After receiving his initial artistic training at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, Lorenzo Bartolini travelled just before the turn of the century to Paris, where he worked on major commissions. Elisa Baciocchi, Napoleon's sister, appointed him to the post of Professor of Sculpture at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Carrara in 1807 and he soon became the official sculptor to the Bonaparte family. On his return to Florence after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, he found that the mood prevailing in the city was hostile to his political leanings. Yet despite this unexpected setback, the commissions which he received, principally from wealthy foreigners, allowed him to overcome the momentarily unfavourable situation.
Marking his distance from the now sterile and academic Neo-Classical taste, he renewed his artistic style and vocabulary by pursuing and promoting the imitation of nature, harking back to the sculpture of the Early Renaissance. He reached the peak of his popularity in the 1820s and '30s, with commissions ranging from the production of monuments to portraits of internationally renowned aristocrats.
The first monographic exhibition devoted to Bartolini, entitled Lorenzo Bartolini, the Sculptor of Natural Beauty, was held at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence in 2011, finally doing full justice to one of the greatest Italian sculptors of the first half of the nineteenth century.
This portrait of the noblewoman Carlotta Barbolani di Montauto, an outstanding example of Bartolini's much-praised mature style, can be dated to around 1820–22. The magnificent hairstyle is held in place by a comb bearing the arms of the Barbolani di Montauto, thus allowing us to identify the sitter.
An unexpected side effect of the recent reopening of the Museo di Casa Martelli in Florence has been the identification of the noblewoman portrayed by Lorenzo Bartolini.
The "Salone dopo la Cappella" in Casa Martelli had been divided into two and given a false ceiling, but when it was restored, a fresco was discovered relating to the marriage of Marianna Velluti Zati to Alessandro di Niccolò Martelli in 1846. The room was also found to contain a small painting by Luigi Mussini, initialled L. M. and dated 1845. The painting was a portrait of Carlotta Barbolani di Montauto, the Duchess of San Clemente (Figs. 1/a, 1/b) and Marianna Velluti Zati's mother. The young bride is highly likely to have brought this portrait with her to her new home in order to remind her of her mother, who had died the year before the wedding. The distinctive features characterising the face of the sitter in Lorenzo Bartolini's portrait – the aquiline nose, the high cheekbones and the rounded chin – bear a truly striking similarity to the features of the sitter in the Casa Martelli painting, indeed so striking as virtually to overlap.
Carlotta di Federigo Barbolani da Montauto (1780 – 1845) married Simone Francesco Velluti Zati, the Duke of San Clemente, in 1805. Born on 18 November 1775, the Duke was a Knight of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem – the so-called Sovereign Military Order of Malta – who lived with his family in Florence, where he died on 13 January 1816. The Duke had no children by Margherita, his first wife and the daughter of Baron Bettino Ricasoli, but his second wife, Carlotta, gave him four children. Luisa, who married Count Giovan Battista Capponi in 1830, was a lady at the grand ducal court; Clementina died still a spinster in 1830; Marianna, after fulfilling the role of lady-in-waiting to the widowed Grand Duchess Maria Ferdinanda, married Alessandro Martelli in 1805, as we have seen; and Simone Vincenzo, the only son, who was born on 1 April 1808, was chamberlain to Grand Duke Leopoldo II and married Marianna, the daughter of Cavalier Priore Michele Giuntini.
As for the chronology, basing on stylistic evidence the bust can be dated 1820–22.
Bartolini's pupil Elisio Schianta tells us in his anthology of the master's most celebrated works:
"Madame la Contesse de Montau. He made two, sending one to Paris; the other went to Prince Demidoff; both made by Bartolini."
Russian Prince Nicola Demidoff took up residence in Palazzo San Clemente in Florence in 1822. The palazzo belonged at the time to Carlotta Barbolani, the Duchess of San Clemente, which may also explain the portrait of the noblewoman that was carved for him. Although Carlotta was already forty years old in 1820, the sculptor may well have pandered to a whim and made his sitter look considerably younger in his portrait.