Having started work as a stonecutter when still very young, Vela received his initial training at Viggiù and then moved to Milan, where he worked on the Cathedral and enrolled at the Brera Academy of Fine Arts in 1832. The influence of Lorenzo Bartolini’s work led to the adoption of a naturalistic approach and the early 1840s saw a number of figures in contemporary dress in obvious contrast to the classical approach still dominant in sculpture. Francesco Hayez played an active part in securing prestigious commissions for him from the liberal aristocracy and bourgeoisie of Lombardy, above all for works of a patriotic nature alluding to the Italian political situation. After a short stay in Rome, he enlisted in 1848 to serve as a volunteer in the first war of independence. He then moved to Turin, where he held the chair in sculpture at the Albertina Academy, in 1852. His repertoire of funerary monuments, portraits and public works drawing inspiration from the struggle for national liberation proved a great success also in France, where his work dedicated to the last days of Napoleon’s life won a prize at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867 and ensured his renown. He returned to Ligornetto in the same year and took up residence in the villa built to house the works from his studios in Turin. His mature production is characterised by a repertoire of portraits and funerary monuments, and includes a naturalistic relief dedicated to those killed during the construction of the Gotthard rail tunnel (1882–83).