Salvatore Bongiovanni

We don’t  know their library nor are there any handwritten traces left in which the Bongiovanni Vaccaro offer us details about their training.

However, we know that Giacomo’s older brother, Salvatore Bongiovanni, in 1842 reached the enviable position of professor sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence.
As a umble emigrated sculptor, he manages to get commissions from some important Florentine families, which show how he manages to refine his popular style with a nod to Antonio Canova’s Neoclassicism.
The presence of such a close relative in Florence, if not pushed Giacomo Bongiovanni to venture up to Tuscany, must have undoubtedly fostered his curiosity towards the attention that the great Renaissance artists and and their Baroque heirs had reserved to the expressions of emotions in the faces and attitudes of their characters.

Without considering the fact that an example of the reworking of these studies had been represented in Sicily by the work of the Serpottas, who had played down certain swampy and severe poses with the invention of amused putti and very ironic characters, above all within the oratorios of Palermo.

The proliferation of prints taken from their stucco works must have been quite inspiring for the Caltagirone sculptors, who find such a material quite powerful in their hands.
The goal of telling a lively story of everyday life cannot count on better foundation.

Giuseppe Vaccaro

The workshop’s debut with his uncle Giacomo Bongiovanni is characterized by a certain veristic calmness in the faces and poses, not yet enhanced by the ‘leaf’ terra-cotta technique, which will come up only at a later time. His hand emerges especially in the coloring, where the delicacy of the brush and the palette of soft colors that restore the verisimilitude of matter.
It is with the entry into the atelier of his nephew Giuseppe Vaccaro, that raw realism emerges with vigor: his interest ranges from the animated popular and rural world to groups in which there seems to be an emotional participation of the artist, with a satirical interpretation, which transforms the popular characters into mockery.
The clothes are the result of a constant experimentation through the overlapping of small sheet of terra-cotta that resemble the real clothes and make each figure a realistic version of a specific design.
Giacomo, as a skilled modeler, manages to make clay suffer and gives expressiveness to the figures he shapes, he dwells on pronounced roughness and on the signs of labor fatigue in the thick and worn hands, it tears the clothing, captures the moment like as a realist artist would do.
In 1856 Giacomo Bongiovanni left his nephew Giuseppe Vaccaro the reins of the shop, with the task carrying out of the orders of the terra-cotta groups received both from the municipality of Caltagirone– at the sum of seventy-two ducats a year- and by numerous private customers, who line up to by their little sculptures.
The artist investigates sarcastic characters with increasing passion and grotesque attitude, caught while the peasants divide and consume animatedly food after the toil of the fields or described in their feverish artisan activity.
All the representations are linked by the fervor of the gestures and the theatrical expressions of the faces, the ragged and bustling draperies are the result of careful observation of the reality.
Giuseppe, compared to his uncle, reveals himself as the creator of authentic psychological theaters, he portrays figures focusing above all of details, even those that might seem insignificant for understanding the scene.
Nobody can deny that the repertoire of peasants and children and brigands is the result of direct observation of the people who live in the countryside, work in the markets and attend religious ceremonies, but the sagacity with which the Bongiovanni Vaccaro-as well as many of their colleagues of the time-know how to seize the moment, exalt tiredness as well as euphoria, blowing on the fire of anger with a flick of the eyes or an opening of arms, cannot be limited only to a sharp look at reality.
There is a profound physiognomies study behind their characters, who remember a lot the grotesque faces sketched by Leonardo Da Vinci in his numerous sheets.

Sculpture terracotta women
Peasant woman in terracotta

Their awareness can only derive from the study of Raphael’s gestures: those the hands that hold a cobbler’s string or sift lovingly through a lousy head.
They are not makeshift neither posed figures:they are the result of the study of prints, texts and precise iconographies, to which the sculptors have handed painstaking attention to anthropological detail.
But above all, admiring their stickers, it seems to be browsing pages of the volumes published by Giuseppe Pitrè in the same years in which the Bongiovanni Vaccaro family furnished collector’s living room.
The fabrics of the clothes, accessories, objects and even hairstyles follow the research that the ethnologist conducted aiming to describe Sicilian folk traditions.
Between 1864 and 1913 Pitrè publishes a series of volumes in which he classifies customs, language and oral stories of the Sicilians, in a adventurous catalog that photographs a historical moment as rarely it happened elsewhere on a regional basis. It is clear from his work the fact that island traditions are not a version of a national culture translated into a vernacular key, but they belong to a real secular civilization, which has developed a idiom and a precise imagery, complicated by the fact that it is declined in a different way from valley to valley, from coast to coast, from city to village.
Courtesy of Costantino d’Orazio