"I shall honor my chisel with cutting his bust." – Giuseppe Ceracchi

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In 1791, James Madison became friends with an unlikely companion, Italian sculptor Guiseppe Ceracchi (1751-1801) who moved to the new American capitol to carve a commemorative monument of the American Revolution. Madison, then a congressman from Virginia’s fifth district, lodged with Ceracchi at Mary House’s boardinghouse on the corner of Fifth and Market Streets. Madison described Ceracchi, whom he “knew well,” as “an artist celebrated by his genius.”1 Similarly, Ceracchi described Madison as having the “Eminent Genius to draw the plan of the present Costitution [sic].” After his initial meeting with Madison, Ceracchi wrote Thomas Jefferson that he was satisfied to confirm Madison’s merit, noting that he would “honor my chisel with cutting his bust.”2

During Ceracchi’s time in Philadelphia, he sculpted terra cotta busts of Madison, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, David Rittenhouse, and many other prominent political leaders.3 According to a postscript in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Ceracchi discovered flaws in the alabaster for Madison’s piece, but salvaged his work by transforming the bust into a profile relief mounted on a marble roundel.4

The medallion, originally intended as a gift for Jefferson, was detained by New York customs agents until late 1794, allowing Ceracchi to present the medallion to Madison’s new wife “as a token of the respectful Estime [sic] that Mr Ceracchi as the honnour to acknowledge to her as well as to her husband.”5 Considered a great likeness of Madison, one visitor to Montpelier described the piece as “one of the most finished [statues] I have ever seen, even in the immense numbers displayed in the Louvre.” To this visitor the bust “represented Mr. M in the act of delivering one of his logical, convincing, and unanswerable arguments, on the floor of Congress.–The expanded lips seem to breathe, to speak, as genius inspires, warm from the soul and faithful to its fires.”6

A revolutionary figure himself, Ceracchi spent his final years in France, exiled from Italy because of his radical sympathies with contemporary Jacobin uprisings. Eventually executed in France, Madison remarked that Ceracchi “was an enthusiastic worshipper of Liberty and Fame, and his whole soul was bent on securing the latter by rearing a monument to the former.”7

Notes:

1. James Madison to George Tucker, April 30, 1830, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

2. Giuseppe Ceracchi to Thomas Jefferson, July 16, 1792, Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

3. Pam Potter-Hennessey, “Sculpture Report: James Madison’s Montpelier,” December 2010, Montpelier Foundation, Orange, Orange County, Virginia. 

4. Giuseppe Ceracchi to Thomas Jefferson, March 11, 1794, Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

5. Giuseppe Ceracchi to Dolley Payne Todd Madison, ca. May 1795, Unlocated. 

6. From a Traveling Correspondent of the Patriot. Natural Bridge,” Baltimore Patriot (Baltimore, MD), September 23, 1831, 2.

7. James Madison to George Tucker, April 30, 1830, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 

John Trumbull's Giuseppe Ceracchi, United States, ca. 1792, oil on wood, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 35.36.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Montpelier Staff