Filippo Cifariello “Gattonero” was a talented sculptor. He was so next to the reality in reproducing the features of the people in his artistic works that his colleagues said he was doing casts taken in real life. He murdered his first wife and, after a trial that caused a sensation, he was acquitted by reason of insanity.
Filippo Antonio Cifariello was the son of Ferdinando Cifariello, a modest artist from Bari origins who provided for his large family, five children and a wife, Giovanna Rutigliano, making the singer in little vocal companies, activities that was not shielded him from misery. Filippo was born July 3, 1864 in Molfetta. He soon moved to Naples, following in his father’s vicissitudes. Young had to get busy, leaving the studies, to support his family. He built of clay figurines and sold them, obtaining some money, taking advantage of his natural inclination to sculpture.
Filippo was noted for his skill in easily reproducing the features of people in small clay busts, he was able to attend the Istituto di Belle Arti of Naples where he attended lectures by Gioacchino Toma. He finished his studies devoting himself to sculpture, following the current of the “verism” ( “Primi palpiti”, clay, collection Banco di Napoli), which was opposed to the “academicism“. He was accused, so his sculptures could represent reality in every detail, to make reproductions using casts taken from live. The answer, to nip these rumors, was that Cifariello aka “Gattonero” retraced his figures on a smaller scale, where there could be no possibility of using casts. Never failed to laugh at his fellow sculptors of faith “academic” challenging them to create art through the technique of the casts of which they accused him: he said: “Form (from casts, author’s note), colleagues, well formed, on the condition you make art”.
In 1889, he criticized Rodin and his “verism” during the Universal Exhibition in Paris surprisingly, saw his total adherence to the “verism” art current, making great praise for academic sculptors present exposure. He returned from Paris moving to Rome where he lived and worked for many years as a guest in the palace of Prince Odescalchi who particularly appreciated his art. Cifariello presented to the First Exhibition of the City of Rome several of his works, he was a member of the local Circle International Artistic, acquiring a reputation that went beyond the Italian borders.
An evening he met the French singer soubrette Maria Brown, aka Bianche de Mercy, during a theatrical performance at the Teatro del Varietà in Rome. Cifariello invited her to his studio to make her pose for a statue. The soubrette went to study with her mother, then later alone. Despite courting that the sculptor did to her, she never granted herself to him, until one day she made love with him, but this was only once. Maria Brown broke off contact with the Cifariello perhaps tired of his insistence, although the sculptor was very in love of the beautiful Bianche de Mercy.
In the following two years he did not meet the singer. Filippo had almost forgotten the love affair with that wonderful creature, and he had resumed fiercely his artistic work that now was receiving a great success also economically. One day he met Maria by chance who was walking with her mother. Filippo was not particularly impressed by the encounter but Maria insisted to meet again him. Slowly the love fever rekindled for “chanteuse”. It did not last long, after some time again the love went cold and Mary Brown left for a tournée abroad. There was a third meeting, definitive, since the two were married on May 12, 1894.
A time of joy, disappointment and jealousy began for the sculptor, and the great need to earn, since the money that the sculptor gave to his wife for the family menage never seemed to be enough. One day Filippo found some letters of a suitor of his wife, after a violent scene Maria, making excuses, blamed the mother of the incident. Filippo Cifariello accepted an artistic director task of a factory of porcelain in Germany, to try to sever these friendly relationships with other men that his wife continued to foster despite the marriage. At the end of ‘800 he moved with his wife and mother-in-law in Passau, in Bavaria (Germany) as artistic director of the famous porcelain “Lenk” factory producing flowers, statuettes and small items of biscuit. Cifariello designed and produced several of the objects produced in that period from Passau factory.
The wife left her husband to resume the life she loved best, unsatisfied of menage leading in the small German town, she was on the stage of a variety theaters of Rome and around of the city. Bianche de Mercy got an engagement for a concert tour in the United States, where she stayed a year abandoning her husband who had returned to Rome. When she returned from the American tour, resuming her place in the marital home together with Filippo. In 1905, after the inauguration of his statue of Umberto I Cifariello had performed on behalf of the city of Bari, the couple separated themselves. The wife went to Rome to resume her singing activities, while Cifariello returned to his Napoli taking accommodation in the Mascotte hotel in Posillipo.
