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A masterpiece of Roman design, rediscovered in Nicaragua

24 May 2021

From the May 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here

In 2018, I co-curated a monographic exhibition of work by the Roman silversmith Luigi Valadier (1726–85) with Alvar González-Palacios – the pre-eminent expert on the artist – at the Frick Collection in New York. A drawing of a monstrance signed by Valadier was among the works exhibited. In 1997, John Winter had linked this sheet with an extraordinary commission long regarded as lost by scholars and only recorded in 18th-century periodicals.

Published between 1716 and 1848, the bi-weekly Diario Ordinario provides a wealth of information about events in Rome. On a number of occasions, the paper recorded that Valadier exhibited objects he had designed and created for patrons outside of Rome. In the 10 January 1767 issue, it is explained that Valadier had for 10 days displayed in his workshop on Via del Babuino – which was ‘decorated to great effect with damask’ – a monumental silver gilt monstrance ‘most rich’ and ‘destined for a principal church of Mexico (chiesa principale del Messico), that is in the Indies of Spain’. The monstrance was described in detail: it was seven palmi high and decorated on its base with the symbols of the Evangelists and above with figures of the three Virtues, small putti holding the symbols of Christ’s passion, and 12,000 white topaz gemstones from Saxony. A crowd including cardinals, aristocrats, and experts showed up to see the extraordinary object.

Design for a Monstrance (after 1762) Luigi Valadier. Private collection

Design for a Monstrance (after 1762) Luigi Valadier. Private collection. Photo: Michael Bodycomb/Frick Collection

The following year, on 17 September 1768, the Diario reported another viewing in Valadier’s workshop. On this occasion, he showed part of the high altar for the Cathedral of Monreale, along with more objects destined for that same ‘principal church’ in Mexico: 14 candlesticks five palmi high, 13 chalices of different designs – one of which was also decorated with white topazes – and three altar lecterns. The Diario noted that these objects were being packed to be sent to the ‘respective churches’ in Sicily and in Mexico.

In his essay of 1997, Winter suggested the drawing as a model for the Mexican monstrance, maintaining a hesitation about the link because of some slight differences between the iconography of the drawing and the description in the Diario. In the subsequent literature on Valadier the objects he sent to Mexico are considered lost by scholars and the drawing has served to illustrate the commission.

I have been very curious about this exceptional Mexican commission, wondering whether these objects might have survived somewhere in Central America despite objects made of gold, silver, and precious stones so often being melted for cash or recycling. Most of Valadier’s works of this type do not survive; we know about them from invoices, descriptions, and inventories. In 1994, Renato Ruotolo discovered a mass service made for Cardinal Domenico Orsini d’Aragona in the Cathedral of Muro Lucano in southern Italy, bringing to light what is the largest group of ecclesiastical objects in gilt silver by Valadier. The few other significant pieces of this kind include the high altar of the Cathedral of Monreale and a small gold tabernacle in the Cathedral of Seville. During the course of the Frick exhibition, I kept asking myself where the mysterious ‘principal church’ in Mexico might be and whether this Valadier ‘treasure’ might still exist.

I was focused on the Cathedral of Mexico City, certainly the ‘principal church’ of Mexico, and over the past three years, I have written to numerous scholars who specialise in art in Latin America and sent letters to a number of experts in Mexico. I had asked a young Frick intern from Mexico City, Sebastián Zelaya Cervantes, to check the cathedral of his home-town. But none of his enquiries led to anything.

My plan was to go to Mexico at some point to explore the churches in some of the larger cities. In the meantime, however, Sebastián stumbled across a photograph online. One day, I received a message from him: ‘You asked me about a Valadier monstrance you believed might be in Mexico, but I recently found one in Nicaragua which is very, very similar.’ A number of photographs, some of them from the church’s online page, followed, and I could not believe my eyes. The monstrance was just as described in the Diario Ordinario, and it was also very similar, if not identical, to the drawing published by Winter. The monstrance was mistakenly designated online as a gift from Emperor Charles V (1500–58) to the Cathedral of León in Nicaragua, but it was clearly a spectacular 18th-century Roman work.

The long-lost silver-gilt monstrance made by Luigi Valadier in 1766/67 and recently discovered in the Cathedral of León in Nicaragua.

The long-lost silver-gilt monstrance made by Luigi Valadier in 1766/67 and recently discovered in the Cathedral of León in Nicaragua. Photo: © Néstor Esaú Velásquez

The city of León in Nicaragua was one of the first cities founded by the Spanish in Central America around 1524, but it was abandoned in January 1610 after an earthquake which caused massive destruction. In the 17th century, the city was rebuilt 20 miles northwest of the original location. Dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, the cathedral was constructed between 1747 and 1814 and was at the time the largest Catholic church in Central America. It was consecrated in 1860, after Nicaragua gained its independence in 1838. It could indeed be described as the ‘principal church’ of Mexico in the 1760s.

More research online has revealed that a number of Valadier objects – chalices and candlesticks – are still in León. Apparently, most of what was sent from Rome to Mexico in 1767–68 has, for more than 250 years, been in the church for which it was destined, unbeknown to everyone. The pandemic has made it impossible for me to travel to León to examine the pieces, but I am ready to travel to Nicaragua as soon as it is possible to study these remarkable works of art and publish my findings.

From the May 2021 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here