Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pistrucci, Benedetto
PISTRUCCI, BENEDETTO (1784–1855), gem-engraver and medallist, born in Rome on 29 May 1784, was the second son of Federico Pistrucci, judge of the high criminal court of Rome, by his wife Antonia Greco. He inherited a physical peculiarity in having his hands and feet covered with a thick callous skin. He attended schools at Bologna, Rome, and Naples, but disliked Latin and made little progress. He amused himself by constructing toy cars and cannon, and when he was fourteen learnt gem-engraving from Mango, an engraver of cameos in Rome. He learned to cut hard and soft flints, and made rapid progress, though his master was an indifferent artist. Domenico Desalief, a cameo merchant, gave Pistrucci a stone of three strata to cut for him, and employed him on a large cameo (the crowning of a warrior) that passed, as an antique, into the cabinet of the empress of Russia. When about fifteen Pistrucci was taught at Rome by Morelli, for whom he made nine cameos. He attended the drawing academy at the Campidoglio, and obtained the first prize in sculpture. He soon, however, quarrelled with Morelli, and when not quite sixteen began, as he expresses it, his ‘career of professor, loaded with commissions on all sides.’
Pistrucci married at eighteen, and worked in Rome for several years for Vescovali, for the Russian Count Demidoff, for General Bale, and for Angiolo Bonelli, an unscrupulous dealer in gems who tried to pass off Pistrucci's works as antiques. Pistrucci made portraits of the queen of Naples and the Princess Borghese at their command, and executed—in competition with Girometti and Santarelli—a cameo-portrait of the Princess Bacciochi (Napoleon's sister), who invited him to Florence and to Pisa, where he gave instruction in modelling at the court. In December 1814 Pistrucci went to Paris, where he was visited by several amateurs of cameos. He made a model in wax of Napoleon, kept it in his pocket to compare with the original when he appeared in public, and at last completed a portrait which was considered ‘extremely like’ (Billing, fig. 115). In 1815 he journeyed to London, and he complains that he and his stock of cameos and models were very roughly treated at the Dover custom-house. In London he modelled the portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, and at Banks's house encountered Richard Payne Knight [q. v.], who had called to show a fragmentary cameo (Billing, fig. 121) of ‘Flora’ (or Persephone) purchased by Knight as an antique from the dealer Bonelli for 100l. (some accounts say five hundred and two hundred and fifty guineas). Pistrucci at once explained to Knight that he himself had made it for Bonelli about six years previously at Rome for less than 5l., and that (like all his productions) it bore his private mark. Knight angrily asserted that the cameo was antique, and declared to Banks that the wreath was not of roses, but of an extinct species of pomegranate blossoms. Banks examined it and exclaimed, ‘By God, they are roses—and I am a botanist.’ This incident drew the attention of collectors to Pistrucci, and he began to be patronised, especially by William Richard Hamilton, vice-president of the Society of Antiquaries, for whom he made another ‘Flora’ cameo. Knight's ‘Flora’ (or Persephone) came to the British Museum as part of the Payne Knight bequest; and Knight, in his manuscript catalogue of his gems, persists in describing the wreath as of pomegranate blossoms—‘non rosas, ut B. Pistrucci gemmarum sculptor, qui lapidem hunc se suâ manu scalpsisse gloriatus est, prædicaverat, et se eas ad vivum imitando expressisse, pari stultitia et impudentia asseruit.’
Banks paid Pistrucci fifty guineas for making him a jasper cameo of the head of George III, and in 1816 sent him with it to Wellesley Pole, the master of the mint. Pole directed Thomas Wyon, junior, the chief engraver, to copy it on the half-crown; but the work proved inferior to the model, and was afterwards rejected. Pistrucci showed Pole the wax model for a gem, with the subject of St. George and the Dragon, that he had made for a ‘George’ to be worn by Earl Spencer, K.G. The design was considered suitable as a reverse-type for the new gold coinage, and Pole paid Pistrucci one hundred guineas for making, as a model for the coins, a jasper cameo with this subject. The design (still retained) does not, strictly speaking, owe its origin to Pistrucci. It can be traced back to a shell-cameo, the ‘Bataille coquille,’ in the collection of the Duke of Orleans. This was copied, at least in part, by Giovanni Pikler, whose intaglio with the subject became popular in Rome. Pistrucci himself, when in Italy, had made four copies (two cameos and two gems) of Pikler's intaglio, and on coming to London in 1815 employed the subject for Lord Spencer's ‘George.’ In making the jasper cameo as the model for the coins, he, however, considerably modified the design, and modelled the St. George from the life—the original being an Italian servant belonging to the hotel (Brunet's) in Leicester Square, where Pistrucci was staying. The design first appeared on the sovereign of 1817, and subsequently on the crown of George IV, which Denon, the director of the French mint, called the handsomest coin in Europe.
