Life and work
Early life, training and career
Pistrucci was born in Rome, second son, of a family of three, of Frederico Pistrucci, a judge in the federal court, and Antonia (née Greco). His elder brother Phillip became a painter, copper-plate engraver and poet. He was educated in Rome, Bologna and Naples, but was not an outstanding scholar. However, he acquired an interest in art and received instruction first from a cameo engraver known as "Mango", in Rome, then trained under Stefano Tofanelli.
During his recovery from a serious injury sustained in a fight, Pistrucci taught himself to model in wax at home. His models attracted favourable attention and led to his employment as a cameo maker for a merchant called Domenico Desalief. At the age of 15, he was placed with the gem-engraver Nicolo Morelli (1771–1830), whose patrons included the Pope and Napoleon I. There he gained great experience in carving cameos and also attended the drawing academy at the Campidoglio, where he obtained first prize in sculpture. At the age of 16 years, he left his master – who by then was said to be quite jealous of his pupil's abilities – and set up in business on his own, "loaded with commissions on all sides".
In 1802, Pistrucci married Barbara Folchi, daughter of a well-to-do merchant. He continued working in Rome, turning out portrait cameos and engraved gems, until 1814. He then moved to Paris, France, in December 1814, where he fulfilled several orders, and made a wax cameo of Napoleon, which he, apparently, kept in his pocket so he could compare it to the "original" when he appeared in public. He then went on to London, England in 1815, becoming very successful and wealthy as a cameo designer and maker, and was eventually presented to the Master of the Mint, Wellesley Pole.
Chief-medallist at the London Royal Mint
After the death of Thomas Wyon in 1817, Wellesly Pole offered Pistrucci the post of Chief-engraver at the Royal Mint, with a salary of £500 p.a. and a house within the grounds of the Mint. In fact, although he performed the duties of a de facto Chief-engraver, he never officially occupied the post due to controversy on the grounds of his foreign origin. A compromise was eventually agreed, in 1828, whereby William Wyon was made Chief-engraver and Pistrucci, "Chief-medallist".
Pistrucci created the St. George & the Dragon design used on British gold sovereigns and crowns first seen during the Great Recoinage of 1816. He cut the dies for the coinage from 1817: The Crowns were issued in 1818, 1819 and 1820. In 1820, he engraved a George III Five Pound piece, of which only 25 specimens were officially made; however on the death of the king, a few more were authorised. In that year the Pattern Two Pound piece was issued, limited to 60 coins. Sovereigns appeared in all the years from 1817–20, and Half-sovereigns in 1817, 1818, and 1820, as well as many other proofs and patterns. He also engraved the early coins of George IV's reign: the Double Sovereign, 1823; Sovereign, 1821-1825; Half-sovereign, 1821 and 1823–25; Crown, 1821–22; Pattern Crown (called "the handsomest coin in Europe" by Denon, Director of the French Mint) etc.
Pistrucci's involvement with the coinage ceased in 1825 but he continued at the Mint until 1849 as a medallist. He also engaged in private work as a cameo- and Intaglio-maker, commanding high prices for his work, and turned out the occasional bust. Amongst others, he designed the Coronation medal of George IV, and a medal to commemorate the King's visit to Ireland in 1821. In 1838, he made the silver seal of the Duchy of Lancaster, claiming to have invented a new process by which the punch or die could be cast in metal directly from the original wax or clay mould, rather than having to be copied by hand engraving.
Pistrucci is renowned for the massive 140.8 mm, 677.5 g Waterloo Medal, which took over 30 years to complete, and for which he was paid the sum of £3,500. It was begun in 1817 but the matrices were not delivered to the Master of the Mint until 1850.
To immortalize the successful Waterloo campaign, the Duke of Wellington suggested that a couple of special medals be prepared. From a July 11, 1815, letter from Master of the Mint, W. W. Pole, to the president of the Royal Academy:
- "I have been commanded to strike two Medals at the Royal Mint in commemoration of the battles of Les Quatre Bras and Waterloo; One, in gold, of the largest size, to embrace the exploits of the allied army under the Duke of Wellington the Prince of Orange and the Duke of Brunswick, and of the Prussian Army under Field Marshal Blucher. This Medal will probably be given to each of the sovereigns in alliance with the Prince Regent, to their ministers and generals."
Medallists were petitioned to submit designs for the medal. Pistrucci's design was selected over a design by John Flaxman, which had been recommended by the Royal Academy. However, due to an internal strife at the Royal Mint between Pistrucci, Pole, and Wyon regarding the position of chief engraver, work on the medal got off to a slow start. Ongoing personality conflicts within the Royal Mint, salary disputes, a heavy workload, and the utter complexities of the proposed design were all contributing factors as to why it took Pistrucci 33 years to complete his masterpiece. In 1849 the dies were reportedly finished, but only in terms of design execution. Although the dies were created in four pieces to assist in their hardening, it seems that nobody was willing to take the risk of damaging Pistrucci's work that was three decades in the making. By that time, all of the intended recipients of the medal were deceased, with the exception of Wellington. Gutta-percha impressions and electrotypes were finally created. Pistrucci was finally able to see his magnum opus in medal form.
Final years and family
Pistrucci died at his home, Flora Lodge, Englefield Green, near Windsor, of "inflammation of the lungs", on 16 September 1855. He is buried in Virginia Water, Surrey, at Christ Church. He has a prominent gravestone which cites his title as Her Majesty's "Chief Medallist". His grave is situated at the front of the church under a tree.
Pistrucci had six children; the two eldest, Victoria and Vincenzio, were born at Rome, and one died in early youth. His son, Camillo Pistrucci, was a pupil of sculptor, Bertel Thorvaldsen, and obtained an appointment from the Papal government to restore ancient statues. He died of cholera in 1854. The two younger daughters, Elena Pistrucci and Maria Elisa Pistrucci (Signora Marsuzi), who resided for some years at the Mint with their father, became well-known Cameo-engravers.
- Leonard Forrer. Biographical dictionary of medallists: coin, gem, and seal engravers, mint-masters, etc., volume 4 (London: Spink & son, 1904) p. 582 ff.
- "Waterloo Medal by Benedetto Pistrucci", 25 August 2008, CoinLink news site
- See: Heritage Auction Galleries, Sept 16 2008 auction of electrotype medal, copyright acknowledged.
- Billing, Archibald & Pistrucci, B. The science of gems, jewels, coins, and medals, ancient and modern (inc. biography of Pistrucci) (London: Bell & Daldy, 1867) pp. 135-211. Illustrated.
- "Pistrucci, Benedetto". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. Contains list of works as well as biography.
- Leonard Forrer. Benedetto Pistrucci: Italian medallist & gem-engraver, 1784-1855 (Spink, 1906).
- Michael A. Marsh. Benedetto Pistrucci: principal engraver and chief medallist of the Royal Mint, 1783-1855 (Michael A. Marsh (Publications), 1996).
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Benedetto Pistrucci.|
- B. Pistrucci at Artnet
- Pieces by Pistrucci in the Royal Collection
- Head of Medusa, Cameo (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
- Portraits by Pistrucci (National Portrait Gallery, London)
- History of Pistrucci and his work at the Royal Mint Museum
- Benedetto Pistrucci, in: World of coins
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