Previously unpublished letters of Henryk and Karol Marconi at the Getty Research Institute

Andrzej Betlej

Cracow, Jagiellonian University


The purpose of the article is to discuss the correspondence between Warsaw artists Henryk and Karol Marconi, and a Roman sculptor and architect, Luca Carimini. Found at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, the previously unpublished sources allow a more detailed history of the Sobieski Chapel, which was built at the Wilanów Palace between 1852 and 1863 on the initiative of its owners, August and Aleksandra Potocki, to be traced. The identification of the elements produced by the Italian designer is helpful in identifying references to his Italian works, which allude to the masterpieces of the Quattrocento on the one hand, and, on the other, heavily draw from the repertoire of classicist decorative forms. The correspondence also allows the process by which Polish aristocracy commissioned Italian artwork for import to Polish lands to be trace.

Keywords: Henryk Marconi, Karol Marconi, Luca Carimini, Wilanów, palace, Sobieski chapel, neo-Renaissance, imports


The collections of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles contain four hereto unknown letters from Henryk and Karol Marconi[1] to the architect, sculptor and stonemason Luca Carimini (1830–1890) concerning the decoration of the chapel at the Wilanów Palace. The chapel is relatively well-studied thanks to a wealth of preserved sources and project drawings.

It was built between 1852 and 1863 on the initiative of August Potocki and his wife Aleksandra on the very site where, according to tradition, King John III Sobieski is said to have died. The architects of the chapel were Henryk Marconi and Franciszek Maria Lanci.

The altar, the tabernacle, and the decoration of the walls, doors, and windows of the chapel are the work of Carimini, while the stature of Holy Mary, modelled on Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, was sculpted by the Italian Vincenzo Gaiassi. A local plasterer from Powsinek, Józef Klimczak, designed the stucco decoration for the dome. The bronze door was cast in Minter’s foundry in Warsaw, and four bas-reliefs with evangelical scenes were commissioned from the Parisian studio of Jean-Baptiste Lavastre.[2]

The scope of Luca Carimini’s responsibilities was outlined in a contract signed on 21 April 1858 and bookkeeping records confirm that the commissioned elements were in fact produced.[3]

This text is to be treated as an appendix illustrating certain aspects of the chapel’s construction.

The first letter (see Annex, no. 1) from 8 November 1857 appears to be a reply to an earlier correspondence from Carimini. Henryk Marconi notifies the artist of August and Aleksandra Potocki’s journey to Italy, emphasizing that “it is primarily countess Aleksandra who oversees the works underway in their lands and palaces in Warsaw; she is the one interested in the building of our chapel”, and announces their imminent visit to the artist’s studio. As seen in the letter, the discussion was still centred upon the materials from which particular elements of the furnishings were to be made. It is evident that Marconi knew Carimini’s earlier works and had presented them to his patrons; Stanisław Potocki “bought the 16th century-style Carrara marble fireplace of which you gave me a drawing”. The sculptor was commissioned to make Carrara marble candlesticks and a tabernacle from “various kinds of marble” (along came the requested dimensions), as well as the altar stone. Importantly, he was also entrusted with designing the model of a ceiling decorated with caissons. The architect attached great weight to the choice of marble, insisting on the appropriate arrangement of colors in the interior so that the end result would be “in harmony with the fundamental idea”; the chapel was to be “white at the top, and two-colored at the bottom. The gildings, the frescoes in the two lunettes, the tabernacle from a variety of marbles, and the marble Holy Mary” were supposed to “create sufficient diversity without prejudicing the unity”.

It is almost certain that Marconi had plans for a closer cooperation with the Roman artist. He wrote:

For some time now, this city [Warsaw – A.B.] has been developing in civilization on a par with other European cities, and is showing an ever greater inclination towards the fine arts. Buildings these days seem better designed and more comfortable, more finely built, more elegant and decorative, especially in the eyes of the well-traveled. […] I know of a few good works of architecture for which I could propose new decorations, even more artistic than those produced thus far. I think, nay, I am sure, that a sculptor of your stature could find a profitable and honorable employment here.