During the manufacture of the new coinage during 1816 Pistrucci was employed at the mint as an outside assistant. On 22 Sept. 1817 Thomas Wyon [q. v.] died, and Pole offered Pistrucci the post of chief engraver. The appointment was resisted by the ‘moneyers’ (the corporation of the mint), and for several years Pistrucci was attacked and calumniated in the ‘Times’ and other newspapers, chiefly on the ground of his foreign origin. He found a staunch defender in W. R. Hamilton. The office of chief engraver was kept in abeyance, though Pistrucci continued to perform the duties. At last, in 1828, as a compromise, William Wyon, the second engraver at the mint, was made chief engraver, and Pistrucci received the designation of ‘chief medallist.’ Pistrucci engraved part of the coinage at the end of George III's reign, corrected the engraving of the matrices and punches of the silver coins dated ‘1815–17,’ and engraved the coins of the early part of George IV's reign. In 1820–21 he engraved the coronation medal of George IV, and obtained sittings from the king, after refusing to copy Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of George. In 1821, when required to execute a medal commemorating the royal visit to Ireland, he refused to copy the king's bust by Sir Francis Chantrey, and in 1822 declined to reproduce this bust on the coins. He had no share in producing the coronation medal of William IV, as he again refused to copy a bust by Chantrey. The coronation medal of Victoria, which was hastily executed by Pistrucci in three months, gave general dissatisfaction.
In 1838 Pistrucci, on the recommendation of Samuel Rogers, made the silver seal of the duchy of Lancaster. The work was finished in the short space of fifteen days by a process which Pistrucci claimed to have invented, and by which a punch or die could be cast in metal from the artist's wax or clay model, instead of being copied from it with graving tools, as had hitherto been usual (Weber, Medals and Medallions, 1894). The originality of this process (which has since been adopted by medallists) was disputed at the time by John Baddeley (Mechanics' Magazine, xxvii. 401), who claimed that it had been practised fifty years before by his grandfather at the Soho mint; but Pistrucci's claim was defended by William Baddeley (ib. xxviii. 36) and others (cf. Num. Journal, ii. 111 f.; Num. Chron. i. 53, 123 f., 230 f.). About 1824 Pistrucci's work on the coins had come to an end, but he continued to reside at the mint till 1849, when he went to live at Fine Arts Cottage, Old Windsor, subsequently moving to Flora Lodge, Englefield Green, near Windsor.
His sight remaining good, he continued his work on cameos. During his residence at the mint he had been permitted to make and sell cameos for his own benefit, and obtained high prices. He worked both in cameo and intaglio, but his intaglios are now very rare. He also devoted some time to sculpture, and made busts of several London friends, of the Duke of Wellington (now in the United Service Museum), and of Pozzo di Borgo. In 1850 he delivered to the master of the mint the matrices of the famous Waterloo medallion which he had been commissioned to undertake for the mint as early as 1817. He had for years worked at it in his leisure time, but the dies were never hardened, though impressions in soft metal and electrotypes were taken and sold to the public. For this medallion he was paid 3,500l., on the calculation that it required as much work as thirty or more ordinary medals, for which Pistrucci's usual charge was 100l.
The latter years of Pistrucci's life were tranquil and happy. He died at Flora Lodge, near Windsor, on 16 Sept. 1855, of inflammation of the lungs. He was chosen by the committee a member of the Athenæum Club in 1842, and received diplomas from the academy of St. Luke at Rome, from the Royal Academy of Arts at Copenhagen, and from the Institute of France. Pistrucci married, about 1802, a sister of Jacopo Folchi, the physician, and daughter of a rich Roman merchant. He had several children, of whom the two younger daughters, Elena and Maria Elisa (the latter married to Signor Marsuzi), attained reputation in Rome as cameo-engravers. One of the sons, Camillo, was a pupil of Thorwaldsen, and was employed by the papal government in the restoration of ancient statues. Pistrucci's elder brother Philip engraved skilfully on copper, and had a talent for musical and poetical improvisations. Thomas Moore (Diary, iv. 71) mentions one of these entertainments that he witnessed at Lady Jersey's.
