Looking for Love at the Centennial

"Love Blinds," by Donato Barcaglia (Milan, Italy) from the Art Annex at the Centennial Exhibition. Photograph by the Centennial Photographic Co., 1876. (The Free Library of Philadelphia.)

Americans just weren’t feeling it. Emotions ran high at the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1876, but these were more along the lines of patriotism, pride and progress than anything like love. Ten million enthusiastic visitors toured buildings packed with the latest machinery and encountered little in the way of old-fashioned romance. Even in the art galleries at Memorial Hall, Americans shied away from feelings of the tender sort. Those who strolled in (according the catalogue) found portraits, landscapes and battles—but little love. The closest things? A statue of Hamlet’s doomed Ophelia. Or a painting (Love’s Melancholy) by Constant Mayer, a New Yorker originally from France.

When it came to love, Europeans seemed in their element and ready to approach the full, ripe experience. The French shipped over Divine Love and also Venus led by Love. Brussels sent Motherly Love and Love is Conqueror. England hung The Poet’s First Love.  The Germans presented Love Conquers Strength.

But no one at the Centennial did love like the Italians. Their unabashed display of sentiment (supported and facilitated by John Sartain, the Chief of the Bureau of Art at the Centennial, who the Italian Government later knighted for his trouble) covered thousands of square feet in gallery after gallery. In Memorial Hall, Cararra marble stood on 85 pedestals.  The neighboring Art Annex packed in an astounding 236 more. These 321 works must be “the largest collection of sculpture ever displayed at any Exhibition” wrote one art critic.

Sentiment reigned and love themes prevailed in the Italian displays. No less than nine cupids had been sent in: The Birth of Cupid, Cupid on the Lookout; Venus and Cupid, Cupid Begging; Sleeping Cupid and Cupid Flying. To popular (though not critical) acclaim, Italian artists lavished upon visitors the entire amorous range in fresh marble: Lurking Love, Angelic Love, Birth of Love, Love’s First Whispers, Innocence Playing with Vice, and A Jealous Sweetheart.  A painting in the same gallery might have served as a label for the place: The School of Love.

Visitors dallied in the Italian galleries, which Sartain located near the entrance of the Art Annex. They studied Brotherly Love, The Mirror of Love, Love’s Net, Love’s Messenger, and The Rebuke, among dozens of other examples, which slowed foot traffic. And the works of Donato Barcaglia, a young artist from Milan, brought it to a halt.  Again and again, the sculptor demonstrated his facility in “works which trifled and toyed with the difficulties of the material” according to another critic. Barcaglia’s “barocchismo” captured the feel of fabric in The First Call, playful movement in Children Blowing Bubbles and dynamic tension in Flying Time. In Love Blinds (illustrated left), Barcaglia gave marble the appearance of flesh that was so close to real, prudish Americans reminded themselves as they stared: “It is only marble.”

True enough.  As true as is the cliché Barcaglia carved in stone.