Aurelia Ciommi was a favourite model for Mancini in Rome, posing for some 25 paintings. Her nickname was La Cornacchia (The Crow), expressive of her sharp and animated features. Here, she seems to reveal for our delectation an austere and elegant Renaissance portrait bust of a woman in white marble in which she takes evident delight. Mancini’s studio was full of such props. While the features of model and bust are relatively thinly painted, the surface of the canvas, teeming with flowers, is richly painted in thick globs of pigment. Contemporary collectors found such abstract paint handling to be thrillingly modern. Another portrait of ‘the Crow’ has been left unfinished on the reverse of the canvas; there, tearing at her blouse, she seems to be having a fit of intense emotion worthy of a tragic actress. It is not clear why that painting was abandoned.
Aurelia Ciommi was a professional artists’ model in Rome and posed for Mancini some 25 times. She was known as La Cornacchia (The Crow) – a hardly flattering but somehow accurate characterisation of her sharp, distinctive features and intense expressiveness. Here, dressed in sombre black, she seems to emerge from a sea of flowers and tinted and crumpled papers spilling out of the canvas, turning to the artist with a smile of delight and amusement. The cause of her pleasure would seem to be a new discovery, the white marble bust of a woman which appears, ghost-like, at the upper right of the canvas amid the same colourful profusion. Is it, as it seems, an Italian Renaissance sculpture by the likes of the fifteenth-century master Francesco Laurana (1430–1502), newly admired around 1900 for his austere and serene depictions of women? Is it a bust of Aurelia herself made to resemble a Laurana? Is it merely another of Mancini’s countless studio props, full of evocative potential? We do not know. Mancini has created an enigmatic image full of questions he refrains from answering, as he had done in many of his previous paintings of Aurelia.
The two contrasting heads – one static and made of marble, the other full of life and motion – and Aurelia’s dancing hands which seem to conjure the bust, all are relatively thinly painted. We know what the paint describes. The rest of the canvas is impastoed in paint where detail is lost in the abstract whirl of pure colour thickly applied. We must work to determine exactly what we are seeing. This ambiguity was characteristic of Mancini throughout much of his career and was admired by his collectors as being intensely modern and new. The painting was soon acquired by the Irish-born collector and curator Hugh Lane, who also sat to Mancini for his portrait in 1906 (Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin) and who intended Aurelia for the Municipal Gallery of Modern Art he established in Dublin in the early twentieth century. He bequeathed the painting to the National Gallery in 1917. Today, display is shared between the National Gallery and the Hugh Lane Gallery.
Lane got a two-for-one deal when he acquired Aurelia. On the reverse of the canvas – did he know it was there, or was it covered up? – is a second, unfinished, perhaps even more flamboyant portrait of ‘the Crow’. Here, against an empty background Aurelia raises her head, flares her nostrils and gives us a wide, rictus grin as she seems ready to tear open her blouse. She looks like a tragic actress in a mad scene from a play, perhaps starring the great Italian thespian of the day, Eleanora Duse. We do not know why Mancini did not finish this arresting work and turned over the canvas to paint another, very different, image of the same beguiling model.
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