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Jean Baptiste Carpeaux

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The other day I went to a free art history class being offered by the Metropolitan Museum of Art called the “Observant Eye”. Much to my satisfaction, I not only learned about Carpeaux as an artist, but also about the story of Ugolino della Gherardesca. Art stemming from an actual historical reference tends to capture my attention more often than not. Dante in his Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto xxxiii, part 55-63, makes reference to Ugolino’s sad but true story.

“As soon as a thin ray had made its way into that sorry prison, and I saw, reflected in four faces, my own gaze, out of my grief, I bit at both my hands; and they, who thought I’d done that out of hunger, immediately rose and told me: ‘Father, it would be far less painful for us if you ate of us; for you clothed us in this sad flesh–it is for you to strip it off.'”

Jean Baptiste Carpeaux lived and worked as a sculptor during the 19th Century, mainly in France and Rome. There is little doubt that he read Dante and came up with the idea of turning the sad fate of Ugolino into a work of art. Carpeaux made a few versions of this sculpture in bronze as well as in plaster which are in Paris. The MET has the marble version, where you are able to see the most intricate details, such as the subjects fantastic muscle definition and even veins. I couldn’t help but think how much the marble resembles real skin, albeit a very pale shade at that.

Ugolino was sentenced to prison in the “Tower of Hunger” for commiting treason, or as some say, having been set up through a conspiracy. Ugolino’s two sons and his two grandsons were all sentenced to the same fate in order that the Ugolino name be banished from history. Indeed they all died of starvation and Carpeaux’s sculpture shows us the moment when the smallest grandchild has already passed away and the others are struggling with their fate.

Written by agnesbstanton

September 13, 2010 at 9:50 am

Posted in Art, Upper East Side