T’other day, Steven Saylor drew our attention to a very interesting sculpture:
It’s entitled ‘Saturnalia’ and is by Ernesto Biondi … I suspect you may have seen it at some point in your life in a textbook or internet site explaining what the Roman festival was all about (more photos here). If you look at some of the figures, you can see a couple of priests, a priestess, a soldier, and assorted others who are clearly in the ‘spirit’ (apparently) of the Saturnalian season. But what is really interesting to note is that his particular sculpture is actually a copy, made in 1909, and currently residing in the Botanical Gardens in Buenos Aires. According to the Wikipedia article on Ernesto Biondi, the original was displayed (with assorted other works by Biondi) at the Exhibition Universelle in Paris. The Wikipedia article also gives a hint of the controversy which surrounded the Saturnalia in the early 20th century when it was supposed to go on display at the Met:
In 1905 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City agreed to display the work for one year. It was shipped to the United States to be exhibited at the Pan-American exhibition at Buffalo and was set up at the exhibition grounds “Venice in America” in hopes for a sale. After the work did not sell, the director of the Met, General Cesnola, arranged for the work to be set up within the sculpture hall at the museum. At a private viewing before the exhibition opened, museum trustees were appalled by the “immorality” of the work. and ordered it removed from display. Biondi sued the museum for $200,000 for breach of contract and for damages for the harm their actions caused his reputation. The New York Supreme Court ruled in favor of the museum, stating that the museum director did not have the authority to enter into a binding contract without the vote of the board of trustees, and that the document Biondi thought to be a contract was actually a receipt for his work.
Poking around the New York Times from the time (ick! sorry), the story becomes a bit more interesting and this appears to have been quite the ‘art scandal’ (for want of a better word) at the time and probably will have resonances for plenty of folks now. We’ll begin with a bit from the May 21 edition, which relates how Biondi came to America to see how his various sculptures we being displayed and was shocked when he came to the Met and found his Saturnalia languishing in the basement of the Met, in its storage crates — apparently because assorted museum types deemed it “immoral”. His reaction, inter alia:
“I was stunned,” exclaimed Signor Biondi yesterday, at his brother’s apartments.”To think that a moral lesson like the ‘Saturnalia’, designed to show the decadence of Rome under the Emperors, soon to be given a fresh lease of life by the strength of the barbarians and the influence of Christianity, should be smirched with the epithet immoral! As an artist, I was amazed that a group which received the suffrages of the greatest artist assembled at Paris, including Americans, should have been treated so ignominously. As a thinker I was aghast at the dullness of men who could so misconstrue the meaning of the group as to think it unfit for public exhibition. I looked about the hall and found the ‘Bacchante’ by
MacMonnies, absolutely nude and dancing under the influence of wine. I found in the sculpture galleries the nude masterpieces of antiquity, the drunken Silenus, the inebriated Satyr, and a hundred instances of sculpture of the kind that contained no moral, no warning from history. So far as my group is concerned, there is no nudity at all, unless you call that woman nude whose dress has slipped down a little. My group is a warning to the modern world that a nation at the top of her powers which does not study higher things than luxury and self-indulgence must inevitably fall before a cleaner, higher-toned nation.
A couple of weeks later (June 10, 1904) we read that the Italian government decided not to get involved, but an official from the consulate did note that Americans did like to go to Italy to look at the nude statues. He added that he suspected it was jealousy from American artists which were behind the dispute. In the same week, we hear (June 12) of the Met offering the artist a thousand dollars or something like that to assuage his “hurt feelings” to which he responded with a plan to “appeal to twelve cities”, by which the sculpture would be sold to some syndicate and displayed in twelve American cities which would act as a ‘jury’ and render a verdict whether it should be displayed. Personally, I don’t quite understand that bit but there appears to have been a press conference of some sort at which the MacMonnie’s Bacchante was brought up again, and then Biondi actually explained what his Saturnalia was all about:
“It was twelve years ago while going over some ancient Roman manuscripts that I conceived a statue to represent the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. At first it was intended to be a much smaller group than it is. But the idea grew in my mind until it became a full life-sized group of ten figures. As every one knows, the feast of the Saturnalia were celebrated during three days every year. The greatest liberty was accorded the people — gladiators, soldiers, and slaves — and the era I have depicted is that one when the helpless soldiery, unable to oppose barbarian invasions, wreaked their vengeance on the citizens by tyrannizing over them. the old social organism was falling into decay — the rulers were feebly striving to postpone the swiftly approach end and at the same time to forget their anxiety by humoring their pleasures.”
