Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 17, 2014
Patricia Wengraf Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Hill Collection Exh. cat. London: Paul Holberton Publishing, 2014. 376 pp.; 250 color ills. Cloth $100.00 (9781907372636)
Exhibition schedule: Frick Collection, New York, January 28‒June 15, 2014
Installation view at The Frick Collection showing Giuseppe Piamontini’s Prince Ferdinando di Cosimo III on Horseback with Cy Twombly’s Untitled (detail), “Chalkboard” series (1970). © Cy Twombly Foundation. Both works from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. J. Tomilson Hill. Photo: Michael Bodycomb.

The Frick Collection has positioned itself as one of the premier forums for the study and exhibition of Renaissance and Baroque bronze sculpture. Past exhibitions have focused on single artists as well as on individual collections: Willem van Tetrode (2003), Andrea Riccio (2008), Antico (2012), the private Quentin collection (2004), and a selection from the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (2005). With Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Hill Collection, curated by Patricia Wengraf, the Frick adds to this impressive list with the first public exhibition of the formidable bronze collection of Janine and J. Tomilson Hill.

The collection as a whole presents a chronicle of the history of the bronze statuette in Italy and northern Europe in its period of full bloom, from the late fifteenth century to the end of the eighteenth. The exhibition does not arrange the bronzes in rigid chronological order; rather, they are grouped according to themes or subject matter and divided between three main spaces: religious works are displayed in the upstairs Cabinet room, while two ground-floor galleries feature larger, mostly secular bronzes in one and smaller bronzes in the other. Greeting the visitor outside the lower galleries are Willem van Tetrode’s Mars Gradivus (late 1560s) and Antonio Susini’s Mars (ca. 1600–8), as well as a brief but highly informative video display that demonstrates the bronze-casting process. In the room dedicated to smaller statuettes viewers immediately encounter the work of Giambologna—casts of the Astronomy (early 1570s), Bull (1573), and Pacing Horse (ca. 1573–77)—the sculptor who most exploited the reproductive potential of the small bronze in the commercial sphere. Also central to the dissemination of Giambologna’s types was the activity of his assistant, Antonio Susini. Surrounding Giambologna’s bronzes—one might say that they radiate out from them—are Susini’s works after the older master, including the Rape of a Sabine (ca. 1585) and a group from a series of the twelve labors of Hercules (Hercules Slaying a Centaur [ca. 1600–10], Hercules and the Hydra [ca. 1614–24], and Hercules and Antaeus [ca. 1625–50], the latter by Antonio’s nephew Gianfrancesco).

Along the far wall, the interest in antiquity that fueled the development of the art form—recalling that bronze itself was associated with the classical past—is represented in the collection’s trio of early bronzetti: the Hercules Resting (early 1490s), similar to the Farnese Hercules (third-century CE copy of a fourth-century BCE original) type (but closest to the version in the Ny Glyptothek, Copenhagen, as argued on page 81 of the catalogue), attributed to Hermes Flavius de Bonis, who took on the name of the original’s famous maker, Lysippus; Maso Finiguerra’s Hercules and Antaeus (ca. 1460), likely in dialogue with an admired Roman fragment of the same subject later installed in the courtyard of the Pitti Palace, Florence; and Andrea Riccio’s Strigil Bearer (ca. 1515–20), not a derivation from one primary prototype, but a synthesis of multiple antique sources, both written and visual. Nearby, Hubert Le Sueur’s Venus (ca. 1641–60), deeply indebted to Venus Pudica sculptures, attests to the continuing fascination of antiquity.

In the Cabinet and larger works rooms, the bronzes have been paired with a selection of paintings (and one sculpture), also from the Hill collection. These include paintings by Cy Twombly and Ed Ruscha, and the terra-cotta Crocifisso (1950–52) by Lucio Fontana, as well as a mid-fifteenth-century Man of Sorrows by Giovanni di Paolo, and the small Assumption of the Virgin by Peter Paul Rubens. The inclusion of these works not only conveys a sense of how the bronzes are normally displayed within the Hill residence, but also provides an apt and updated context for the bronzetti, one akin to their original destinations in the private collections and studioli of the Renaissance and after. The juxtaposition of the vivacious line in Twombly’s Untitled (1970) (from his “Chalkboard” series) with the energetic rearing horse of Giuseppe Piamontini’s Prince Ferdinando di Cosimo III on Horseback (by 1717), for instance, is poignant. The most profitable pairing, though, is that of Rubens’s Assumption with another seventeenth-century work, the bronze relief of the same subject by an anonymous French sculptor (ca. 1650–1700). While the composition of the bronze Assumption has already been connected to a larger painting of the subject by Simon Vouet (see pp. 310–12 in the catalogue), the placement of the bronze beside Rubens’s painterly treatment of the theme draws attention to the sculptor’s efforts to convey different textures and atmospheres, distinguishing between cloud, air, earth, flesh, and other stuffs through subtle variations in surface treatment.

