Donato Barcaglia (1849-1930) was both sculptor and architect and studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan. His was a precocious talent, exhibiting his first work at the age of seventeen in 1866: The Harvester, which was acquired by the Società di Belle Arti, and then placed in the Palazzo Reale in Milan by Prince Umberto, where it remains today. Barcaglia swiftly established a prominent studio and enjoyed a highly successful career. He exhibited his work internationally, winning major awards, and as early as 1873 his work La Bolla di Sapone was selected by the Milan Royal Academy as their entry for the International Exhibition in Vienna.
Contemporary revues likened Barcaglia to Canova, and he received numerous commissions, both from the State and from private patrons, ranging from portraits to large ideal figures. Many of his works are conserved in the Galleria d'Arte Moderna in Milan. The Athlete was Barcaglia's magnum opus. First executed in 1898, it was exhibited that same year at the Esposizione Generale Italiana in Turin (no. 87) and was illustrated in their catalogue. In 1902 the same, or a second version of the work was exhibited in St Petersburg, where again it received great acclaim, and was awarded a gold medal.
The Athlete clearly relates to Canova's celebrated pair of Pugilists, and like the Neo-Classical master Barcaglia has chosen to depict the beauty of the male nude. Ultimately, Barcaglia has derived his figure from Antique statues, particularly of athletes and figures of Hercules in repose, such as the celebrated Farnese Hercules, and the bronze Hellenistic Prince, the former in the Museo Nazionale in Naples and the latter in the Museo Nazionale delle Terme in Rome. He would probably have known these two and others from his days of training in Rome. It was Canova who caused the revival of these Hellenistic types of physical potency, and it is this trend which Barcaglia developed in his Roman gladiator.
Like Canova's Pugilists and his Antique predecessors, Barcaglia has chosen to show the male nude in its most resplendent beauty, but simultaneously imbuing it with a Nineteenth century realism. The Classical tree trunk support and the fig leaf have been abandoned for a more realistic wall-like support and a loin-cloth. Moreover, the idealised ground has become an obvious sandy fighting arena, and a pair of soft leather sandals lie to one side. His athlete is in repose, but the set jaw and raised inclination of the head indicate the determination and latent force of character. It is easy to understand that this work was considered Barcaglia's masterpiece, for he has managed to create a vision of the ideal beauty and potential force in man, and to relate it to a practical and real world. This has been achieved not only by an imaginative composition, but also by the highest technical mastery. The Athlete stands as one of the most impressive and key works in marble of the second half of the 19th century in Italy.
Another example of The Athlete, dated 1898, was sold in these rooms, 18 March 1993, lot 46 (£106,000).