“This bronze group shows the dawn following a night of orgy. A company of plebeians has met with some intoxicated pagan priests on the sacred highway. All three of the latter are the incarnation of the pagan world. They recognize in the group a patrician woman who has instinctively sought the protection of the gladiator, whose face is illumined by the spirit of revolt — a new Spartacus conscious of his power! — Near them is a child marching on to a new existence. On one side is a woman of the people, next to whom is a brutalized slave enjoying a moment’s license, next a mercenary soldier, and then a flute player. They swing along singing, opening thus, perhaps unconsciously, the funeral march of an era. Is that an improper conception?”
Things seem to have quietened down for a bit, then we hear in the August 29 edition, that the National Sculpture Society was removing its objection and that the sculpture might be put on display. The reason for the withdrawal of objection appears to be the death of some bigwig named “Mr Avery”, who had great influence and, being dead, of course, no longer had that influence. Within a couple of weeks, however (September 6, 1904) we read of assorted major religious publications decided to impose their definition of art on the sculpture. Henry R. Elliot of the Church Economist is quoted as saying:
“The theme is obnoxious. It is curious that a subject of this sort is so often tolerated because the details are treated in terms of two or three thousand years ago. It would not be art to depict a group of drunkards reeling down Broadway in evening dress, but is correct if the revelers are dubbed bacchantes or dressed in Roman or Grecian clothes. We have similar absurdities in music and literature. Lay the scene in Spain or in fairland, and anything is ‘art’. To dwell in detail on a debauch in the Tenderloin is low and not to be permitted. But to describe the revels in the streets of Rome during the Decadence is a work of art. There is too much of this in vogue, in my judgement, for public morals. The Saturnalia was a beastly orgy, which no city in the civilized world would now tolerate. Why make a characteristic group of such an evil debauch the them of a work of statuary? Suppose the treatment is masterly; what of it?”
Flash ahead to June 3, 1905 and the trial is under way. We then learn that the guy with whom Biondi had made the contract did not have authority to do so. We also learn that the sculpture had been put on display briefly for trustees and journalists, and it was decided not to go public with it. The matter of Biondi being offered a thousand dollars to cover his expenses — which he declined — was also brought up again. On June 5, the attorney for the Met, Robert W. De Forest, who was also one of the trustees, among other things, took the stand to testify, and another bit of sculpture you are familiar with came up (wait for it):
“I think,” said Mr. De Forest, “that the statue is an intensely realistic presentation of an extremely disagreeable and revolting subject.”
“Is not Hogarth regarded as one of the greatest artists that ever li ed?”
“He is regarded as one of the greatest English artists.”
“And you have seen his ‘Rake’s Progress’?”
“Do you consider the ‘Saturnalia’ more revolting than ‘The Rake’s Progress’?”
“Are you familiar with the ‘Laocoon’?”
“Isn’t it revolting and horrible?”
“It is not revolting, but it is horrible in a sense.”
“Is the “Saturnalia’ more revolting than ‘The Laocoon’?”
“Decidedly more so.”
If you’re wondering about Rake’s Progress, it was a series of eight paintings on a vaguely similar theme. A few days later (June 9) we hear that Biondi did lose his suit because he didn’t actually have a contract at all. What he thought was a contract was a receipt stating that the Met wasn’t responsible for the safety of articles beyond ‘reasonable care’. Adding insult to injury, Biondi was allowed to take possession of the group, but was responsible for paying some $18,200 (that’s 1905 dollars!) which had accrued in customs duties. The story (as far as the New York Times seems to be concerned) comes a couple of weeks later (June 25) when Frederick E. Triebel — who was apparently a big sculptor in his day, but seems to be but a footnote on the internet — returned from the Yucatan to say he supported Biondi.
So there you have it, the story of Biondi’s Saturnalia. From what I have been able to figure out, the original was returned to Rome (remember, the photo we began this lengthy post with is a copy made a few years after this brouhaha) and put in the National Museum of Modern Art in Rome. Oddly, however, I have been unable to ascertain whether it is on display there or not … if someone knows, please feel free to enlighten us!
* By the way, if you want to read the New York Times pieces yourself, google Biondi Saturnalia New York Times …