La preghiera del mattino (original model), 1846. Plaster, 139 x 59.4 x 72.6 cm.

Vincenzo Vela: The Politics of the Figure

Every day thousands of people pass by one of the most historically and aesthetically significant monuments of 19th-century sculpture without any knowledge of its existence. Even among art-interested people, few if any have heard of Vincenzo Vela, the artist responsible for Victims of Labor, this curiously invisible monument, which stands at the southern entrance to the St. Gotthard tunnel, one of the most traveled thoroughfares on the continent. Vela (1822–91) is known to a handful of specialists primarily because of his Last Days of Napoleon, which won first prize at the Paris World Fair of 1867. Even in Italy, where he enjoyed his greatest successes, Vela’s name and work have fallen into general oblivion. In his native Switzerland, he is as little known as elsewhere. In the Canton Ticino, he is best known to schoolchildren, who are regularly taken on school excursions to the artist’s splendidly installed and administered home-museum at Ligornetto.

In his day, though, Vela was internationally recognized. Besides the Paris medal, he won any number of honors in Turin, Milan, and Berne, and the Last Days of Napoleon was one of the first sculptures to enter the recently founded Metropolitan Museum in New York. There are many reasons, both obvious and more obscure, behind this oblivion. Ligornetto, where all of Vela’s original plasters can be appreciated, is difficult to reach without a car. Then there is the unfortunate fact that our knowledge and appreciation of Swiss artists is hindered by Switzerland’s division into German, French, and Italian cultural spheres. Artists born in the French part (Vallotton, Le Corbusier) tend to drift toward France, artists from the German-speaking part (Böcklin, Klee) find greater scope in Germany, while artists born in the Italian region are attracted to Italy (Vela) or France (Giacometti). Yet wherever Swiss artists go, they are considered foreigners, while Switzerland ignores them as expatriates. Worse still, unlike France, Switzerland has never had a talent for playing its cultural trump cards and presents first-class talents as if they were mediocrities.