After ups and downs with required separation advanced from his wife and momentary reconciliations, on August 9, 1905 Filippo Cifariello surprises his wife in a room of Mascotte hotel with the lawyer Soria, a family friend. After improbable explanations, it seemed that the matter was clarified. But, during the night, it began a new fight between Maria and Filippo. Suddenly Maria brandished a revolver she kept hidden under her pillow and threatened her husband. Cifariello, losing completely his senses, took a gun from his suitcase, pointing it against his wife, fired five times. It was five in the morning of August 10, 1905, Marie Brown died instantly.
The trial was held in the Court of Campobasso in 1908, after the same trial had to be suspended in Naples court and transferred for legitimate suspicion because of the public crowd that wanted to attend the trial for the clamor that the news item had aroused. During the trial was exemplified a previous mental illness with manic-depressive crisis that Filippo Cifariello had suffered years earlier, it was also taken account of the state of mind-altering of the sculptor at the time of the crime. Cifariello was acquitted for total insanity of mind because of this precedent and to the skill of his top lawyers, Pietro Pansini and Gaetano Manfredi.
After this tragedy the artistic life of Filippo Cifariello came out destroyed. He had to start virtually from scratch, but his talent was soon forced itself doing forget the tragedy of which he was the protagonist. The tragedy had accentuated its “verism”. He preferred reproducing, in his artistic job, the human features accompanied by a psychological reading of the subject taken as a model, just making to realize the character of the person from facial expressions of his statues. Among his jobs we note the pianist statue “Nadler” (1898) and tenor “Caruso” (exhibited in Paris), the bust of the painter “Costa“.
In 1914 he, 50s, remarried a twenty-two years old named Evelina Fabbri; however she died in a domestic accident after three weeks of marriage: a alcohol stove broke on her, wrapping her in the flames, in the apartment of the couple in via Solimena in Naples (Vomero). Poor Evelina had time before dying to report to his rescuers that it had been an accident, exonerating her husband from any suspicion.
There was a third marriage in 1928 with German Anna Maria Marzell, of which Cifariello did two sculptures, a plaster “La signora delle ortensie, Anna Maria Cifariello” and a marble “Maternità” located at the museum of San Martino (Naples). Two sons were born from this union, Filippo and Antonio Cifariello. In 1931 the sculptor wrote one of the most beautiful autobiographical books of the twentieth century “Tre vite in una” where he told the story of his artistic and family life with poetic vein, it was published by the Bottega d’Arte of Livorno.
On April 5, 1936 Filippo Cifariello, suffering of a clinical depression for several years, took his own life by shooting himself with a gun in his studio in Naples, Via Solimena 10 to Vomero, located to little distance from his home.
The son of the sculptor, Antonio Cifariello born in 1930, became a famous film actor; he was called to interpret more than forty films, especially Italian comedies, including the most famous “Pane, amore e …” and “Vacanze a Ischia”; he was in the cast of “Le ragazze di San Frediano” under the guidance of Valerio Zurlini; he participated in several television dramas including “Dr. Antonio” of 1954; he married the actress Patrizia Della Rovere from which in 1960 he had a baby. the misfortune continued even after death to haunt Filippo Cifariello: on 12 December 1968 his son Antonio, 38s, died in a plane crash in Lusaka, Zambia.
(Top photo: Filippo Cifariello – Busto in gesso di Enrico Caruso – 1899 – Ph. Sailko 2013 CC BY 3.0)
Enciclopedia Treccani: Filippo Antonio Cifariello (Dizionario-Biografico)
Filippo Cifariello, Tre vite in una, Livorno, Bottega d’arte, 1931
Nino Marazzita, Cento anni fa il delitto a Posillipo, www.poliziaedemocrazia.it