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Excessive similarity

· An Italian translation of Julius von Schlosser’s work in 1911 on “The history of wax portraits” ·

Julius von Schlosser’s work, first published in 1911, has finally been translated into Italian, “Storia del ritratto in cera” [The history of wax portraits] (edited by Pietro Conte, città, Macerata, Quodlibet, 2011, 232 pages, 24 euros). The art historian from the Vienna School recounts, singling out several key moments, the fascinating and unfortunate story of wax sculpture: in fact, to Schlosser in the early 1900s, wax sculpture seemed, on the one hand, to have the right to boast of a “glorious past”, on the other, to survive only in the exhibitions and workshops of tailors and barbers.

The panorama begins in the ancient world: The author focuses on role played by wax in the depiction of ancestors and in funerary contexts. It goes from the description of masks unearthed in the necropolis of Cuma to that of the effigy of Caesar, which, according to the Greek historian Appian, was shown at the dictator’s funeral instead of his body, left in the coffin. The Statue, through a complex mechanism, was able to rotate by itself. The Roman people who attended the funeral were so struck by its verisimilitude – which even bore markings of the twenty-three stab wounds inflicted by the conspirators ­– that they were moved to set fire to the assassination site.

Effigy was also used for the funeral of Augustus and the post-mortem rights in honour of that Emperor Pertinax, organized by Septimius Severus, appearing again when he was later deified. Albeit in different forms, this practice returns in the funeral ceremonies of French and English kings between the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century. The reaction of the Romans to the rotating mannequin of Caesar resembles, despite obvious differences, the pain experienced by Christina of Lorraine before the life-sized bust of her son, Cosimo II de’ Medici, worked by the sculptor Pietro Tacca. According to the story handed down by Filippo Baldinucci, Christina, still distraught by the passing of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who died in 1621, could not bear the sight of the statue, which was enhanced by even a beard, eyelashes and real hair, as well as glass eyes.

The “excessive similarity” to which wax lends itself, therefore, often provokes a sense of unease or confusion as much among historians and art critics as among simple. In his thoughtful essay introducing Schlosser’s volume, Georges Didi-Huberman rightly notes that excessive naturalism and realism, so easily united in the alteration of wax, have without a doubt contributed to the marginalization by the artistic world of a material “so aesthetically and psychologically heavy”, eventually relegated to the technical arts.

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