Secrets of the Veiled Ladies
These marble masterworks became a Victorian phenomenon, but they were much more than pretty faces.
On October 12, 1846, William Spencer Cavendish dropped by the studio of Raffaelle Monti, in Milan, Italy, to inquire about a lady. Cavendish was the 6th Duke of Devonshire, widely known in England as the “bachelor duke.” He had eight of the finest homes in Britain. He had 200,000 acres of British soil. He had a banana named after himself — the Cavendish, cultivated in his gardens and soon to become the world’s most popular variety. And now, at 56, he wanted a certain young woman, demurely and paradoxically hiding behind a veil of stone.
Veiled figures, usually carved from marble and suggesting a face or body partly obscured behind fabric, had first become popular a hundred years earlier, in the 1700s. The effect is an illusion, of course, enabled by translucent marble and a sly composition. It is no more real than a lady being sawed in half onstage, a kind of parlor trick for late Baroque sculptors to show off their chops. But as illusions go, it’s mesmerizing, and sculptors competed to put all manner of subjects under “see-through” garments, from the Virgin Mary to Mary Magdalene. Cavendish was friends with Antonio Canova, a fellow bachelor and popular Italian sculptor, who adored a veiled Christ carved by Giuseppe Sanmartino in 1753 and declared that he would have given up 10 years of his life to create such a masterpiece.