Giacomo Manzù, Cardinale (1938)
Cardinale is the first of a series of sculptures Manzù dedicated to a topic that – from then on – would recur several times in his career. This portrait of a cardinal, which the artist sculpted in 1938 and exhibited at the III Quadriennale in Rome (1939), was immediately bought by the Ministry of National Education (Ministero dell’Educazione Nazionale) in order to be part of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna’s collection – where it is still today. This small bronze sample (53x23.5x26.7 cm) is the result of a long study on the subject, preceded by a drawing (1934) and another sculpture the artist made in 1936 that then, unsatisfied, he destroyed.
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The subject of this artwork takes inspiration from a real-life episode Manzù experienced in 1934, when he went to Rome and, during his visit at San Pietro church, he saw the pope, Pio XI, and two cardinals to the side. He was so impressed by that scene that he decided to materialise it into an artwork – first a drawing (1934), then a provisional sculptural portrait (1936) and finally the sculpture Cardinale (1938).
This latter sample can be considered a significant accomplishment in Manzù’s career, both chronologically and thematically. In fact, in 1938 the artist joined the Italian Milanese movement 'Corrente' (with artists such as Renato Birolli and Aligi Sassu), polemically sided against Novecento, and he went to Paris, giving his production a large-scale and international perspective. Moreover, from that moment onwards, and until his death (1991), Manzù would continue experimenting around the same subject, making around 50 different versions of cardinals — in bronze, marble and alabaster.
Exhibited at III Quadriennale (1939), Cardinale was appreciated by both the fascist government and a large part of critics. Even though it is a small-scale sculpture, far from the monumental public art most commonly promoted by the regime, this portrait well represents the modernity of the art through a religious and spiritual way. Similarly to Fausto Melotti’s Cena in Emmaus, this composition shows no severity or monumentality: on the contrary, it is a humble and intimate portrait of a man who bears a public responsibility, being one of the most important roles in charge of the Christian life. Its pose, attitude and figure are so realistic – especially if compared with Manzù’s following cardinals, simpler and more geometrical – that some critics defined it a caricature more than a portrait. In fact, one can recognise not only traditional details such as the miter and typical episcopal vestments, but also a unique facial expression.
Being part of a public collection already in the thirties, Cardinale soon became the symbol of a modern spirituality, but also a precise political choice. Firstly, this suggests that Giacomo Manzù could implicitly participate to the public sphere: it is a private, small sculpture transmitting a universal message and reconfirming the agreement between the Church and the fascist government, occurred in 1929 with 'Patti Lateranensi'. Secondly, it is a representation of the new way to conceive the religious side of the society, which is ordinary and more private. Finally, being within a representative museum of the capital city, the sculpture was smartly turned into a vehicle for political ideas, especially in a delicate moment so close to the Second World War.
Cattaneo, Marcella and M. Cristian Rodeschini Galati. 2008. Giacomo Manzù 1938-1965. Gli anni della ricerca. Milan: Electa.