Antico was perhaps the greatest bronze sculptor of the High Renaissance. He is credited with pioneering the replication of his highly refined statuettes around 1500 when his contemporaries in Florence were still using a technique which allowed only one-off bronzes to be cast. Only his Florentine contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, seems to have appreciated the possibilities of developments in casting before it was fully embraced by Giambologna and his followers a generation later. Antico's technical innovations were influenced by the particular demands of the Mantuan court of the Gonzaga in which he worked, where the passion for antiquity and the demand for highly intricate objects were shared by different members of the Gonzaga family who each wanted examples of his beautifully worked statuettes.
Nicholas Penny has described Antico's model of the Seated Nymph as 'perhaps his most perfect creation' (Radcliffe and Penny, op.cit. p.87). The present autograph version of this model has never been published and adds significantly to our understanding of Antico's work and in particular to our interpretation of his commissions for this subject. As one of Antico's most accomplished inspirations from antiquity the Seated Nymph is known in at least 12 other sixteenth century variants. However, the only other bronze that is beyond question an autograph cast is the superb example in the Robert H. Smith collection. The following text explores the position of the Bedford Antico within the work of the sculptor and explains its relationship to the Smith bronze.
The Mantuan court of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, Ludovico Gonzaga and Isabella d'Este
Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi was born in Mantua around 1460. He trained as a goldsmith and by 1479 he was producing medals of the highest standard for the Gonzaga. The Gonzaga were not only patrons of architecture but also collectors of painting and sculpture, both ancient and 'modern', on the grandest and most luxurious scale. Antico also had a special interest in antiquity, visiting Rome several times in the 1480's, on one occasion to carry out restoration of one of the horses of Montecavallo, on the supporting pier of which he carved his pseudonym Anticus Mantuanus Rf. He used the name Antico in documents and in abbreviated form on his earliest dated medal made for his first patron Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, Count of Rodigo (1445-1496). This medal was made shortly after Gianfrancesco's marriage to the wealthy and cultivated Neapolitan princess, Antonia del Balzo, in 1479. Their court was based at the Castle of Bozzolo, on land acquired south of Mantua by Gianfranceso and his brother Bishop Ludovico (1460-1511) after the death of their father. They presided over one of the most brilliant humanistic early Renaissance courts in Europe, flourishing in the Arts, Music and Literature.
Antico worked and lived in a room in the castle at Bozzolo through the 1480's. The inventory made after Gianfrancesco's death in 1496 is the first evidence that Antico produced small bronze statuettes for his patrons. Among the models listed, are some of those most reproduced later on for his other Gonzaga patrons, such as the Hercules with lion pelt, the Apollo and the Spinario, all of which are based on antique sources seen by the sculptor in Rome. After Gianfrancesco's death Antico remained at the court of his widow, Antonia, who had moved to a different palace at Gazzuolo, with her son Pirro and his erudite daughter Camilla. Here court life continued the glittering artistic tradition of the Bozzolo years and Antico built a house there in which he lived with his wife and maintained until his death in 1538. Through Antonia del Balzo, Antico became associated with Isabella d'Este (1474-1539), the wife of Francesco II Gonzaga (1466-1519). Antonia and Isabella were great friends and remained in correspondence throughout their lives until the death of the old lady at the age of 97.
On returning from his third and probably final trip to Rome in 1498, and before setting up at Gazzuolo, Antico did return to Bozzolo briefly to work for Gianfrancesco's brother, Bishop Ludovico, for whom he produced bronze statuettes from some of the wax models which he had made for Ludovico's older brother. The cultivated Bishop was not only a passionate collector of paintings, objects and sculpture, but also had a most discerning eye and critical judgement. His knowledge of bronze casting was remarkable. He knew that an object cast in bronze from a wax model would be smaller and subsequent castings likewise. In fact he provided Antico with copper and tin with which to produce the bronzes. Ann Allison, in her extremely detailed and thorough study of Antico's bronzes, proposes that the majority of fire gilded bronzes and those of sumptuous quality such as the Apollo in the Cà d'Oro, the Hercules in the Frick Collection, the Spinario in Wrightsman Collection, and perhaps the little Hercules with gilded pelt in a private collection, were made for the Bishop (p.126).
