The opening of a photography exhibition has been turning heads at the MFAH in recent days. Helmut Newton: White Women • Sleepless Nights • Big Nudes will be on view through the end of September, featuring images from the famed fashion photographer’s first three books. While there are no such exhibitions planned for Rienzi, and I can’t speak for any sleepless nights at the house, we are home to a few White Women, Big Nudes . . .
Rienzi houses two monumental nineteenth-century sculptures of nude women by Italian artists. The female nude has been a template for design throughout the history of art, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, marble statues from antiquity held particular interest. Artists in this period sought to re-create or even perfect the human form, believing that such work had the potential to absorb and elevate the viewer. Inspired by newly recovered ancient Greek and Roman examples, figures such as Rienzi’s Venere Italica, from c. 1817, and Young Dionysus with a Nymph, from 1866, were thought to express a timeless beauty.
Rienzi’s Venus is attributed to brothers Giovanni and Pietro Pisani, and modeled after a much celebrated work by Antonio Canova, itself an interpretation of an ancient Roman statue. The statue was purchased by Sir William Amcotts Ingilby (1783–1854), a gentleman and a great eccentric, on one of his many trips to the Continent. It was then sent back to England by ship, and carried on a barge to Ripley Castle in Yorkshire, home of the Ingilbys. (Sir William, an avid drinker and gambler, was thought to be a bit nutty at the time for pursuing higher standards of living standards for the working classes. He died without an heir and left the estate to his cousin Henry, telling him that he was doing so because, “I don’t believe that you are any longer the canting hypocrite I took you for.”) The statue previously occupied the Drawing Room of Ripley Castle, where she gracefully stood atop reinforced floor planks.
Added to the Rienzi Collection in 1995, Venere Italica was purchased by Harris Masterson as he was preparing the home to become a museum collection. The sculpture’s second journey was made by plane and truck, and the work was installed under the supervision of Mr. Masterson with the assistance of the museum’s Preparations staff. After mapping out the placement using a cardboard cut-out, this 2,000 lb sculpture was slowly and carefully positioned in the Gallery of Rienzi’s Ballroom. Surprisingly, Harris Masterson called the preparators back to Rienzi the following day to move her several inches closer to the window so that he could enjoy an unobstructed view from his favorite Ballroom chair.
The adoring nymph in Giovanni Maria Benzoni's Young Dionysus wtih a Nymph sits just inside Rienzi's cental entrance where she greets guests upon their arrival. If you’re planning to see the Helmut Newton show at the MFAH, come visit some of the older Big Nudes at Rienzi.