An Italian for Bulgaria: Arnaldo Zocchi

Bulgaria-Italy Survey » SOCIETY | Author: Luca Ponchiroli |June 3, 2011, Friday // 11:07
Bulgaria: An Italian for Bulgaria: Arnaldo Zocchi The Monument of Tsar Liberator in Sofia. File photo

Article by Luca Ponchiroli, publisher and author of a book (to be published soon) on the "Socialist Monuments" in Bulgaria and of a tourist guide about Bulgaria, for the "International Survey: Bulgaria-Italy" of (Sofia News Agency)


Arnaldo Zocchi (Florence 1862 – Rome 1940) is a sculptor who devoted himself passionately to his art and created a large number of works, an artist who to this day enjoys considerable popularity in Bulgaria: several years ago a Bulgarian television channel produced a series of several episodes bearing the highly indicative title The Divine Florentine.

It's a different kind of fame that Zocchi enjoys in Italy: although his works still populate the country's piazzas, the publications devoted to him are few and far between. There are some brief biographies but these are rather shallow and sketchy.

A word of warning: the purpose of the following paragraphs is not to make unconsidered aesthetic statements but to offer a possible, perhaps obvious, answer to the question why, even if somewhat belatedly, Zocchi was named 'divine' in one country while in his native land he is so little known outside the narrow circle of art critics and historians.

Zocchi in Italy

In Italy Zocchi devoted himself – because 'art requires work', he said – to the portrayal of great persons such as Piero dell Francesca in Sansepolcro (1892), Garibaldi in Bologna (1901) and Michelangelo in Caprese (1911), the latter being the birthplace of the main figure of the Italian Renaissance as well as the home town of the Zocchi, a family which produced a long line of sculptors. Zocchi took sole responsibility for his workshop as, either because of his character or because of the method he adopted, he didn't employ associates or assistants to help him complete his works.

He took part in the creation of the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II in Rome; his is one of the four statues of the winged goddess Victoria.

To list just some of his other more prominent works: the statue of Christopher Columbus in Liguria, in the town of Lavagna (1930) and the statue erected in honour of Manuel Belgrano in Genoa (1927). In the post-war period Zocchi devoted himself to designing monuments in memory of the fallen in battle, works which he subsequently offered for free; this is what happened in Altamura, in Sarteano and in Nomentano, a quarter of Rome and home of his last creation (1938). He worked for Argentina, Egypt, the United States.

A sculptor of international repute, accurate in the execution of statues displaying robust, traditional forms unaffected by any original 'modernist' pursuits but always executed with superb professionalism; a professionalism which is known to the world at large as it is known in Bulgaria.

The divine Florentine

September 29, 1900 is not just another date; Vechernata Poshta (The Evening Post) newspaper published a poem by a reader extolling the creation of the Italian sculptor. In the very first lines Zocchi is called the Divine Florentine (from where, most probably, the title of the aforementioned film was borrowed).

What we have here is a spontaneous popular glorification, a solemn recognition by un unknown reader, a kind of improvised literary agiography. 'Through his art Zocchi lifts us, the Bulgarians, to the heavens', seems to be the assertion behind this profound in its significance name.

His popularity in Bulgaria, emblematically asserted in this poem, nobly and rhetorically naively in equal measure, most probably does not derive from the special artistic merits of the respective works, always executed with explicit and unequivocal Neoclassical inspiration, in Italy as well as in Bulgaria.

Neither does it hinge on their number: Zocchi's 'Bulgarian' monuments are fewer than ten; from his first proper work in Sevlievo (1894) – a personified statue of liberty, equipped only with a bugle and a laurel branch – to the ones in Ruse, Lovech, Oryahovo, the Dryanovo Monastery and Vidin. Apart from the great statue dedicated to Alexander II in Sofia, of course. These are monuments, particularly the one in the capital, which permeated the collective memory of the country; and obviously still have a corner of that memory reserved for them.

These are monumental structures, to which is attributed the ability to invoke times of positive significance for the country, over and above the various ideological and historiographical interpretations, times of independence and national revival. It seems thus that an Italian was able, through his creations and without necessarily going to any excesses, to spark the patriotic feelings of the citizens of the young state, a power which these statues have not lost completely even to this day.

Alexander II, the Tsar Liberator

The statue dedicated to Alexander II, the Liberator, became an object of interest for the Emporium, an excellent Italian magazine from the beginning of the 20th century (1904, issue XX). Employing the rich and somewhat rhetorical diction of those times, it seems to bear evidence in favour of the suggested explanation for the popularity of Zocchi and his work in Bulgaria.

