Sunday, 16 September 2018

The most difficult decision you'll ever make

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Giacomo Raffaelli discovered his passion for drawing when he was a kid playing in the streets of the Trastavere district in Rome. His father died in 1765, when Giacomo was only 12 years old, leaving him no other choice than take a job at his uncle's quarry.

Work at the quarry was all-consuming, and Giacomo had no time to devote to drawing, but he found an opportunity to get closer to art when he was 15 years old.

One afternoon, while Giacomo's uncle was away, a priest walked into the quarry and requested a quotation for coloured stones to repair the medieval mosaics at Santa Cecilia Church. Giacomo made a quick calculation, offered a good price, and received the commission. As of that day, he began to learn everything he could about mosaics.

It did not take Giacomo long to start a business of his own by offering his services to churches to repair old mosaics or lay new ones. The drawing abilities required by mosaics were modest, since most scenes consisted of geometrical decorations, flowers, and animals.

Year after year, Giacomo longed to land a commission for a large mosaic that would let him display his artistic talent, but that was not to be. At night, he would spend hours by the fire making preparatory drawings for grandiose projects, but the costs of European wars had dried out the funding for new mosaics.

The mosaics business slowed down during the French invasion of Italy, and Giacomo took to spending whole days at home making drawings for his future masterpiece. With the drawings in hand, he made tours of churches and monasteries, trying to obtain a commission for his project, a twenty-meter long mosaic representing the Garden of Eden.


Dozens of rejections

Giacomo made attempts for nine years, and collected 82 rejections from places as far away as Ravenna and Aix-en-Provence. Only in December 1809, the Church of San Giovanni Laterano showed interest in a scaled-down version of the Garden of Eden project.

However, the price offered by San Giovanni Church was so low that made it almost impossible for Giacomo to break even, let alone make a profit, precisely at a time when he needed money. He had recently married Simonetta Cappella, a petite 32 year-old Venetian widow.

Still, the commission from San Giovanni Church would give Giacomo a unique opportunity to make a name for himself and gain recognition as an artist. Giacomo was close to his 57th birthday. Was it worth it for him to take such a risk? Or should he rather concentrate on his profitable mosaics-repair business?

An opportunity

A visit from a captain of the Imperial Dragons in January 1810 took Giacomo by surprise. "Emperor Napoleon is in Rome, and wants to discuss a commission with you," announced the captain.

Excited by the prospect of a major commission, Giacomo collected his drawings of the Garden of Eden, and followed the captain to a villa in the Pallatino.

Emperor Napoleon greeted Giacomo warmly and, by means of an interpreter, explained that he had seen the high quality of Giacomo's work, and that he was planning to give Giacomo a commission for a large mosaic at the Minoriten Church in Vienna.

"I will be marrying the Duchess of Parma this summer," went on Napoleon. "The mosaic will be my wedding present." Giacomo then tried to show his Garden of Eden drawings, but the Emperor shook his head. "The Duchess has already chosen a design for the mosaic. She wants to have a copy of Leonardo DaVinci's Last Supper. Can you do that?"

Napoleon's request made Giacomo's heart stand still for a second. The Emperor was offering him a large commission just to make a copy of an old painting! Just to copy another artist's work! When Napoleon mentioned the price, Giacomo asked the interpreter to repeat it. It was a real fortune, more money than Giacomo had ever made in his whole life.

The Emperor had not expected to see Giacomo hesitate. What was that man thinking? Any other artisan in the Empire would have immediately accepted such a generous commission. "I need a day to think it over," replied Giacomo after taking a deep breath.

A difficult choice


Giacomo returned home, only to find a priest from San Giovanni Church waiting for him. "Cardinal Mazzelli wants to know if you accept the commission for the Garden of Eden mosaic," inquired the priest. "Otherwise, the money will be used to make repairs in the apse."

That night, Giacomo had a long discussion with Simonetta. Their first child was on the way, and
Napoleon's offer was twenty times higher than Cardinal Mazelli's. "Take the Emperor's commission, Giacomo," concluded Simonetta. "You will have other opportunities later to do the Garden of Eden."

Giacomo knew that Simonetta was lying, but he loved her so much. What if he never had another chance to prove himself as an artist? What if he consumed his life making silly decorations and reproducing other artists' works? He spent the night contemplating his Garden of Eden drawings, but in the morning, he accepted Napoleon's commission.

The mosaic at the Minoriten Church in Vienna made Giacomo Raffaelli a rich man. He lived comfortably for another twenty-six years, and had five children with Simonetta.

In our days, the mosaic reproducing Leonardo DaVinci's Last Supper can still be admired in Vienna, although its colours have somewhat faded. Since it is just a copy of another artist's painting, it has never attracted large crowds. In fact, most people living in Vienna don't even know it exists.



Giacomo Raffaelli never got another opportunity to carry out his Garden of Eden project. When Giacomo died, the project remained undone. Most likely, it will never be done. The preparatory drawings for the Garden of Eden project were purchased by a collector in 1838 and, still today, they remain in private hands. Those who have seen the drawings say that they are astonishingly beautiful.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2018.

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