Studio of Giovanni Battista Comolli – An Alabaster Bust of Napoleon

Giovanni Battista Comolli (1775 – 1831) was an Italtian sculptor who was very much influenced by Antonio Canova. Comolli had an eventful life travelling Europe and Great Britain where he received commissions from the most influential patrons of his day. He was a great supporter of Napoleon and spent much of his life in Milan, the city in which Napoleon was crowned King of Italy in 1805. Here we see Napoleon wearing the Lombardian Crown, as used in the Italian Coronation. Napoleon was one of Comolli’s favourite subjects and he continued to immortalise the Emperor in his works until his death at the age of fifty-four. Comolli’s life was politically turbulent and he even spent a period of time in jail.

This rare Italian carved bust of Napoleon depicted as King of Italy was created sometime after he became monarch in 1805. Unlike the French busts of the period, and later, which show his head adorned with laurel leaves echoing the ancient classical world, he is depicted here wearing the historic Crown of Lombardy.

The Iron Crown of Lombardy, dating from the 9th century, is so called from a narrow band of iron within it, said to be beaten out of one of the nails used at the Crucifixion. According to tradition, the nail was first given to Constantine by his mother, who discovered the cross. The outer circlet of the crown is of beaten gold, and set with precious stones, the detail of which can clearly be seen in the precise carving of the bust presented here.

In 1805, Napoleon was in the unusual position of being both an Emperor and a president – in late 1804, he had crowned himself Emperor of France, but he was also president of the Italian Republic which comprised the regions of Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna in the north of modern day Italy. Seeking an hereditary monarchy, on 17th March 1805, he created the Kingdom of Italy to replace the existing Republic. Two months later on 26th May at Milan Cathedral, he crowned himself King of Italy with suitable splendour and magnificence. Seated upon a superb throne, he was invested with the usual insignia of royalty by the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, and ascending the altar, he took the iron crown, and placing it on his head, exclaimed, being part of the ceremony used at the enthronement of the Lombard kings, Dieu me la donne, gare à qui la touche – ‘God gives it to me, beware whoever touches it’.

Unlike the commemorative works of art produced in France, items depicting Napoleon’s time as ruler of Italy are far scarcer. There was always a level of adoration and support that persisted long after the emperor’s death and found new spirit with the rise of his nephew, who eventually became Napoleon III. Busts and objects were thus produced fairly consistently in France throughout this period. In Italy however, there was no such interest, and with the defeat of France in 1815, the Congress of Vienna restored the pre-Napoleonic patchwork of independent governments and Bonaparte was soon forgotten as support for unification gathered.

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