Pierto Cardelli was one of five artist-sons of Lorenzo Cardelli (ca. 1733-1794), a Roman ornamental sculptor. Pietro has been confused with a certain Giorgio Cardelli from Florence, who left behind no known work. I concluded in 1993 that Pietro and Giorgio must have been the same person – that there was no Giorgio Cardelli at all (Worley, 1993, p. 42). Pietro was born in Rome on 30 September 1776. At the age of seventeen he won the Second Prize in Painting at the Accademia di San Luca with Jacob Asking Laban for the Hand of His Daughter in Marriage. Before 1801 he was in Paris with the sons of Piranesi and he was commissioned in 1802 to carve the bust of seventeenth-century Dutch painter Gerard Dou, part of a series for the Galerie des Consuls. The lively marble bust, still in the Palais de Compiègne, appeared in the Salon of 1804. It is representative of the historical portraits of late eighteenth-century France, and is based on Dou’s Self-portrait in the Louvre. In 1803 Cardelli was a student of Pierre Julien (1731-1804). Also known is a marble bust of Napoleon (Arsenal, Venice) and a plaster bust of General Cervoni (1810; Musée National de Versailles). For Gérard Hubert, the image of Napoleon is too dependent upon versions by Chaudet. But for the impressive portrait of Cervoni, Cardelli revived the elegant Roman manner of carving locks of hair.
For the Sèvres porcelain factory Cardelli executed a reduced copy of the Venus Genetrix in 1808 (Musée de Sèvres) and he was one of many sculptors who contributed to the reliefs on the Vendôme Column. During the First Empire Cardelli participated in the Salons of 1804, 1810 and 1812. Charles-Paul Landon found Cardelli’s allegorical figure of Marriage (Salon of 1810) to be too heavy and lacking in expression. It was a typical idealized Neoclassical image of a male nude. Apparently, Cardelli thought he might prosper in London, where he managed to exhibit at the Royal Academy in 1815 and 1816; in addition, a Sleeping Cupid was exhibited in the British Institution in 1816. But only after a year, the sculptor had moved on to the United States. He was looking for opportunities to contribute to the renovations of the Capitol Building in Washington: all he found there was decorative work. That year he executed a marble bust of the painter John Trumbull, now in the National Academy of Design, New York. This unfortunately dry, matter-of-fact, blank-eyed head features a severe Neoclassical block-like base.
John Quincy Adams, at that time Secretary of State under President Monroe, commissioned Cardelli to do a portrait drawing of his wife, but found it to be unsatisfactory. Nevertheless, he arranged for Cardelli to carve his own portrait bust in 1818. There are two plaster versions of the bust of John Quincy Adams (New-York Historical Society; American Philosophical Society), and a marble version (Adams National Historic Site, Quincy, Massachusetts). It has a rather severe, earnest expression and the upper part of the torso has been squared off in the ancient Greek manner. This time, Adams was pleased with the Italian sculptor’s work, and he helped him obtain commissions in 1819 for portraits of ex-Presidents Jefferson (plaster cast, National Portrait Gallery, Washington) and Madison and President Monroe (both lost). But Cardelli fled the scene once more – this time to the distant city of New Orleans, in November 1820. The Vieux Carré must have been appealing to a sculptor who had been trained in France since the English language was still only rarely heard in cultured Creole circles. Provided with letters of recommendation from Trumbull and the architect Benjamin Latrobe, Cardelli presented himself as a professor of drawing and soon acted as “architect” of the Cabildo, where he redesigned the pediment. The contract was signed on 21 March 1821 to execute an American eagle with the U.S. shield, flanked by trophies of arms with cannons and cannon balls, a drum, a fasces and flourishes of drapery between two spears. Although the pediment was praised in the Louisiana Gazette, it is largely an ornamental work (in situ).
Cardelli is an example of a competent, hard-working and persistent artist who remained unsuccessful – probably one of many failures among American painters and sculptors (or in this case an emigrant-sculptor) who discovered the uphill battle that faced them in a new country with relatively few opportunities for artists. As Neil Harris put it, artists “faced distinctive problems of earning a living in an atmosphere of ignorance and indifference.” (The Artist in American Society: The Formative Years, 1790-1860. University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 56). Even with his European credentials and venturing into the seemingly popular genre of portraiture, Cardelli could not find a powerful or influential patron, and he lacked the finances and a home where perhaps he could have established a studio. Despite his “French connection,” Cardelli could not thrive in such a place. There must not have been a market for plaster or marble portraits – nor could Cardelli convince the well-to-do that they needed such art objects in their homes. This peripatetic sculptor died in New Orleans on October 5, 1822.
Worley, Michael. “Identifying Pietro Cardelli (1776-1822) and His Oeuvre: from the Salon of 1804 in Paris to the Cabildo in New Orleans.” Gazette des Beaux-Arts 122 (July-August 1993): 41-50.
Written and submitted by Michael Preston Worley, Ph.D.