Q: I am wondering if you could help me with this bust entitled on the base “Beatrice Poptinari.” Could you give me some information on the age? It has the number “940” on the back of the base.
A: Thank you for the variety of good photographs, including the one of the square cartouche with the name inscribed. It is very hard to read, but we believe the incised name is “Beatrice Portinari” and not “Beatrice Poptinari.”
Why? The former is the name of a very famous lady and the bust itself is in a pose that was often used to represent this personage. Beatrice di Folco Portinari was a Florentine woman born in 1266 who died at the tender age of 24 after capturing the devotions of the poet Dante Alighieri. Dante featured her as one of his guides in the last book, Paradiso, of his masterwork Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia).
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The first meeting of Dante and Beatrice is said to have happened when Dante was 8 years old and Beatrice was 7 at a May Day party at the home of Beatrice’s father, the banker Folco Portinari. Dante is said to have been smitten with her for the rest of the his life. His collection of poems, La Vita Nuova, is dedicated to her memory.
Busts of Beatrice Portinari were romantic and very popular during the early 20th century.
The poet and the object of his courtly love met only once more. It was nine years later, and Dante ran into her dressed in white on the streets. She was accompanied by two other women and greeted Dante as they passed. Dante is said to have gone home, fallen asleep and dreamed about Beatrice. This experience became the subject of the first sonnet of La Vita Nuova.
Busts of Beatrice Portinari were romantic and very popular during the early 20th century. They can be found in marble, alabaster and other stone, and they can be found cast in metal, sometimes bronze. But the example in today’s question is neither stone nor metal. Instead we believe it is plaster of Paris, a material that is often associated with artisans in Italy and Italian immigrants in the United States.
Both groups made large quantities of chalk or plaster of Paris figures to earn money, which was an easy task because all that was required was the liquid plaster and damp clay molds. In this case, the mold number was 940.
We feel the bust belonging to J. T. may have been made in Italy during the second quarter of the 20th century and merely looks older because the colors were applied “cold,” which means the pigments could easily flake off the surface.
This piece was mass produced for decorative purposes and was designed for homes where examples made from finer materials would be prohibitively expensive. Today’s retail value is in the $150 to $250 range.
Write to Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Include a high-resolution, in-focus photo of the subject.