> The Blind Sculptor from Gambassi Tuscany
Gonnelli: the "blind" sculptor from Gambassi
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
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.