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Exotic marble & bronze bust of opera queen links Africa, Italy, Portugal and Bonhams
This marble and bronze bust of an African Queen who marries a Portuguese explorer to save her lover’s life, was created by an Italian sculptor. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- A stunning bust with an extraordinary story that moves between the worlds of early African exploration, opera, art and romance is one of the top items in Bonhams sale of Fine European Furniture, Sculpture and Works of Art on July 5th in London.

This marble and bronze bust of an African Queen who marries a Portuguese explorer to save her lover’s life, was created by an Italian sculptor. Its story was then set to music in an opera by a German composer. Estimated to sell for £80,000 to £120,000 this 33-inch tall (85 cm) work by Luigi Pagani (Italian, 1837-1904) is an impressive white marble and patinated bronze bust of Selika, a character from an opera titled L’Africaine (The African Woman) by the German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer.

François Le Brun, Head of European Furniture at Bonhams comments: “This very fine and imposing bust combines two materials not often seen in partnership, white marble and patinated bronze. And the story it tells crosses time, continents, and the life and death of lovers, set to music. You could say it is the ultimate conversation piece.”

Selika is one of the principal characters from this opera - the last opera by German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer and Eugene Scribe, first performed in Paris on the 25th April 1865 to great acclaim.

A fine example of French Grand Opera, very popular toward the latter 19th century, L'Africaine stages impressive scenes with elaborate costume and spectacular finales. It tells a mythical story set around the Portuguese Explorer Vasco de Gama based on the 'discoveries of the new world' and portrays visions of the exotic non-western world, yet to be discovered by Europeans.

It is in this New World that Nelusko and Selika both King and Queen of their native East-India are found and captured by the Portuguese explorer and returned to Lisbon as proof of his discovery of new and uncharted territory. The jealous Nelusko loves Selika, but she decides to marry Vasco de Gama in a bid to secure Nelusko's life.

Later, Vasco is reunited with his former love Inez who believed him dead. The opera ends with Inez and Nelusko in despair over the marriage, taking their own lives by inhaling the scent of a deadly blossom from the Machineel tree. It is an opera rich with tales of romance, intrigue and despair.

Other highlights of the sale on 5th July include a pair of important 18th century giltwood mirrors from the property of an Italian noble family. It is likely that the exquisite mirrors were previously owned by the Donà dalle Rose family, a celebrated Patrician family from the Republic of Venice. The Donà family commanded great respect through the ages, with ambassadors, procurators, senators, bishops and patriarchs listed among their members since the 11th century.

The pair of mirrors, which are offered with an estimate of £80,000 – 120,000, formed part of an impressive collection in the Palazzo Donà della Rose, a stunning example of late Renaissance Venetian architecture. The Palazzo was commissioned at the end of the 16th century, by two of the family’s three Dogi, Leonardo and Nicolò.

The sale will also feature an eclectic collection from a European decorator. The key lots from this collection are a selection of pieces by the famed furniture-maker Carlo Bugatti, which are expected to make at least £30,000 in total. The most unusual and spectacular piece is a throne estimated at £12,000 – 18,000 and made from copper, brass and pewter inlaid stained wood, walnut and vellum. Bugatti was a highly regarded figure of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, earning an honorary prize for his designs in London.

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