Enrico Hugford and Scagliola

07:05 14 May in Insights

Since the early 17th century, the art of scagliola had flourished in various Italian regions, making it possible to imitate costly tarsia in semi-precious stone through the use of modest materials. This technique reached its zenith through the work of a Vallombrosan monk of English extraction, Father Enrico Hugford.

After a 1761 visit to Vallombrosa, Targioni Tozzetti described Hugford, the brother of the famous painter and collector Ignazio, thus: “His scagliolas so skillfully and honestly represent human figures and animals as well as rich stories and views of buildings and the countryside that his pictures have become fashionable not so much in Tuscany as among the most important foreigners, who seek them out, and who have already taken a great number to the most cultured provinces of Europe”.

Hugford learned the technique from Father Salvatore Perrier at the Abbey of Santa Reparata in Marradi, which he had entered in 1711 after having taken his vows. He soon became so famous that four of his scagliola works were exhibited in 1737 at the annual painting exhibition organized by the Academy of Drawing in the cloister of Santissima Annunziata.

In 1742, he was transferred to Florence as the master of the novices, to the Vallombrosan monastery of San Pancrazio. There, he had the opportunity to dedicate himself more fully to scagliola, undertaking such monumental creations as the new altar “in tiles of scagliola with all the magnificence of charmingly inlaid stones”, erected in the Abbey of San Fedele in Poppi in 1749 to preserve the remains of the Blessed Torello. His subsequent transfer to Vallombrosa in 1753, to the sylvan quiet of the Celle Hermitage, known locally as the Paradisino, or the Little Paradise, marked the beginning of a productive period in which he created vedute, landscapes, portraits as well as lives of Benedictine saints and blessed souls.

Two of his scagliola works were donated to Grand Duke Pietro Leopoldo in the summer of 1767; while an ample number remained at Vallombrosa—despite a large part of the forty-nine works there being dispersed in the 18th century—side by side with the natural curiosities fondly collected also with paintings and watercolors.

The Vallombrosa group of scagliolas is marked by the incomparable brilliance of their surfaces, rich compositions, and the brilliance of their colors, influenced by Anton Domenico Gabbiani’ work and Zocchi’s Tuscan vedute as well as by the works of Remigio Cantagallina, Ercole Bazzicaluva, and Stefano della Bella from the previous century.
For the most part, the works are primarily vedute, often somewhat naïve, as well as stylized vases of flowers taken from Flemish prototypes that recall those more archaic ones depicted on the scagliola frontals that constituted the early creations in this unusual artistic genre.

Alessandro Cecchi

in, Museo d’arte sacra dell’Abbazia di Vallombrosa. Guida alla visita del museo e alla scoperta del territorio. A cura di: Caterina Caneva. Polistampa 2007.