(Siena 1817 – post 1862)
Hagar and Ishmael
Signed and dated 1850
Marble, 1113 x 109 x 74 cm
Base: 120 x 118 x 70 cm
Commissioned in 1850 by a British engineer, Mr. Elliot, who moved from England to Florence in 1825; housed in the family palazzo in the Santo Spirito area, the family name changed from Elliot to Fontana, as it remains to this day; by descent to his family; Sale, Pandolfini, Florence, 28 October 2014, lot 23.
This superb marble, signed and dated 1850, depicts the Old Testament story of Hagar and Ishmael. Hagar is introduced in Genesis 16 as the Egyptian maidservant to Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Aged and barren, Sarah gives Hagar to her husband in hopes that the couple will have a child by their maid. When Hagar becomes pregnant her continued presence in their household becomes intolerable to Sarah, who begins to mistreat the mother and child. More than ten years later, Sarah finally gives birth to her own son, Isaac, and the tension in Abraham’s home worsens. Distrustful and cynical, Sarah appeals to her husband, demanding that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. So the two are cast off into the wilderness alone, Abraham providing only the bare provisions when he sees them off. Wandering the desert of Beersheba, they run out of water. In desperation, Hagar lays her son’s dehydrated body under a bush and walks away, reasoning, “I cannot watch the boy die” (Genesis 21:15, NIV). God hears the cries of the child and sends an angel to call to the sobbing, hopeless Hagar, telling her to return to her son. God provides a well of water and their lives are spared.
In this sophisticated composition, Caselli presents Hagar touchingly lifting the head of her collapsed son as she reaches blindly with her opposite hand for the water that will restore his life. It is a heart-wrenching scene that clearly recalls Michelangelo’s Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica. Inspiring generations of artists and patrons, it is no surprise that 350 years after Michelangelo carved his tour-de-force, Caselli would look to the Pietà when exploring themes of distressed motherhood and religious abandonment. With Hagar and Ishmael Caselli captures these universal themes in marble. Working with and against the Neoclassical backdrop that dominated the 19th century, Caselli’s sculpture reveals cold severity alongside the heightened drama of Romanticism. The lightness and grace of his modeling recalls the blend of naturalism and classicism of the Renaissance. Embracing the Quattrocento love of detail, Caselli demonstrates mastery of his medium with finely incised details. The way Hagar’s fingers entwine with her son’s deep curls is particularly beautiful. Here we are of course reminded of the great impresario, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598 – 1680).
Born in Siena, Caselli was a pupil of Louis Pampaloni and Aristodemus Costoli at the Academy of Florence, where in 1840 he shared the prize for sculpture with his rival, Giovanni Dupré (1817 – 1882). Little is known about the life and work of the Sienese sculptor. In fact, before the important discovery of the present marble, only one other work had been identified as by his hand, a full-length portrayal of Paulo Mascagni (1852), the celebrated physician who had taught anatomical painting at the Academia of the Belle Arti in Florence. The commission, for which a plaster model from 1847 is extant, was part of a larger project for a series of sculptures of famous men intended for the Loggia of the Uffizi. In September of 1842 the Academy staged an exhibition, for which Dupré submitted a gesso model of Abel Dying. Caselli entered a now-lost marble of Hagar and Ishmael, seemingly in response to his competitor’s submission, inviting the comparison of the young male nudes, both Biblical subjects. Our signed and dated 1850 marble is a later treatment of the same theme. Created for a palazzo in Florence, the present piece was commissioned in 1850 by a British engineer by the family name of Elliot, later changed to Fontana, who had moved his family to Tuscany in 1825 to work on the proposed railroad between Florence and Rome. The sculpture remained in the family’s collection at the palazzo until 2014.