martedì 1 maggio 2012

La Belle Italienne

La Belle Italienne is the name given to the plaster mask of a pretty young girl who became popular in Paris and elsewhere by the late 800's until the early decades of the '900. Many artists, writers and photographers, from Man Ray to Albert Camus, who described the calm, slightly smiling woman as a "Drowned Mona Lisa"; they were inspired by its genuine beauty and purity, the sweetness of his expression and the 'enigmatic smile'.

Her fascination soon caught bohemian parisian society and became very common in those years to find it hanging on the walls of the studios or in the halls of hundreds houses in Paris.
The chronicle says that this is the face of a young woman who drowned in the Seine and for its exceptional beauty, it was decided to immortalize with a death mask. In Paris she became famous as The Inconnue de la Seine or La Vierge inconnue du canal de l'Ourcq or La Belle Noyee. No sign of violence was found on her body, was thought to be suicide. Immediately after the finding was exposed at the Paris Morgue for the identification. At that time it was located behind Notre-Dame at the eastern tip of the Ile de la Cité, quai de l'Archevêché, where the unknown dead were displayed for the public to see and, it was hoped, identify. The Paris Morgue was a famous institution during its time, and attracted thousands of visitors every day until it closed in 1907. Its administrators regarded the morgue as a Paris attraction. Therefore the unknown young woman was publicly exhibited at the morgue however it was said that her smile was so compelling to a medical assistant at the morgue that he took a plaster mold of her face, and then the great numbers of plaster casts produced and sold came from this unknown young woman's death mask.

Albert Camus, is said to have loved to show his favorite sculptures, among them "un moulage du touchant visage de l'Inconnue de la Seine, au sourire de Joconde noyée" ("a cast of the touching face of the l'Inconnue de la Seine, with the smile of a drowned Mona Lisa").
In 1933 Louis-Ferdinand Céline was asked for a photograph of himself to accompany his text L’Église in a collection. Instead Céline gave a photograph of Le Masque de l’Inconnue de la Seine to his editor.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s autobiographically inspired narrator in Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge, 1910 (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge) wrote: "The mouleur, whose shop I pass every day, has hung two masks beside his door. The face of the young drowned woman, a cast of which was taken in the Morgue because it was beautiful, because it smiled, smiled so deceptively, as though it knew."
Also Anais Nin was influenced and Maurice Blanchot that mentions Alberto Giacometti being enchanted by the mask and Man Ray too, he used his photo for the cover of the book Aurélien by Louis Aragon.

Several plaster casts manufacturer in the United States added a portrait of the girl in their catalog collection, but in all catalogs she is named as La Belle Italienne. Why Italian? This is a curious fact, it is a true information or an error because the girl was unknown?

A. Daprato & Co. Boston, Manufacturer of Plastic Arts.
n° 1609 La Belle Italienne, life study             $1,00

P.P. Caproni & Bro. Boston, Plastic Arts. 1911 cat.
n° 13525 La Belle Italienne, from life            $ 1,00
The Florentine Art Plaster Company, Philadelphia. 1915 cat.
n°2108   La Belle Italienne, from life             $ 1,50

The mystery deepens because there are versions to this dispute stating that the cast was taken of a mask manufacturer's daughter, maybe just to more intrigue the story. Well actually studying the mask in relation to many other funerary masks, I see that the expression is highly unusual and unlikely. Generally there is a big difference between life mask and death mask cast. The expression changes and especially the muscles of the face, cheeks and corrugator muscles are very different in the second case, people are very relaxed in a gesture of surrender when died. I still have some doubts. You can learn more reading the book La Belle Noyee, enquête sur le masque de l'Inconnue de la Seine by Bertrand Tillier.

The face of the unknown woman was used for the head of the first aid mannequin Resusci Anne. It was created by Peter Safar and Asmund Laerdal in 1958 and was used starting in 1960 numerous CPR courses. Therefore, the face has-been called by some "the most kissed face" of all time.


However, this is the interesting social phenomenon in which an unknown face became an icon that indeed was often likened to the Mona Lisa's smile, the critic Al Alvarez in his book on suicide The Savage God reports, "the Inconnue Became the erotic ideal of the period, as Bardot was for the 1950s". 
Maybe, I think, in the collective thinking in French remained some seed of this rare smile, I've found it in the delicious smile of the beautiful actress Audrey Tautou in one of my favorite films The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain, (2001).

To buy this fine plaster copy of the famous portrait this is direct link to FeliceCalchi Catalog.

3 commenti:

  1. Your blog moves touches and inspires me, thank you dear Felice :-)

  2. Beautiful words Gino, I'm glad. Thank you!

  3. Professor Peter Malone wrote me a message after reading this post. He has conducted a detailed study on the cast of La Belle Italienne (*) and kindly gave me some valuable and interesting informations.
    There are reports that indicate the mould maker Michele Lorenzi as the author of the original mould, his workshop was founded in 1871 and was located on rue Racine, 6th arrondissement in Paris. Many moulds of Pietro Caproni in Boston were made by Lorenzi.
    La Belle Italienne is a French expression to indicate an Italian subject, and this supports the hypothesis. Malone showed the mask to a pathologist without telling the known story. The pathologist has confirmed that this is a cast of a living person. At that time the Paris river police reaction was the same.
    Like to Thank Peter Malone for the informations.

    (*) Peter Malone, How the Smiths Made a Living in Plaster Casts 2010, ed. by Frederiksen/Marchand