Francesco Pezzicar’s L’Abolizione della schiavitù across empires
in Republics and empires
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This chapter critically considers the place of Francesco Pezzicar’s L’Abolizione della schiavitù negli Stati Uniti, 1873–75 (The Abolition of Slavery in the United States), a sculptural homage to the abolition of American slavery, at a time of shifting national and imperial allegiances in Italy and Austria. The monumental work commemorated the issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation during the American Civil War, which proclaimed freedom for people enslaved in areas of the country under rebellion. It depicts an African American man with arms outstretched, one wrist bearing a broken shackle and holding overhead a fragment of bronze inscribed with excerpts from President Lincoln’s decree. The sculpture was exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial and in the artist’s home city of Trieste, an Austrian free port that lay just outside the borders of the Italian nation until the early twentieth century. Its reception tells us much about the ways in which the sculpture entered into entangled dialogues on American slavery, Italian liberation, and Austrian imperial aims. Pezzicar depicted the former bondsperson as a powerful instigator – rather than a recipient – of his own liberation. When exhibited in Trieste, rather than situating the work in an American context, viewers assimilated and appropriated the sculpture into a constructed mythos of Italian sovereignty that stretched from Roman antiquity to the Risorgimento and irredentism. Ultimately, this chapter seeks to interrogate how a sculpture about Emancipation might reveal and obscure the construction of the liberal categories of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation’ at the crossroads of abolition and empire.

Republics and empires

Italian and American art in transnational perspective, 1840–1970

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