The Frick Collection is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to Luigi Valadier, subtitled “Splendor in Eighteenth Century Rome.” To me, the name Valadier evoked only the Casina Valadier, a building on the Pincio, in Villa Borghese, where I would meet friends for coffee. (It has now been refurbished and is also a restaurant and event space.) It turns out that the neoclassical Casina was built by the architect Giuseppe Valadier who was the son of the Luigi of the Frick show. Luigi (1726 – 1785) was a master draftsman and designer and a silver- and goldsmith. His parents had moved from France to Rome and his father too was a silversmith – Luigi’s career began in his father’s workshop. Luigi and his assistants produced objects, both religious and secular, for the pope, for noble families and for the tourists (foreign aristocrats) for whom Rome was an important destination on the Grand Tour. Although Valadier’s workshop produced hundreds of objects, most of the silverware and gold was pillaged and melted down during the Napoleonic wars so relatively few works survive today.
The Frick show is divided into three sections. One focuses on religious works, including the complete set of silver and gilt bronze statues from the altar of a cathedral in Monreale. Another is dedicated to secular objects – my favorite is a silver coffee pot with a wooden handle. The third part revolves around what I would call more whimsical works of art that use and include a remarkable range of materials. For the pope, Valadier mounted spectacular antique cameos in a frame that includes other cameos and antique gems. They are rather astounding. Yet the highlight of this section is a “deser” or large table centerpiece comprised of small recreations of ancient temples, arches and obelisks made of an incredible array of stones, marbles and metals. It’s an intricate and stunning masterpiece. All in all, I was glad to learn about this artist who amazed me where I didn’t expect to be amazed.