By Costanza Beltrami

Sculptor Ottaviano Pannella, born in Ascoli Piceno on 23 December 1635, died on 10 December 1661 in Rome. As we know from the biography published in 1676 by his cousin Giovanni Battista Tuzj, Ottaviano studied the classics, humanities, and drawing at a local school. Nevertheless, he was completely self-taught in what became his passion and specialty, boxwood carvings often too small to be completely intelligible to the unaided eye. Complex and skillful, Ottaviano’s artworks made him immediately famous. In 1651 he moved to Rome to seek new teachers, patrons, and fame.

In Rome, Ottaviano met the baroque genius Gianlorenzo Bernini. Despite praising Ottaviano’s micro-sculptures, Bernini refused to become his teacher. Instead, Ottaviano studied the works of the great masters of the past, for example Michelangelo. Very soon, he was employed by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni (later Pope Alexander VIII). Ottavio followed Ottoboni to the North of Italy when the Cardinal was nominated Bishop of Brescia. There, he carved a roundel showing Christ with the crown of thorns, a wood scene carved into a fake pine cone, a low relief with birds and ornamental scrolls, and a mythological scene carved into a fake seashell. Among Ottaviano’s few surviving works, the four reliefs are now in the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. The last three possibly formed part of a series on the elements, as they may represent Earth (the wood scene), Air (the birds) and Water (the sea shell). They epitomize a baroque passion for blurring the boundaries between nature and human invention. Moreover, they link art to science as their contemplation required the use of optical instruments.

In 1660 Ottaviano returned to Rome, where he hoped to enter the service of Christina, the exiled Queen of Sweden, an outstanding patroness of art and knowledge. In Rome Ottaviano realized his most bizarre work, a carving of Horatius Cocles dfending the Sublicius bridge on a cherry stone. Extremely fragile, the artwork soon broke, and we only know of its existence through contemporary descriptions. Although ephemeral, this artwork is a testament to Ottaviano’s virtuosity. In the following months, the artist experimented with miniature painting, taking lessons from female artist Giovanna Garzoni. Unfortunately, his life was cut short by an illness on 10 December 1661.

Visit the Art Gallery of Ontario’s “Boxwood Project” to learn more about the making of boxwood sculpture.

References: “JANNELLA, Ottaviano.“ Benezit Dictionary of Artists. Oxford Art Online,; Patrizia Peron, “JANNELLA, Ottaviano,” Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 62 (2004),

Collector’s cabinet known as Monumentino, containing four sculptures, the tools and eyeglasses of Ottaviano Jannella (c. 1654 – 1660), and an engraved portrait of the artist by Bernardino Consorti (1819). The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Inv. no. AGOID.29339.

Wood scene, from the Monumentino.

Low-relief, from the Monumentino.

Marine scene, from the Monumentino.

Tools of Ottaviano Jannella, from the Monumentino.

Eyeglasses of Ottaviano Jannella, from the Monumentino. 

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