Lives of the Artists – Raffaello Romanelli

Lives of the Artists is part of a series of interviews with living artists. Based on Giorgio Vasari’s biographies of artists of the Renaissance, I hope to get an insight into what inspires these artists, what makes them different, their loves and passions and their mistakes and memories. The first in this series is with the sculptor Raffaello Romanelli.

Around this time last year Katharine and I visited Raffa at his studio, located just south of the river Arno in Florence, a jump and a leap away from the famous Brancacci Chapel.

Entering Galleria Romanelli you are confronted with a crowd of spectators, hundreds of sculptures high up on shelves, staring down at you. Raffa is usually in the adjacent studio, hands wrapped in clay, busy at work; sculpting, mould-making, teaching.

Raffa is the fifth generation of the Romanelli family to work in this studio. It is an extraordinary space which holds a tangible history. Built as a church in the trecento, in 1829 it was converted in an artist’s studio by the Florentine sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini, where it became one of the most important ateliers in Europe.

Galleria Romanelli, Florence with a clay horse by Vincenzo Romanelli
Raffa in Galleria Romanelli, Florence

Raffa’s ancestor, Pasquale Romanelli, was Bartolini’s favourite pupil. ‘He was there from a young age, learning from Bartolini’, Raffa tells me, ‘and when Bartolini died, Pasquale took over the studio. The family has retained it ever since.’

It is a remarkable longevity. The artistic legacy of the five generations are easy to see as you wander the streets of Florence. In a city where sculptural monuments have always been a source of enormous public pride, the Romanelli’s have dominated these commissions for over a century.

‘When I look at what my family have done, I feel inspired and also I feel pressure. I mean the first Raffaello Romanelli carved sculptures for the front of the Duomo. But it makes me feel good, it makes me feel I can do it.’

As a tourist in Florence, the most conspicuous family monument is the superb bronze bust celebrating Benevento Cellini, the famous Renaissance sculptor, which sits on the Ponte Vecchio. But Raffa’s favourite is the ‘beautiful bas relief of the Madonna and Child, made by my great-great-grandfather Raffaello for the tomb of Donatello’ (see below).

(left) the monument to Donatello, with the marble bas-relief by Raffa’s namesake Raffaello Romanelli (1896), in San Lorenzo (right) bust of Benvenuto Cellini which stands in the centre of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, also by Raffaello Romanelli (1901)

Was Raffa always destined to be a sculptor?

‘I grew up in the environment of artists, galleries, artisans but I never really thought about it. My father Folco is a sculptor and it was normal for me to be around of sculptors. The studio was so exciting, people working, sculptures being made, clay everywhere, the mess of it. I just enjoyed the atmosphere and eventually at the age of twenty I decided that’s what I wanted to do.’

Were you sculpting as a child?

‘I was always playing with clay or drawing. Clay was never out of my hands. My father would take me to see all the other artists in the city. I had open eyes for this world.’

Raffa honed his skills under Charles Cecil, an American painter who founded a school in Florence for artists that wanted to learn traditional methods. It was here that he befriended my sister Phoebe, who introduced me to Raffa. Phoebe came to Florence at eighteen as she couldn’t find a school in England that taught the basics of drawing or painting.

I ask Raffa whether traditional artistic skills are dying out.

‘I have no doubt that not many people have this knowledge anymore. People always get excited about a new method, a new process and throw themselves into it, which is totally natural, but sometimes they lose focus on things that have been experimented on for thousands of years and have already been perfected. In my family we passed on skills naturally, being in the studio, talking at dinner. If you don’t grow up in this world it is difficult, not many people know it. Once it’s lost it is tough to get back.’

‘I am working in the same way as my ancestors. The style may have changed, some tools may have changed, but the technique is still the same as 200 years ago.

‘When making art you have to train your eye, you have to study people.’

‘If I am making a portrait I would rather the model speaks and talks and moves, because it allows me to study the movements of the face.’

This reminds me of the story of Gianlorenzo Bernini, when he was sent to France to make a portrait bust of the French king and insisted on watching the King eat his dinner and play tennis to best understand his character. Bernini saw the work as a collaboration: ‘The King and I must finish this,’ as he put it.

For Raffa ‘this makes so much sense. Of course Bernini did this, I totally understand. When making a portrait I want to observe, to observe the changes of the mouth as it opens and closes, the thousand muscles that are actually moving it. If you capture these you might get a good sculpture.’

(left) Raffa’s portrait of Salvatore Ferragamo – Raffa says ‘obviously he wasn’t there for posing, so the family  sent me old photos and videos of him, I even read a book on him and I hope I caught a good likeness’ (middle) Raffa’s wonderful portrait of the actor Anton Rodgers, who was my sister Phoebe’s father-in-law (right) Fortunata, the blindfolded goddess of Fortune, made by Raffa in 2018

What are you working on now?  

‘You will laugh but for a client I am making a life-size figure of Eddie Redmayne in bronze covered with golf leaf. Eddie is nude. The client didn’t want to offend Eddie Redmayne so he asked me to have a similar body of someone else. The pose is based on the Borghese Gladiator in the Louvre.

Raffa also works in marble and has been commissioned to replace several Renaissance sculptures in the Boboli Gardens with copies.

‘In the early 1900s my family restored the monumental Giambologna figure of Oceano in the Boboli, so it is great to be continuing in this tradition.’

‘Many of the statues in the Boboli are in really poor condition and need to be moved to the museum. To copy them I use very modern computer scanners as the sculptures are too damaged to take silican mouldings. They are scanned and shaped by a machine and then we finish them by hand.

Could the computer do all the work?

‘No, the hand is always there. The computer does much of the hard work, digging into the volumes, much faster than doing it ourselves, but last few millimetres, half inch, have to be finished by hand. That gives it life, gives it everything. The way the light shines on it, which part you want to emphasise and which part you want to keep a bit rougher, if you want some shadows; the eye of the sculptor is vital.’

Raffa working on a bust of his younger brother Vincenzo Romanelli, who is also a talented sculptor continuing in the traditions of Galleria Romanelli

I find Galleria Romanelli intoxicating; it has roots deep into Florentine culture, but it does not stop them moving forwards. They are crucial to the beating artistic heart of the city; the Florence of the Romanelli family is not a decaying museum like Venice, but alive with artistic creation.

In lockdown this beating heart came to a halt.

Italy came to a standstill and the studio doors were closed. ‘I have to admit I enjoyed being in the studio by myself for a few weeks, without visitors. It is very important for the artist to have time to themselves occasionally. Sometimes I got a bit sad with what was happening but then I woke up the next day and had new ideas.

‘I have never been able to sit still. Even now, as we are talking on the phone I have wax in my hands, working them into forms. But it was a time to re-focus, to be creative.’

Tongue in cheek I ask Raffa if he will ever retire.

‘Retiring? I HATE that word. No. It’s not a job, it’s just something that I love to do. Maybe in one hundred and eighty years I will retire.

It goes without saying that I highly recommend any visitor to Florence should head to Galleria Romanelli. Their website can be found here

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