Friday, May 9, 2014

Sculpture of the Day: The Ivory Pulcinella, 1750

Ivory Pulcinella
Technically, "Polizinell"
Germany, 1750
The Victoria and Albert Museum

Here’s something peculiar. This ivory figure of a dancer clearly represents Pulcinella, but, he’s not the work of an Italian sculptor. He comes from Germany, c. 1750. The figure is delicately rendered in a fantastic costume, a conical hat and a ballet skirt.

So, how did this character from the traditional Italian Commedia dell' Arte come to be rendered by a German artist? He was already known in France as Puchinelle and in England as Punchinello or Mr. Punch (first recorded in Britain on May 9th, 1662 by Samuel Pepys). The first sighting of our hero in Germany came in 1649. He was spotted in Nuremberg where he was called “Polizinell.” This was performed by a splashy Maltese showman called Blasius Manfredi who, that same year, had the acquaintance of the Franco/Italian showman known as Brioche who was first noted as performing 'Polichinelle' in Paris. So, they’re all connected.

As we celebrate Mr. Punch’s three hundred fifty-second birthday, it’s important to remember the minor moments over the last three centuries that led to his widespread, global fame. This little ivory figure which could so easily be dismissed is just one tiny piece of the puzzle.

The figure was given by Dr. W. L. Hildburgh, F. S. A. to the V&A where it remains along with a host of other historical items, each of which—when assembled—spell out the Punch family tree and history. Notably, from 1971 to 1977, the figure was on display at the Clawning Castle in Nottingham, England. Prior to 1971, it lived for an unknown time at King George IV’s Brighton Pavilion. How George IV came to own it is unknown.

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