the around 400-page Registro Generale recently acquired by the Frick Art Reference Library. This 1810 manuscript was compiled by Luigi Valadier’s son Giuseppe, and lists his workshop’s tools, and some 80 assistants and collaborators.

“We have a lot of information about the work, but we have very little about him in terms of his personal life,” Salomon explained. “We knew he married, we knew he had kids, we knew he committed suicide. The reasons behind that, we don’t know. We managed to piece together as much as we could, but more could be done in the future. We hope that this exhibition pushes other people to start doing more archival research in the field.”

What is recorded is that Valadier was born in Rome to French parents in 1726. His father, Andrea Valadier, had a silversmith workshop in the city, which Luigi took over in 1759. It was a fortuitous moment, as wealthy foreigners were visiting Rome on the Grand Tour, a popular route through Europe’s wonders for young aristocrats, and Valadier’s neoclassical objects were the perfect souvenir to capture Rome’s ancient past and artistic present. Maybe this is why over the years he moved away from the florid style of his father to concentrate on neoclassicism.

Herm of Bacchus (detail), 1773
Galleria Borghese, Rome. Photo: Mauro Magliani

Herm of Bacchus (detail), 1773. Bronze, alabastro a rosa, bianco e nero antico, and africano verde.

Spoon, 1783. Gilt silver.
Michael Bodycomb

Spoon, 1783. Gilt silver.

Coffee Pot with the Chigi Coat of Arms, 1777. Silver.
Michael Bodycomb

Coffee Pot with the Chigi Coat of Arms, 1777. Silver.

Chalice from the Orsini Mass Service, ca. 1768 Gilt silver.
Mauro Magliani

Chalice from the Orsini Mass Service, ca. 1768 Gilt silver.

St. Rosalia, ca. 1773
Cathedral of Santa Maria la Nuova, Monreale Photo: Mauro Magliani

St. Rosalia, ca. 1773. Gilt bronze and silver.

Design for a Trembleuse (Digiuné), before 1762
Michael Bodycomb

Design for a Trembleuse (Digiuné), before 1762. Pen, brown ink, and brown and ocher wash on paper.

Michael Bodycomb

Vase, ca. 1775–80. Rosso Appennino marble and gilt silver.

For over two decades, his bustling workshop was patronized by everyone from Cardinal Domenico Orsini d’Aragona who commissioned a 1768 gilt silver service for his palace’s chapel in Rome, to French King Louis XV’s mistress Madame Du Barry, who received a pair of 1773 white marble and porphyry vases based on the Medici Vase. He was skilled as a draftsman, a silversmith, a goldsmith, and a bronze founder, and collaborated with furniture designers, sculptors, and stonecutters. The objects at the Frick show this breadth of his practice, whether a 1773 table built from gilt wood, bronze, and stone now in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, or a 1770s vase made with blood-red marble and decorated with gilt-silver lion heads recently acquired by the Frick. Each is a transformation of diverse materials that is innovative while referencing the past, such as the 1773 Herm of Bacchus. Its tower of rare alabastro a rosa marble is carved to resemble drapery, and is topped with a bronze head of the Roman god of wine.

Despite the prominence of his many patrons, near the end of his life Valadier was in debt. “For most eighteenth-century Roman artists, even the very successful ones, getting paid by patrons was as difficult as carving marble, painting a canvas, or casting a piece of silver,” writes Alvar González-Palacious in the monograph. Furthermore, González-Palacious notes, “[a]ccording to Costantino Bulgari, the great biographer of the Roman silversmiths, Valadier had become an associate of a certain Giuseppe Amici, who loaned him the enormous sum of ten thousand scudi on January 13, 1780, with a colossal interest rate of 24 percent.” Perhaps weighed down by this financial burden, Valadier walked to the banks of the Tiber on September 15, 1785, and jumped.

Michael Bodycomb

Statues of six saints (St. Louis, St. Castrense, St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Benedict, and St. Rosalia) from the High Altar of the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Nuova, Monreale, ca. 1773. Silver and gilt metals.

“What a dreadful business. Mr. Luigi Valadier has thrown himself into the river,” lamented his friend and partner, the sculptor Vincenzo Pacetti. Soon after, the Papal States would melt down many of his objects for funds during the Napoleonic Wars. Yet in remote churches, palaces, museums, and private collections, his work endured. A 1773 group of six saints, usually installed atop the altar he designed for the Cathedral of Santa Maria la Nuova in Monreale, Sicily, have traveled out of Italy for the first time. Shaped in silver and highlighted in gold, each is exquisitely detailed, from the crown of gold roses circling the head of Saint Rosalia, to the delicate keys dangling in Saint Peter’s hand.

The whimsical classicism and lavish metalwork at which Valadier excelled later fell out of fashion, as did the sumptuous banquet centerpieces. Nevertheless, the craftsmanship of his creations remains compelling, with each having an almost alchemical metamorphosis of materials into something unified and exquisite. Visitors to the Frick can witness these details that drew wealthy Europeans to his workshop, and rediscover an artist whose name is now obscure.

“We’re in a world where museums only do exhibitions now when they know people will be going, so the same kinds of names come up again and again,” Salomon said. “We have a philosophy that it helps to do exhibitions on names that are not well known, but should be well known.”

About the Author

Allison C. Meier

Allison C. Meier is a Brooklyn-based writer focused on history and visual culture. She was previously senior editor at Atlas Obscura, and more recently a staff writer at Hyperallergic. She moonlights as a cemetery tour guide.