In contrast with typical practice, which would have placed these bronzes inside vitrines, nothing comes between the viewer and the sculptures in this exhibition. The benefits of this are multiple, and immediately palpable. Touching and handling bronzetti was central to their appreciation in the Renaissance (on this phenomenon see Geraldine A. Johnson, “In the Hand of the Beholder: Isabella d’Este and the Sensual Allure of Sculpture,” in Sense and the Senses in Early Modern Art and Cultural Practice, eds., Alice E. Sanger and Siv Tove Kulbrandstad Walker, Burlington: Ashgate, 2012, 183–97); the absence of an intervening glass screen conveys a sense of the haptic appeal these objects would have had for period viewers. The variations between tendon, skin, and muscles in the Ecorché, by an anonymous Italian of the first half of the sixteenth century, for example, stimulate the viewer’s tactile imagination. Furthermore, one can peek into every nook of these bronzes and be rewarded with bravura passages of casting and finishing that might otherwise have remained out of sight. The visitor thus partakes in the same kind of delight in close inspection and appreciation of facture that these works’ original owners could have experienced. The arms of Alessandro Algardi’s Christ at the Column (ca. 1630s), for instance, are not engaged to his lower back, but hover mere millimeters above it. Similarly, the left arm of Piamontini’s Milo of Croton (ca. 1725–30) does not rest on the tree stub directly below it. Milo’s outstretched and unsupported forearm recalls the audacious cantileverings—made possible by the material’s tensile strength—that sculptors strove to incorporate into large-scale bronze sculpture. The disengaged limb thus seems to be in motion, adding to the urgency in this work’s subject matter: according to legend, Milo is attempting to wrench his arm free from the cleft in the tree trunk—unable to do so, he is devoured by wolves.

Accompanying the exhibition is a lavish and sizable catalogue that features entries on the thirty-three individual bronzes in addition to two extended essays and brief biographies of each sculptor represented in the collection. The volume will be most useful to specialist readers. Other than the opening acknowledgements, there is no introduction that provides an overview of the development of the bronzetto as an art form and its vogue among collectors. Because of its restricted focus on a single artist, Wengraf’s essay on Adriaen de Vries thus makes for a somewhat awkward beginning to a catalogue for an exhibition with such broad chronological and geographical range. The reader has the sensation of arriving in medias res at a rich discussion—one that is, nonetheless, an important resource for scholars interested in bronzes and the history of collecting.

The aim of Wengraf’s essay is to illustrate the importance of the Milanese Leone Leoni in the artistic formation of the Fleming Adriaen de Vries, an influence she feels is perhaps overlooked due to de Vries’s experience in Florence where he worked under his fellow countryman Giambologna. (An essay by Rosemarie Mulcahy, “Adriaen de Vries in the Workshop of Pompeo Leoni,” in Frits Scholten, Adriaen de Vries 1556–1626, Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum, 1998, 46–51, cited by Wengraf, is another useful examination of the importance of Leoni to de Vries.) In the second essay, Dimitrios Zikos brings to light the collection of small bronzes and terra-cotta models once owned by Giovan Battista Borri, a late eighteenth-century Florentine tailor and enthusiast of Kleinplastik who amassed a collection of works by contemporary sculptors that was far more impressive than his modest social status would have led one to expect. Zikos has appended transcriptions of both inventories with a helpful commentary. Where possible he has identified the works listed with ones that are known. The Hercules and Cerberus by Piamontini now in the Hill collection (ca. 1715–25), for example, appears to be the same one listed in Borri’s possession. The publication and analysis of these inventories provides a valuable resource for those interested in the history of Kleinplastik collecting, and underscores the historical lineage of the Hills’ collecting practice.

The substantial catalogue entries by Wengraf, Zikos, Denise Allen, and Claudia Kryza-Gersch constitute a valuable scholarly resource: they trace the attribution histories of the bronzes and explicate their relationship to variants or related versions. The bronzes have been examined with the utmost attention to detail: when distinguishing between different casts and models, the writers draw attention to the length of a stride or to the height to which an arm is raised. This intense scrutiny is not limited to formal characteristics, but extends to metallurgical ones as well: Rupert Harris has compiled a chemical analysis of the alloys for thirty of the bronzes, appended to the catalogue. Particularly illuminating are the many catalogue entries that inscribe these bronzes within the dense network of Renaissance painted, sculpted, and printed imagery, and the period’s literature on the visual arts. In the deceptively simple composition of Riccio’s Strigil Bearer, for instance, the authors discern the echoes of Plinian subject matter, as well as the ideas of Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci, and Pomponius Gauricus on composition, anatomy, and animation. In the entry on the large Bacchic Man (ca. 1578–80), Kryza-Gersch proposes the intriguing possibility that the man behind the mask is none other than the late sixteenth-century art theorist Giovan Paolo Lomazzo, personifying the Milanese artistic and literary circle known as the Accademia della Val di Blenio.

Though the volume’s bulk is cumbersome, it is more than offset by the many high-quality full-page color photographs of the Hill bronzes; these images document the works from multiple angles, including many close-ups revealing fascinating details. For instance, the reader is treated not only to front and rear views of the Hercules and Antaeus attributed to Maso Finiguerra (ca. 1460), but also to the streaks and wear to the patina, thick modeling of the hair, and varied incisions of the beard in a detail of Antaeus’s torso and agonized face. The added advantage of having such large illustrations is that in many instances the bronzes are reproduced quite near to their actual size, a rare treat, especially for works of sculpture. The quality of these illustrations and of the catalogue entries themselves ensures that the bronzes of this impressive private collection will remain accessible both to the public and to enthusiasts of bronze sculpture of the Renaissance and Baroque era even after the exhibition is no longer on view.

Lorenzo G. Buonanno
Lecturer, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University

Please send comments about this review to