Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sani, Tomaso (1839–1915)

by Noel S. Hutchison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Tomaso Sani (1839-1915), sculptor, was born in Florence, Italy, son of Stephen Sani, farmer, and his wife Catherine, née Falconi. He trained as a sculptor's pointing assistant and migrated to Melbourne in the late 1870s. In 1880 he exhibited a marble statue, 'Welcome', in the Italian sculpture section of the Melbourne International Exhibition. Soon afterwards he moved to Sydney.

In May 1882 Sani was engaged by the colonial architect, James Barnet, to carve for £800 high relief figures on the spandrels of the Pitt Street façade of the new General Post Office. Barnet intended that Sani should depict contemporary types of Australian men and women in realistic form, but when completed in August 1883 they caused a public outcry and became known as 'Barnet's blot': questions were asked in parliament, and in letters to the Sydney Morning Herald they were castigated as 'grotesque and inartistic' and 'terrible travesties'. In October the government appointed a board comprising W. W. Wardell, H. C. Dangar and E. Du Faur to report on the carvings; it unanimously recommended their replacement by blocks of stone. Barnet defended Sani's work: 'the bold and dashing stroke of the chisel … shows the artist's power of producing a masterly effect of life and reality with a few touches', and pointed out that realism had become common in European art. The government approved the removal but in June 1884 the postmaster-general, James Norton, suggested that they follow Barnet's plea to 'wait and see'. Despite (Sir) Frederick Darley's efforts in the Legislative Council and other sporadic protests for over a decade, the sculptures were left untouched. In 1886 they were pronounced works of art by the Legislative Council.

Sani sculptured other public statues, such as 'Aesculapius' for the old Medical School building, University of Sydney, and a bronze 'Mercury' for the Evening News building in Market Street, but his reputation suffered from the odium raised by the Post Office carvings. In 1889 he was bankrupt; with debts of £1420 his only asset was a half-share in 'Welcome' which did not realize the expenses of its removal. He then borrowed money to build a new studio at Annandale. In 1891 he was commissioned by Sir Henry Parkes to cast 'Footballer' in bronze for Centennial Park and the statues, at £150 each, of Allan Cunningham, W. C. Wentworth and Barnet for niches on the Lands Department building; however, Sir George Dibbs substituted Sir John Robertson for Barnet.

Sani soon felt the loss of his patronage when Barnet was replaced in 1890; he apparently had no more public commissions after 1892 and was again bankrupt in 1895. Aged 76, he died of senile decay at Paddington on 28 August 1915 and was buried in the Catholic section of Rookwood cemetery. At the Registrar-General's Department, Sydney, on 16 August 1884 he had married Marie Louise Barry of Melbourne; he was survived by their daughter. 'A man of talent and cultivation, accustomed to the advanced style of architecture', Sani's sculpture was generally realistic in style with an underlying humour that contributed to his unpopularity.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1883, 1538, 1886, 1167, 1890, 6413
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1883-84, 9, 557, 563
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Dec 1890
  • Australasian Art Review, 1 July 1899
  • G. V. F. Mann, Controversy over the Post-Office Carvings (1934, State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. Barnet papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • D. I. McDonald, Barnet notes, 3149 (National Library of Australia)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • bankruptcy files, 9592/6. 1258/1 (State Records New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Noel S. Hutchison, 'Sani, Tomaso (1839–1915)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sani-tomaso-4537/text7433, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 31 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Birth

1839
Florence, Tuscany, Italy

Death

28 August 1915
Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation