Needles in the Hay Stacks…
Just about 10 years ago, I came across a vintage Holy Family made of paper mache in a 12” series (or 30cm) by Fontanini. The Fontanini Company was founded in 1908 by Emanuele Fontanini, an artist in Nativity Sculpture who felt he could be more effective as a designer if he branched out on his own. Headquartered in Bagni di Lucca, the Fontanini brand grew to be known around the world as one of the premier and most well-known makers of Nativities. Many of their iconic designs were created by master Sculptor Elio Simmonetti. His 30cm designs in paper mache were manufactured in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s before the series was changed to be made of their trademarked Polymer. Fontanini has now specialized in Nativity Figures for more than 115 years.
Thus began the obsession to find the rest of the set. Thanks to Ebay, Etsy and a few helpful collectors both in the United States and in Italy, my collection has now grown to over 200 Cartapesta Figures in 30cm/12″. Finding many of the rarest figures came from random searches in Italian. (fontanini cartapesta 30 cm, presepe personaggi 30 cm, etc.)
These are the only catalog images available (the first 3 are compliments of another collector). Thanks to them and a few other collectors who have generously shared their knowledge, I have pieced together this collection and all that I know about it.
A little more to the story…
In 2017, while at AmericasMart in Atlanta, I met Emanuele Fontanini, 4th Generation of the Fontanini Nativity Makers, at the Roman, Inc. showroom. We talked for a bit about figures from this set. He remembers them well but thought that the only catalogs that remain in the family archives are too brittle to be handled. What photos exist on the internet have become the authority on the subject. Many of these more obscure and rare pieces were not as readily available in the US market.
Below are individual figure images. I believe that with several of these figures, multiple versions were sculpted and distributed. Their color themes and finish patina are identical to those officially of Fontanini (pictured last)
Rumor has it, there are other figures that were made by Fontanini in the traditional Cartapesta but I have yet to even find official photographs. I have heard of a Majestic Standing Angel in White Gown and a Bare-Chested Camel Driver to name a few. I believe that I have some of these, but since no official Fontanini images exist, it is difficult to know for sure.
In the process of tracking down the Fontanini figures, I have added additional figures which are likely made by Euromarchi, another factory in Bagni di Lucca, with gestures and paint colors very similar to those of Fontanini. Again, no “official” catalogs exist of these either. I’ve seen the name Viviani and believe that some of these figures could be theirs as well. So, I decided that since there are so many beautiful figures from all of the makers, and the colors and styles all work well together, that I have combined these sets and made one gigantic presepe. Hopefully not offending the studio makers, I now have great groupings of figures. (people at the well, musicians, a fishing group, general villagers, etc.)
These are figures that I couldn’t trace to a maker (Fontanini, Euromarchi, Viviani or other)
As with any collection, one never knows when to call it “complete”. Here are images of figures that I know exist, but don’t have. Who knows if I will ever find them? If I do, will I buy them? And at that point, will I have room for them? I guess I have to start building the display and decide as the opportunity comes.