The paragraph which serves as introduction to the article about the great statue goes as follows:

'...a magnificent apotheosis to victory and liberty, Arnaldo Zocchi's monument seems to sing a glorious hymn to Bulgaria's independence and to the Tsar Liberator. As if a spontaneous and powerful voice rises from the exquisite bronze in celebration of the sacred enthusiasm, of the divine sacrifice: a battle song inflames the invincible heroism, the trumpets sound, ...the drums beat, ...this is the ritual chorus of the proud, the song of victory, the anthem of freedom earned'.

Divesting the excerpt from the stream of epithets and images crowding every line, the 'divine' Zocchi is credited with creating a monument which embodies, its artistic merits aside, the spirit of a newly-born nation.

The multitude of characters, as if trying to break free from the pedestal, are not simply a brave bid to encapsulate the history of 'new' Bulgaria: they themselves become part of that history, a history with which many romantically identify – if the ocean of people who came to attend the opening ceremony is anything to go by (one million, according to the organizers and 40,000 according to the police, a figure repeated out of habit but in most cases denied, both in Italy and in Bulgaria].

The chronology of an international contest

Long was the road to this triumphant national celebration.

At the turn of the century, the Tsar Osvoboditel Committee was set up to take the necessary actions so that a huge and imposing monument be erected, dedicated both to Alexander II and to the epic battle for national liberation. Its honorary chairperson became Tsar Ferdinand himself.

On January 15, 1900 the Committee took its first decision: the monument was to be erected in front of the Parliament, right in the centre of Sofia. The qualities and abilities which an artist should possess in order to be eligible to fulfil such a task were agreed. The fee was set at three hundred thousand levs.

Following that, an international competition was announced. Some ninety artists, whose names were not disclosed as per the statutes, took part in it. After the preliminary selection there remained 32 representatives of 13 different nations.

The plaster scale models were put on display in the great hall of the Royal Palace to be viewed by the public between September 1 and September 20.

On September 24, 1900 the decision was announced in a special decree. The winner was Design number 11, called Rome. The author's name was made known: Arnaldo Zocchi. The public, the critics and the jury were unanimous: this was the design which would best embody the spirit of the initiative.

On October 15, 1900 the overjoyed Zocchi received an official notification of his success in the competition. Without any delay a request was sent from Bulgaria to Russia for photographs of the persons who were to be immortalized in the monument. The response was immediate: the photographs were delivered directly to Rome.

Before the lonely artist were years of incessant work on designing the model; additional time was required for the accurate execution of the sculpture and for the structure that was to embrace it in the heart of the Bulgarian capital.

At long last the inauguration was set for August 30 (September 12), 1907. Important guests arrived from Russia, first among them Vladimir Alexandrovich, son of Alexander II, together with his family.

Ultimately the 12-metre memorial was revealed before the eyes of the 'proud and excited' populace, as the chronicles of those times described it. There was even the solemn musical composition performed during this long day of festivities; it was written specially for the occasion by Dimitar Georgiev and set to the lyrics of the national poet Ivan Vazov. There were also parades, banquets, music.

Arnaldo commented at that time: 'How exciting it is to see so many people passing, proud and silent, as if climbing the stairs to a church entrance. This moved me to tears. I shall never forget it. And in the evening, at the official dinner, the Bulgarian Tsar raised a glass in my honour, to art and culture.

The monument became, or was declared that day, a shrine to the romantic faith of the nation, an icon that needed no novelties or originality. 

The Statue

Vertically it is dominated by the figure of the tsar, twice the 'liberator': in his own country, because he abolished serfdom on March 3, 1861 and in Bulgaria, as the bearer of the independence gained in the 1877-1878 war.

Alexander II solemnly rises high on his horse, his left hand holding the reins while his right one hangs down. In it he has the proclamation dashing any illusions of peace and declaring the inevitable war. This was a call to the people who had become brothers in their fight against the Ottomans; a call addressed to the Bulgarians still toiling under the 'yoke'. The bronze ruler looks inspired by his will and confidence in the victory.

