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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

Giovanni Bianchi

Giovanni Bianchi (c1808 - 1872)

This Italian figure maker produced busts of some notable Norwich people. These include the murderers James Greenacre, Daniel Good, James Rush, Henry Groom, as well as the scientist Johnson Jex.

In the early nineteenth century the study of phrenology and mesmerism was popular and among the many distinguished members of the Phrenological Association was William Stark FGS (1788-1863), who became a member in 1840. He was the son of the Norwich dyer, Michael Stark, and brother to the artist James Stark. William Stark's house and premises were at 52 Colegate, on the corner with Duke Street. He had a collection of 'heads' which he donated to the Norwich Castle museum where they remain. Some of these casts have 'G Bianchi' signed in the plaster on the reverse.  .

Giovanni Bianchi lived nearby in Bridge Street, now St Georges (middle) Street where he stayed for 30 years after arriving from London. He arrived in London about 1836, aged about 27, although he may have travelled to England several times before.  He probably learnt the art of casting in plaster at a young age.

The Italian 'figurinai' were makers of plaster figures who came mainly from the area around Lucca near Florence. They usually travelled in a small group with a 'leader' who would make the figures in moulds and despatch the young boys to sell them in the towns along the route. In return, the 'master' would provide accommodation and food for them. Some of the masters could be harsh, forcing the boys to work hard selling the figures. These travelling bands of Italians walked overland all over Europe, many arrived on the streets of England, particularly London. They often came for a season, returning home in time for the harvest. Giovanni may have become a 'leader' himself, or he may have stayed in London and worked for one of the many figure makers and modellers in the city.

In 1837 Giovanni married Sarah Rivett, originally from Great Yarmouth, in Ipswich, and they had a son who died less than a year later. By 1841 they were living in Bridge Street Norwich, where he describes his trade as 'figure maker'.

While at this address they had a further eight children, four of whom survived to have families. Giovanni continued his work in Norwich, describing himself in the censuses as figure maker, plaster figure maker, and finally, artist. He was also listed in the local trade directories.

He died in May 1872 aged 65 of bronchitis, his obituary in the Norwich Mercury reading, "On 21st inst after along and painful affliction Giovanni Bianchi of this city, much respected in the 65th year of his age." After Giovanni's death the family left Norwich to live in the Bethnal Green area of London, where they followed other trades. His wife Sarah died there in 1877 aged 59.

The premises in 'Bridge Street' were demolished in 1937 when it was number 31 George Street,  along with number 33 on the corner of Colegate, to improve visibility.

Elaine Cordingley

February 2011