After initial training in his native town of Bergamo, Luigi Pagani (d. 1904) moved to Milan and studied at the prestigious Accademia di Brera under the guidance of Benedetto Cacciatori. After winning the Accademia's annual sculpture competition in 1860 with his Jesus in the Garden (now in the Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Milan), Pagani began his career with several public commissions in Milan, most prominent of which were numerous sculptures for the interior of the Duomo. From the mid-1860s, his work was shown at major annual exhibitions in Brera, Milan, Turin and Rome, and from 1870, at the Royal Academy in London.
Exhibited by Pagani at the Royal Academy in 1872 (given their 1871 date, almost certainly this very pair) and again at the Promotrice di Belle Arti, Turin, in 1880 (probably a later-executed pair), Nelusko and Selika are two of the principal characters in German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (d. 1864), and librettist Eugène Scribe's (d. 1863) popular opera, L'Africaine. First performed in Paris on April 28, 1865, with celebrated baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure in the role of Nelusko and Belgian soprano Marie-Constance Sasse as Selika, L'Africaine is a classic example of French grand opéra, characterised by spectacular scenes and elaborate finales. Like so many other musical, literary and artistic efforts in 19th century France, its story and characters evoke visions of an exotic non-Western world. Scribe's libretto relates how Nelusko and Selika, king and queen in their native East Indian land, are captured by the Portugese explorer, Vasco de Gama, and taken back to Lisbon as proof of a new territory as yet undiscovered by Europeans. In a tale full of intrigue, Selika, herself jealously loved by Nelusko, ends up marrying Vasco in a bid to save his life. However, at the marriage ceremony, Vasco is reunited with his former lover, Inez, who had believed him dead. In the opera's tragic climax, Selika, so distraught at the sight of Vasco and Inez together, kills herself by inhaling the scent of the deadly blossom of the Manchineel tree, and is joined in death by Nelusko.
This magnificent pair of busts, depicting Nelusko and Selika resplendent in their regal robes and elaborate feather headdresses, demonstrates Pagani's highly effective use of combining bronze and marble. A popular vogue in both Italian and French sculpture of the 19th century's second half, and a technique employed by renowned sculptors, such as Pietrò Calvi (d. 1884), Guilio Tadolini (d. 1918) and Charles Cordier (d. 1905), the contrasting combination of the whiteness of marble with the dark patination of bronze was ideally suited to the portrayal of African and Arab subjects, achieving a sense of realism hitherto unattained.