One of the most intriguing figures in the history of Murcia City is a sculptor, Francisco Salzillo, whose life covered much of the 18th Century. Salzillo’s father, Nicolás, arrived in Murcia from Naples (which was, at that time, part of Spain) at the end of the 17th Century and his son, Francisco, was born on 12th May 1707.
He was one of eight children of Nicolás and his Murcian wife, Isabel Alcaraz.
At one time, it appeared that Francisco Salzillo was destined for Holy Orders. He was educated by the Jesuits and it appears that he even entered a Dominican Order as a novice, but then, in 1727, at the age of 20, his father died and Francisco took over the family workshop beginning his illustrious career as a sculptor. Two of his brothers initially worked with him. It was only in November 1746 that Salzillo married one Juana Vallajo y Taibila, who predeceased him in 1763. Together they had two children. The first, Nicolas, was born in 1750 but died the following year and it is said that the sadness of the event, as it affected his wife, was used by Salzillo in some of the facial expressions in his sculpting thereafter. Their other child was a daughter, Maria Fulgencia.
One of the most striking features about Salzillo’s life was his commitment to Murcia, although we have seen it suggested that, at an early stage in his career, he wanted to go to Rome to perfect his artistic techniques, but was dissuaded by his mother. Thereafter, it appears that he only ever journeyed out of Murcia City on one occasion when he went to Cartagena in 1755 to deliver statues of the four saints of that city. He even refused an invitation from that other famous Murcian of the time, the Count of Floridablanca, to go to the Royal Court in Madrid which must have offered even more fame and riches for Salzillo.
Salzillo’s material of choice for his sculptures was polychromed wood. His method of working was to sketch his ideas and then model them in clay or a similar material. Because of the close direction which Salzillo exercised over the activities in his workshop, there was always an underlying uniformity in the nature of the final results. However, it is said that Salzillo’s style changed during his long career from Rococo to Neoclassical, although there was always an underlying Italian Baroque influence. From 1740, however, his personal style became more evident.
Salzillo founded the Murcian School of Sculpture which continued beyond his lifetime. From 1765, particularly with the assistance of one of his ‘disciples’, Roque Lopez, his workshop became quite prolific in its output. As well as undertaking work for individuals and organisations in Murcia City (patrons were generally the religious brotherhoods, cofradías, and rich nobles), Salzillo received commissions from many other places including Alicante, Albacete and Almeria.
Even in his life, it appears that Salzillo came to be regarded by his contemporaries as already a famous Spanish sculptor. This was at a time, in the 18th Century, when art and sculpture in Spain began to emerge from the depressed state which had afflicted it since the disappearance of the Renaissance artists. Art and artists began to flow in from all over Europe. Of course, it probably helped that this was a period when Murcia, in particular, had resources and money which it was able to devote to such ends, partly as a result of its having supported the winning side, the Bourbons, in the War of Spanish Succession. Salzillo’s success saw him appointed in 1759 as the ‘Escultor Oficial del Consejo de Murcia e Inspector de Pintura y Escultura’ – effectively the City’s Official Sculptor. When Salzillo died on 2 March 1783, the occasion was one for local mourning.
If that is Francisco Salzillo, what about his work? It was emphasised to us when we were touring some of Salzillo’s works in Murcia, that he had a very distinctive style in his major pieces, sculpting different parts of the body in cypress wood before sticking them together and skilfully covering the joints. The clothed areas would be covered in gold leaf before being over-painted. The superimposed colours would then be scratched off to expose the gold leaf as necessary in his intricate designs. He also paid special attention to the eyes and developed a new technique of using glass rather than painted egg shells, in order to give greater realism. In addition, he seems to have been someone who felt himself very close to his fellow Murcians and tried to make his figures relate to them wherever possible, whether in their form or dress, as is well evidenced in some of his works to be found in many of the churches in the city.
Today, there is even a museum dedicated to Salzillo in Murcia City, by the Plaza San Agustín. It is linked to the adjacent Iglesia de Nuestro Padre Jesús and, together, they give an excellent portrayal of Salzillo and his works. Although the definitive proposal for a museum only dates from the 1950s, the idea dates back much further, even into the previous century.
Two aspects of the displays in the museum particularly caught our eye when we visited it some time ago. First there were the many greyish figurines or ‘bocetos’. These are the clay pieces shaped by hand as references for the subsequent statues. Then, there was the marvellous and extensive collection of nativity figures, known as ‘Belén’. Each of the figurines is about 12 inches high and is richly decorated. Salzillo began work on these figures in 1776 for his friend, a rich nobleman, Jesualdo Riquelme y Fontes, to decorate his palace. The collection was, however, incomplete at the time of Salzillo’s death in 1783 and its completion in the years to 1800 is attributed to Roque Lopez, with the final total of figures exceeding 550. The collection came to the museum in 1956. The church also contains many works by Salzillo and we were particularly impressed by the collection in one of the chapels representing the Last Supper. Many of the statues are taken out of the church and paraded through the streets in the great Semana Santa celebrations in Murcia City each Easter. Other churches in the city have works by Salzillo: Murcia Cathedral, San Juan de Dios (now a museum), Santa Eulalia (with an impressive statue to Francisco Salzillo in the square outside), Santo Domingo and San Pedro to name but a handful.
Part taken from ‘Exploring Murcia – Murcia City’, by Clive and Rosie Palmer. Clive and Rosie have written several guide books on towns and regions in Murcia which are available from www.lulu.com, or contact email@example.com