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Slow Tuscany > Tuscany > Florence > The Blind Sculptor from Gambassi Tuscany
Giovanni Gonnelli: the "blind" sculptor from Gambassi

Damiano Andreini

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Throughout the previous artices we enjoyed investigating about works of art and past artists - who were particularly interesting for some curious, mysterious and any way charming aspects of their characters - and about pieces of art which were "born under the Saturn star", a peculiarity of which Tuscany has been rich in every time: the extravagancies of Paolo Uccello as well as the Michelagelo's turbulences, just to mention two classical examples, are even reported in the tourist pocket guides.

I would rather tell you about a story that no tourist guide will ever mention for the only reason that it is not so tight to the most known Tuscan artistic tours but not for this same reason it is less important and charming. It is about a man who lived towards the early XVII century in a small Tuscan village inland and whose name was soon forgotten: Giovanni Gonnelli. Il "Cieco" di Gambassi (the "Blind man" from Gambassi): Gambassi Terme is a small municipality of medieval origin situated a few kilometers north of San Gimignano, in a very charming hilly area.

The "Blind" sculptor from Gambassi:

Giovanni Gonnelli was born there in 1603 but he didn't stay there too much, at least as to his youth. Despite a very few biographical news about him, we know that when he was 11 he was taken to Florence, where he remained until 1620, as pupil at the school of the sculptor Pietro Tacca (who was in turn the disciple of the great Giambologna. The young Gonnelli was evidently good, as he was called in Mantova at the court of Gonzaga's as Court sculptor.

That stay would any way change his life: it was there that he ?would suffer the first disorders to his eyes and which would cause him his total blindness. Probably due to his blindness, he was dismissed by Gonzaga's and he went back to Gambassi where, nevertheless, by now technically expert and owing a figurative repertory to which he could even recur by hand, he continued to practice his art, since his realized that he was missing the sight, but not the hands.

The sensibility of his touch soon increased extraordinarily and he started again to sculpt; particularly, he shaped his forms with terracotta, an already largely used material in Tuscany since two centuries. Side-by-side, in front of him, he kept the raw clay and the model, who was carefully studied, investigated and memorized by his hands. When the model was an important one (Gonnelli portrayed nobles and ecclesiastics), Gonnelli respectfully used a wax mold to avoid daubing his face.

In this way, the clever but nearly unknown Giovanni Gonnelli early became the famous "Blind man from Gambassi", highly requested for his unique skill not only in Tuscany but even in Rome, where he moved in 1637, when in fact he was called there by the Pope Urbano VIII (just for information, he was the Pope who ordered to Bernini most of the sculpted works in St. Peter Basilica). The Pope's portray made by Giovanni was highly appreciated by the papal court and still today it is exhibited in the Vatican Museums. A tip: the signature on the bust reads "The Blind man from Gambassi", a clear sign that he had declaratively become proud of his handicap.

Since he was a child and became orphan of both his parents Giovanni Gonnelli had grown in a family from Gambassi into which he grew close to Elisabetta, his first friend of his youth and afterwards his sweet thought; in fact, he felt a big affection towards her, despite he hadn't declared it. Once that Giovanni Gonnelli was in the papal court environments and was enjoying talking in his usual hearty and joyful way, he declared that he could even draw a portray of Elisabetta only by hand. The ecclesiastic cardinal Pallotta, who was made curious by the implicit challenge rendered by the sculptor, immediately took the chance: he ordered to a painter to leave for Gambassi (about 250 Km far from Rome) in order to portray that woman and to take the portrait back to him as soon as possible.

Once the bust and the paint were compared, the extraordinary resemblance in fact resulted. Giovanni Gonnelli had won the challenge, but not only this one. That portray allowed him to win another important challenge with himself, since he decided to meet Elisabetta, immediately after this occasion. Evidently Elisabetta hadn't forgotten him, too,: once they had married, they eventually settled in Rome, where their five children were born. In the course of the XIX century many writers and poets have been interested by the character of the Blind man from Gambassi up to render him a true romantic model and so other stories have been added to the life of this artist, who died in 1653 and whose works were nearly entirely dispersed among Italian and European private collections. When it's possible, we prefer to maintain a precise line between story and imagination, therefore we don't like to add other news about the life of our glamorous sculptor, who was first an exceptional man and then an extraordinary artist.

Damiano Andreini
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