Pistrucci, in his interesting autobiography (written about 1820 and translated in Billing's ‘Science of Gems’), describes himself as ‘very excitable, and unfortunately very proud with the artists of my own era.’ He was persevering and laborious, and often worked for fifteen hours a day. As a gem-engraver his reputation stands high, but subjects from the antique of the kind that delighted the collectors of his day will hardly again find favour. His work as a medallist has, in some points, been severely criticised—for instance, his ‘wiry’ treatment of hair. Yet he undoubtedly imparted to our coinage a distinction of style that had long been absent from it. To Pistrucci is due the partial substitution on the reverses of English coins of a subject-design for a merely heraldic device. His medals are not very numerous or important, with the exception of the Waterloo medallion, which is full of beauty and delicacy in detail, though it betrays its piecemeal composition in a certain lack of vigour and harmony as a whole. The statements that Pistrucci cut steel matrices for the coins with a lapidary's wheel and that he was taught die-engraving by the Wyons appear to be unfounded.
Pistrucci's works (omitting some already mentioned) are chiefly as follows:
Coins. Gold. 1. Sovereign of George III, 1817, 1818, 1820. 2. Pattern five-pound piece of George III, 1820. Only twenty-five were struck, and it is said that Pistrucci, on hearing of the death of George III, gave hasty orders for the striking off of a few specimens. 3. Pattern double-sovereign of George III, 1820. About sixty were struck (Crowther, Engl. Pattern Coins, p. 37). 4. Sovereign of George IV, and the reverse of the double-sovereign. Silver. 5. Crown of George III, 1818–20. 6. Pattern crown of George III. 7. Crown of George IV, 1821, 1822. Pistrucci's models in red jasper for the crown, shilling, and sovereign of George III are in the collection of the Royal Mint (Cat. of Coins and Tokens, Nos. 991–3).
Medals. 1. Coronation medal of George IV (official), 1821. 2. Lord Maryborough (Wellesley Pole) 1823. 3. George IV, rev. trident and dolphins; made for Rundell and Bridge, 1824. 4. Frederick, duke of York, medal and miniature medals, 1827. 5. Sir Gilbert Blane (the Blane naval medical medal), 1830. 6. Coronation medal of Victoria (official), 1838. 7. Coronation of Victoria, rev. ‘Da facilem cursum;’ made for Rundell and Bridge, 1838. 8. Duke of Wellington, rev. helmet, 1841. 9. Hon. John Chetwynd Talbot (specimen in Guildhall Library), 1853. 10. Design for Waterloo medallion, 1817–50 (photographed Billing, Nos. 143, 144).
Pistrucci ‘directed’ the ‘long-service’ military medals of William IV and Victoria, as well as W. J. Taylor's medal of Taylor Combe [q. v.], 1826. Pistrucci's wax model of Combe's portrait was in the possession of Dr. Gray of the British Museum, and a plaster cast of it is now in the medal room, British Museum. Pistrucci also made a portrait medallion of Joseph Planta [q. v.] of the British Museum, which was engraved by W. Sharp, and published in 1817 by W. Clarke of New Bond Street. A wax medallion by Pistrucci of Matthew Boulton (d. 1809) is in the medal room (Brit. Mus.) Pistrucci also made a wax model of the portrait of Dr. Anthony Fothergill, which he submitted as a design for the Fothergillian medal of the Royal Humane Society in 1837. On the suggestion that he should use another artist's design, Pistrucci refused to execute the medal, and, when the secretary of the society called on him, practically had him turned out of the mint. Pistrucci's signature on coins and medals is ‘B. P.’ and ‘Pistrucci.’
Cameos. 1. Duke of York. 2. Medusa in red jasper (sold for two hundred guineas). 3. A St. Andrew and Cross on Oriental sardonyx for Lord Lauderdale (three hundred and fifty guineas). 4. Cameos of Victoria as princess and as queen. 5. Young Bacchus, cornelian onyx (three hundred guineas). 6. Medusa, sardonyx. 7. ‘Force subdued by Love and Beauty’ (two hundred guineas). 8. Minerva, cameo, four inches in diameter (five hundred guineas). 9. Siris bronzes, copy in cameo (two hundred and fifty guineas). 10. Cameo of Augustus and Livia in sapphirine (fetched only 30l. at the Hertz sale, but Pistrucci was paid 800l.) Many of these and other productions of Pistrucci are photographed in Billing's ‘Science of Gems.’[Pistrucci's Autobiography; Billing's Science of Gems; collection of newspaper cuttings in Brit. Mus. Library relating to Pistrucci and W. Wyon; memoir in Gent. Mag. 1856, pt. i. pp. 653 f.; Weber's Medals and Medallions … by Foreign Artists; Numismatic works of Hawkins, Kenyon, and Ruding; King's works on Gems; Brit. Mus. collection of coins and medals; information kindly given by Mr. H. A. Grueber, F.S.A., and by Dr. F. Parkes Weber, F.S.A.]