Francesco Gajarini (Gaiarini) (1828-c1894)​​​​​​​ “Saint Helena”

Francesco Gajarini (Gaiarini) (1828-c1894)​​​​​​​ “Saint Helena”

Code: 10921


H: 23.8cm (9.4")W: 16.5cm (6.5")D: 1.4cm (0.6")


Francesco Gajarini (Gaiarini) (1828-c.1894)  
"Saint Helena, Empress" 
Relief plaque  
Terracotta (Terre-cuite)  
Florence, Italy
Circa 1876

A sculpted terracotta plaque modelled in flattened relief, within an integral frame, with the portrait of a woman in profile, bust length facing left and looking slightly down, wearing a diadem with a halo seen obliquely above her head, hair tied back with ribbons streaming behind. Signed indistinctly "FGajarini Fct" bottom left (on the integral frame) and with impressed oval stamp "F Gaiarini / Firenze" verso.

25.5 cm high x 16.5 cm wide x 2.6 cm deep

Private Collection, Oxfordshire, U.K. 

This sculptural relief portrait profile by Francesco Gajarini depicts the Empress Flavia Julia Helena or Saint Helen, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. Produced in the 'rilievo schiacciato' (flattened relief) technique, invented by Donatello, it is a reduced version after a Renaissance original (c.1460) once assigned to Donatello but now attributed to Desiderio da Settignano [in Toledo Museum of Art [1]].

The sculptor Francesco Gajarini (or François Gaiarini) was born in 1828 in the village of Contea near Pontassieve in Tuscani (just North East of Florence).[2] He was brought into Florence as a child and seems to have been raised with the specific aim of his becoming an artist. Having devoted himself to art, his first mentor was Prof Ulisse Cambi (1807–1895) and he went on to study at the Academy of Fine Art in Florence under Lorenzo Bartolini (1777–1850). In 1864 he collaborated with Giovanni Bastianini (1830–1868) to produce a now notorious bust of the Renaissance firebrand reformer Savonarola which confused experts and was acquired by the Louvre as a Renaissance original (Gajarini coloured and distressed the sculpture to give it an authentically aged appearance)[3]. In the same year that the Savonarola bust was produced, Gajarini entered the studio of Alessandro Tomba (1825-1864) where he remained after the Tomba's death to complete unfinished commissions. He produced a most beautiful representation of the 'Margherita' for the Museo Stibbert in Florence and received a commission from James M. Jacques of New York for 'The Four Elements' (each represented by a fantastic cherub). He produced a number of successful portrait busts in marble including those of the actor Alamanno Morelli (1812-1893) and the  financier Giacomo Servadio (founder of the Banca Italo-Germanica). He also produced funerary monuments.

Gajarini showed a bas relief in marble representing "S. Cécile" at Pope Pius IX's exhibition of Christian art and Catholic Culture in Rome in 1870 and two marble groups at the Paris Salon of 1875 were he gave his address as 38 Rue La Bruyère, Paris.[5] His studio in Florence was at 1 Piazza San Marco and "Sig. Gajarini’s" premises were advertised as being open to Grand Tourists for visits.[4] The sculptor Domenico Menconi (fl.1860's) worked from the same address.

The emergence of this plaque here is an interesting demonstration of the 19th Century market for items which were reproductions of Renaissance pieces or made in the Renaissance style: there was a proliferation of reliefs based on this image. Knowing the relationship between Francesco Gajarini and Giovanni Bastianini it is particularly interesting to note the aged quality of the work here, which was probably intentional. The presence of the impressed "F Gaiarini / Firenze" stamp on the back indicates that this relief plaque is an "honest copy", demonstrating the sculptor's skill, and not one which was made with the aim of deceiving collectors. At the time the work was transcribed by Gajarini, the original relief was believed to be by Donatello and thought to represent a portrait of the Contessina De Bardi as "St Cecilia in the guise of Artemis".


[1] "Saint Helena, Empress", attributed to Desiderio da Settignano (Italian, Florence, about 1429–1464). Pietra serena (dark gray sandstone), about 1460–64. 22 ½ high by 15 inches wide. (Purchased by Toledo Museum of Art with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey) [1938.122].

[2] Research by Francesca Serci published p.112, "Il giardino Stibbert: Un percorso simbolico a Firenze", Firenze, Nerbini Editore, 2004 seems to have established Gajarini's date of birth.

[3] p. 15, note 3, Dionisio Brunori "Giovanni Bastianini e Paolo Ricci, scultori fiesolani", Firenze, Tipografia Domenicana,1906.

[4] See p.33 "Interesting Addresses for Strangers Visiting Florence", in Emilio Bacciotti, "Bacciotti's Handbook of Florence and Its Environs, Or, The Stranger Conducted Through Its Principal Monuments, Studios, Churches, Palaces, Galleries, Streets and Shops", Bacciotti, Florence, 1885.

[5] See p.466 "Explication des ouvrages de peinture, sculpture, architecture et gravure des artistes vivants exposés au Palais des Champs-Elysées le 1er mai 1875 [A Guide to the 1875, Salon], Imprimerie National, Paris, 1875.

For Gajarini's biography see p. 212 Angelo De Gubernatis & Ugo Matini "Dizionario Degli Artisti Italiani Viventi: Pittori, Scultori e Architetti", Florence, Editions Luigi e A. S. Gonnelli, 1892