Translated by Urszula Jachimczak

[1] Library of The Getty Research Institute, The Special Collection, sign. 910046 (see: Annex).

[2] Katalog rysunków architektonicznych Henryka i Leonarda Marconich w Archiwum Głównym Akt Dawnych w Warszawie, eds. T.S. Jaroszewski, A. Rottermund, Warszawa 1977, pp. 102–103 (eleven drawings: two versions of a projection with the composition of the floor (items 527, 530), three sectional views of the altar wall (items 528, 529, 532), and a sectional view of the wall with a window (item 533), architectural details (profile of the corner faults – item 534, two cornices above the archivolt – items 535, 536), the project of a candlestick (item 538), and a project of a bronze frame by Leonard Marconi (item 539). Some drawings (item 527, 528) were previously attributed to Franciszek Maria Lanci; W. Fijałkowski, Wnętrza pałacu w Wilanowie, Warszawa 1986, pp. 147–149; A. Majdowski, Ze studiów nad fundacjami Potockich z Wilanowa, Warszawa 1993, p. 36.

[3] Fijałkowski 1986 (fn. 2), p. 191; Majdowski 1993 (fn. 2), p. 36 (based on: Central Archives of Historical Records in Warsaw, Wilanów Castle Archives, Kontrola jeneralna Dóbr Augusta Potockiego, sign. 2; Kontrakty rzymskie; Zestawienie kosztów podróży Augustowej Potockiej do Italii oraz wydatków na zakupy dla pałacu i kościoła w Wilanowie, 1757–1759).

[4] This probably refers to Antoni Sikorski, who collaborated with Marconi on the Church of St Anne in Wilanów, Majdowski 1993 (fn. 2), p. 90.

[5] Why the Lis sign was added is unclear. The conjunction of the two may suggest a common foundation with someone who used the Lis coat of arms belonging to the Sapieha family in Poland. No such initiative is known to have been undertaken by Aleksandra Potocka. Another possible interpretation could be that the sign was meant to emphasize family relationships; however, no close ancestors using this sign are to be found in either August’s or Aleksandra’s family tree.

[6] These include a technical drawing of the marble cladding (with comments in Italian) and the profiles of the cornices. The most interesting, however, is the project of the candlestick with Italian comments by the designer (Katalog rysunków… 1977, p. 103, item 537). Marconi mentions candlesticks in his letter from November 1857.

[7] The Polish works (also referred to as “tomba di Sobieski”) are mentioned in: G. Priori, M. Tabarrini, Luca Carimini (1830–1890), Modena 1993, pp. 123, 124; Carimini Luca, in: Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon. Die bildenden Künstler aller Zeit und Völker, vol. 16, München–Leipzig–London 1997, p. 392.

[8] The works are mentioned in: Priori, Tabarrini 1993 (fn. 7), p. 123; Carimini… 1997 (fn. 7), p. 392.

[9] G. Ciucci, Luca Carimini, in: Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 20, 1977, p. 321.

[10] Ibidem.

[11] The far-reaching resemblances are emphasized by Priori, Tabarrini 1993 (fn. 7), pp. 23, 33, 65.

[12] Henryk Marconi to Luca Carimini, letter from 8 November 1857 (Annex, no. 1). Similar expressions can also be found in the letter by Karol Marconi from December 1858. Looking for a partner, Karol Marconi comments: “in the decorative arts, I have never strayed from the path set out by the Italian painters of the 16th century, especially the school of Raphael, always studying the sublime style with utmost attention. The audience is slowly coming to appreciate the style as well; if I had a partner, together we could plant the flag of the great Italian school. It is my dream that we finally chase away the German brown sauces [? – the wording in the letter is not clear: “magari zirigogoli” – A.B.] and the French delicacies”.

[13] See: Majdowski 1993 (fn. 2), pp. 81–91.

* i quali non sono ancora ordinati [note on the margin – A.B.].

** I si pronuncia Potoschi [note at the bottom – A.B.]

* Il marmo intorno coprirà il quadro di 0,0/2 di modo che lo spazio visibile del quadro sarà alto 0,816 largo 0,672. Nel calco che vi mandai le misure sono giuste [note at the bottom – A.B.].

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