The author's intentions come to life in the description of the incredible pedestal below the central statue, published more than a hundred years ago in the Emporium magazine:

'... below, around the entire pedestal, the relief depicts army and people determinedly going to war, reflecting upon each other the heroism, courage and selflessness, whose radiance, as if by some wonderful spell converges and shines upon the tsar. Soldiers and populace, mingled together in this portentous hour, brought together by the holy heroism of freedom. Side by side the solemn and orderly files of the Russian army with its Circassians and their impressive uniforms, are the Bulgarians, not so much battalions but groups: townsmen and peasants, turned soldiers overnight, inspired by a sacred enthusiasm to fight for their native land, on a heroic march to death, together with their wives and children. A winged Nike, the goddess of victory, beautiful and fiery leads the army against the enemy. She is followed by four heroes: Nikola, the general and commander-in-chief, generals Ignatiev, Gourko and Skobelev.'

Little could be added to this colourful description: it brings back scents and emotions from an age in which, we could safely claim, Zocchi found his voice and immersed himself in the spirit of the times.

To complete the description, I shall confine myself to some prosaic notes on the richly 'decorated' pedestal, filled with images.

On the shield of Nike, the winged goddess of victory of the hundred-year-old commentary, a significant inscription throws itself at us: 'In the name of God'.

To one side, in the lower section of the high plinth, there are three thematic bas-reliefs, devoted to:

The battle at Stara Zagora; there we see Colonel Calitin and the Samara flag. Among the Bulgarian volunteers one could make out Lieutenant-colonel Kisov and Boyko Rusev;

The signing of the Treaty of San Stefano;

The first official meeting of the newly established Bulgarian parliament, which was opened by Prince Dondukov-Korsakov, Commissioner to the Russian Emperor. He is surrounded by the most prominent politicians of the time: Petko Karavelov, Stambolov, Stoyan Zaimov and Dragan Tsankov. Other representatives of the Bulgarian intellectual elite are also there: Petko Slaveykov, Ivan Vazov and Exarch Antim.

Monumental heritage

It seems to me that, after a methodical study of the whole monument, an astute 'student' of monuments could safely assert, having once negotiated the forest of winged goddesses, figures in uniforms, flags and weapons populating the pedestal in a deliberate confusion of bronze decorations, that: a) its purpose is to capture a providential and progressive historical process in a grand synthesis; b) its main protagonists are the Russians while the Bulgarians, represented as an undeniably brave and 'wild' people, are the younger brother, eager to learn from the history of the more experienced and much stronger in numbers brother from the East.

This is the significance of the already quoted phrase from the Emporium: 'Side by side the solemn and orderly files of the Russian army... are the Bulgarians, not so much battalions but groups...'; c) it uses the pedestal to project the images, statues and symbols, which seem to have literally been pulled out of the plot of the bas-relief underneath.

This is part of the heritage which the Monument to Alexander II bequeathed to the monumental art of the country; in particular, and perhaps surprisingly, to the art of the Communist era.

Disregarding the wide divergence of ideological concepts, many of the significant monuments of this age were erected not in honour of a particular person or to commemorate an event but, quite frequently, in memory of the 'heroes of three generations – the years 1876, 1923, 1944', a propaganda approach, consequence of the historiographical interpretations favoured by the regime.

These dates were mounted according to the demand for a flexible assertion of the idea that only through the struggle against the current social oppressor – Ottoman, capitalist or Fascist – could the true and ultimate liberation of the country be achieved, itself made a fact through the rule of the Communist party.

A 'second liberation', heralded by the arrival of the Red Army.

What changes is only the identity of the main protagonist, the big brother from the East, not his origins: the unknown Soviet army soldier dominating the huge memorial complex in the centre of Sofia has simply replaced Zocchi's Alexander II as per the instructions of the new patrons.

In the same sculpture group, two Bulgarian partisans enthusiastically follow 'Alyosha', yet again as the younger disciples.

A forthcoming publication dedicated to the monuments of the Communist era describes the stance of the four statues decorating a bridge in the centre of the capital as follows:

'...all compositions make a show of the patronizing and condescending behaviour of yet another Russian: embraces and encouraging looks invite the 'younger brothers' to follow in the steps of the more advanced relations of the East...'.

These are monumental images which keep recurring.

Finally, about the likely stylistic heritage: the art of the 'live bas-reliefs', used by Zocchi in the Monument to the Tsar Liberator, is often in evidence in the works of the sculptors and architects of the Communist era. We see these again in the aforementioned Monument to the Soviet Army, a huge composition which is five minutes' walk from the square in which the Monument to Alexander II rises even to this day.

A brief conclusion

The somewhat artificial classicism of Zocchi, with the strong and explicit inspiration that characterizes secular religiosity, strives to impart to the Bulgarians the sense of a providential design in history; an attempt that was notably successful and left its significant mark on the art of the country. It is most probably due to this fact that in Bulgaria Zocchi is still known as 'the divine'.

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