Altar Statues of the Cathedral of Monreale by Luigi Valadier

For those fortunate enough to find themselves in Rome during the next couple of months, the Villa Borghese hosts, until February 2nd, the exhibition Luigi Valadier: Splendor in eighteenth century Rome. The same spectacular pieces were displayed last year at the Frick Collection in New York. Villa Borghese is always worth a visit, with the exhibition only adding another reason why it should be included in your itinerary.

Valadier's high altar at the Cathedral of Monreale. Picture by Mauro Magliani
Luigi Valadier, son of French immigrant, started his career in his father’s goldsmithing workshop. The quality of his work gartered him the patronage of the Papal and princely courts of Europe, receiving commissions for both sacred and secular works. Among his most illustrious clients were the Borghese family, the king of Sweden, the duke of Bavaria, Madame du Barry (official mistress to Louis XV of France) and cardinal Henry Benedict Stuart.

Picture by José Luiz Bernardes
Among the many wonderful treasures on display I wanted to single out the spectacular set of altar statues. In 1768 Archbishop Francesco Testa commissioned a completely new silver-clad high altar for the Cathedral of Monreale. Glittering 12th century mosaics cover almost every inch of the cathedral´s interior, and Valadier was charged with creating an altar able to stand out in this sea of gold. While today the silver has dulled and patinated, we can imagine how fulgurant this ensemble would have been.

Monreale Cathedral - interior. Picture by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra 
Accompanying the altar, atop the gradine, these six figures were made to complement it, standing between the candlesticks. They represent Saints Peter, Paul, Castrense, Benedict, Rosalia and Louis king of France.

Saints Peter and Paul. Picture by Mauro Magliani
The exhibition presents a fantastic opportuny to appreciate the artistry of Valadier up close, since this is the first time these pieces have left Monreale and their perch above the high altar, inaccessible to the public.

Saints Castrense and Benedict. Picture by Mauro Magliani
Each statue is about 42” tall, including the gilt bronze pedestal. The technical prowess of casting (probably through lost wax) these huge figures in silver is astounding. The hand of the artist can also be seen in delicate play of textures and finishes given to the surfaces, the smooth and polished skin, the foamy beards, the different qualities of the fabrics, St Benedict’s the rough hewn cuculla and St Castrense’s striated silk cope, the attention to detail on the delicately chiseled minute details, the fringes, orphreys and mitres… astounding masterpieces that can only be appreciated up close.

Saints Rosalia and Louis king of France. Picture by Mauro Magliani

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.