Algardi, Alessandro

Bologna 1598 - Rome 1654
Biography & List of works

Christ Falling on the Road to Calvary (under the Weight of the Cross)

Christ Falling on the Road to Calvary (under the Weight of the Cross)


Medium: Terracotta

Size: 17.5 x 24.2 cm


Private Collection, Paris


This terracotta is the subject of a paper by Dr. Jennifer Montagu.

This small figure of Christ bearing his cross to Calvary is full of deep pathos: pilgrims’ guides to the Holy Land pointed to the stone on the Via Dolorosa on which Christ was said to have fallen, and his braced arm with the hand clutching this stone dramatically sets off the lack of strength in his exhausted body. The dragged left leg can carry him no further. The face is marked with profound suffering, and the heavy modelling of the drapery conveys the weight bearing him down, even in the absence of the cross.

Not surprisingly, the model proved remarkably popular, and there are at least 17 bronze casts of varying quality (but many extremely fine), not to mention examples in other materials, or copies in different dimensions. Yet strangely there is no documentation, and I know of only one mention in an inventory (of the silversmith Antonio d’Amico Moretti, of 1690) of a bronze which was probably of this model.

It was first ascribed to Algardi by Hermanin in 1924; other names were subsequently proposed, but the attribution to Algardi now seems to be generally accepted. The modelling is entirely in his manner. The head and hair are close to the Crucifix which is undoubtedly by him, and the figure shares many features with the Baptism of Christ now generally agreed to be his work. The modelling of the drapery in broad planes between ridged folds, creating a pattern of highlights enclosing deep shadows, can be compared to his small model for the St. Nicholas of Tolentino. This is a late work, and I believe that the Christ Falling under the Cross would also have been made late in the sculptor’s life.

There are numerous differences within the corpus of known casts: (1) while there is almost invariably a small plant beneath the rock, this varies in form, and there it often another plant in the foreground of the frontal view, usually grass-like; (2) almost always the crown of thorns is shown, though the thorns may be more or less emphasised; on one cast it stands proud of Christ’s head; (3) the cord round Christ’s waist often has an end falling to the ground, though is position varies; (4) the general formation of the terrain is usually the same, but casts differ in detail, and the sharpness of the edges; (5) in most of the better casts Christ’s robe is matted, usually by rather coarse punching. While some of these changes could have been made in the wax, it is likely that more than one terracotta model served for the casts. Whether multiple terracottas would have been produced in Algardi’s workshop is a moot point, and, if not, it is impossible to say which type represents his original idea.

This has only the one plant, and there is no indication of the free end of the cord. Obviously, there is no after-work on the robe, but remarkable and unique are the marks of the toothed modelling tool on the ground. There are, however, two differences from the bronze casts that deserve to be noted, and must be explained. Firstly, in all the casts there is an outcrop of rock rising up at the left that could (and in some cases does) support the crossbar of the cross. Here, however there is a later excavation in the rock below this rising feature; presumably this once supported the cross, though it is difficult to envisage just how the bar set at right-angles to the cross borne on his body could have landed there. More significant than this modification, clearly made after the clay was modelled and baked, is the angle of Christ’s head, which is significantly lower than in any of the bronzes, and slightly more frontal. These differences, together with the tool-marks on the ground, prove that this could not be the model used to create any of the known bronzes.

This raises the fundamental question: is this a copy, or the artist’s original model, subsequently modified? I believe that the former is highly unlikely: there is no reason for a copyist to have made these changes, and the differences in the known casts already suggest either that more than one model was used (presumably copied free-hand in order to produce casts in other workshops), or that quite substantial changes were made in the waxes. Moreover, the high quality of the terracotta, and the freshness of the modelling, point to Algardi as the author.

It is rather sketchier than most of the known terracottas, which makes direct comparisons of modelling technique difficult. Throughout there are signs of a rapid and controlled use of the modelling tools, with none of the dry attention to detail that might be expected in a copy. This is most evident in the striations of the ground, but is equally characteristic of the formation of the plant, the hair on the back of Christ’s head, or the sliced edges of his fingers. The face is depicted broadly, but the bone structure and the emotionally drawn features are clearly delineated: the almost closed eyes and the half-open mouth. The hair falls on his shoulders in typically broadly modelled locks, and the drapery has the easy rhythmic flow so typical of Algardi. Some characteristics of the modelling can be found in others of his terracottas, even though these may not have been specific to Algardi. For example, the Titan in the Hermitage has a ground similarly worked with a clawed modelling tool, and the pointed end of the tool has been used to indicate the pubic hair in much the same way as it has been used to model the small plant in this terracotta. The way the modelling tool has been drawn through the clay to delineate the hair can be matched on the rather earlier model for the relief on the tomb of Leo XI (Rome, Accademia di S. Luca) on the back of the head of the seated figure of Henri IV.

Incised below the base is the letter “E”, the meaning of which is unknown. It should be noted that only one of Algardi’s assistants, Ercole Ferrata, had a name beginning with that letter, but his large collection of models by or after Algardi is listed in his inventory, and this figure does not appear.


Jennifer Montagu