From her Ferrarese background Isabella d'Este brought with her to Mantua her artistic upbringing and appreciation of the arts and music. Her marriage to Francesco II Gonzaga, however, was not a great success and she dedicated much of her time and energy to the patronage of painters, sculptors and writers, in particular Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). She was also fascinated by antiquity, avidly collecting antique sculpture and gems for her 'Grotta' at the Castello di San Giorgio. In 1500 Isabella sent the sculptor Gian Cristoforo Romano to Antico, to ask him to design a sculptural decoration for a doorcase. Antico who was working on models for statuettes for the Bishop declined until the following year, when he cast for her one of the most well known of his models, the Spinario. She placed this over one of the doors in the Castello San Giorgio and two years later she asked the Bishop to order Antico to make a pendant to place over the opposite door (Allison p.40). The choice of the subject seems to have been left up to Antico, but almost certainly it was this model of a Seated Nymph, formerly sometimes identified as Andromeda, because of the rock on which she sits. What we do not know for certain is whether this model was already in existence. Allison says that the description of a bronze figure in Gianfrancesco's 1496 inventory is not detailed enough to confirm the model una figura cum le gambe incrosante de metale (Allison, op.cit., p. 271-4, Doc. 10). However, now that there is the present second autograph version, it seems more plausible that the Seated Nymph is the model referred to in the 1496 inventory.
After the delivery of the companion statuette in 1503, Antico seems to have become a firm favourite with Isabella. He advised her on antiquities, made some small silver sculptures for her and a much documented gold statuette of the young St. John the Baptist. After Francesco's death in 1519, Isabella asked for recasts of bronzes which had been made for the Bishop, to place in her second 'Grotta' in a wing of the Ducal Palace. Known as the Corte Vecchia, the bronzes were to be placed on the highest of two cornices around the room. Antico found eight of his moulds but asked if these could be cast by the founder Maestro Johann, who had previously cast bronzes for the Bishop. Some of these are listed in the 1542 inventories of Isabella (died 1539) and of her son Federico II (died 1540) (Allison pp. 301-305).
The Bedford Nymph and its context in Antico's oeuvre
Many of Antico's models are known in three or more autograph examples of differing details based upon models conceived at the end of the 15th century in Mantua for Gianfrancesco Gonzaga. The most splendid of these appear to be those with fire or mercury gilded decoration, mainly of the hair and drapery, and enriched with silver inlaid eyes. The models cast by Maestro Johann for Gianfrancesco's brother, Bishop Ludovico, from wax models already in existence, are of the richest appearance and of the utmost quality and finish. For the most part, with a few exceptions, those models cast again from existing models for the second 'Grotta' of Isabella d'Este around 1519, are mainly oil rather than fire gilded and lack the silver inlay. Some were not gilded at all. Oil gilding is a less expensive and a faster method of decoration (Allison p. 179 and 209). The detrimental effect of mercury on the health of the founders, or the many demands on her income due to her continuing additions to her collection and the building projects, may have led to this method of gilding.
One of the finest and best known models represented in the groups of three or more casts is the outstanding Apollo after the antique marble in Rome known as the Apollo Belvedere (Allison no. 13). The signed example with mercury gilding of 1498 (Allison pp. 197-116) is now in the Liebieghaus, Frankfurt (Fig. 1). It was modelled for the Bishop after a silver model listed in the inventory of Gianfrancesco in 1496. A variant was cast slightly later around 1501 and is in the Cà d'Oro, Venice. This was probably also made for the Bishop, possibly to give to Isabella, and both of these bronzes have fire gilding and silver eyes. Another variant, from the Beit/Boscowen collections, with oil gilded decoration is considered by Radcliffe to be the latest cast of the three and to have been made for Isabella's second 'Grotta' around 1519 from moulds for the original Frankfurt model. Allison's entry for the Apollo model includes some very good observations about the casting methods and the way in which the models could be reproduced in an altered form while still using parts of the original mould.
As briefly mentioned, Antico cast a Spinario in 1501 from an existing model, referred to in Gianfrancesco's 1496 inventory as un putino de metale ghiamata pastorello, which was presented by Bishop Ludovico to Isabella. It has been proposed by Penny that the pendant she requested in 1503 to be placed opposite the Spinario in her first 'Grotta' at the Castello San Giorgio can be identified as the 19.5cm. high Seated Nymph now in the Robert H. Smith Collection, cat. no.13. Adorned with fire gilded drapery and hair and silver eyes, it was already known to Hermann in 1910 as being that from the Collection of Baron Gustave de Rothschild. It is also identified in the Smith catalogue as the bronze described in the 1684 inventory of an Este villa, near Modena, as una statuina sentata con il panneggiamento dorato. Allison believes that the Smith Nymph's companion is a similarly proportioned Spinario with fire gilded hair and silver eyes now in the Wrightsman Collection, New York (Allison no. 27). However, it should be noted that another cast of the Spinario, apparently without gilding, is also listed in the 1684 Este inventory and is still in the museum there (Allison 27B). Allison explains this by suggesting that the latter belongs to a second group of bronzes made for the second 'Grotta' between 1519 and 1539 which were inferior casts made by Maestro Johann or another member of Antico's shop. Third and fourth casts of the Spinario with oil gilded hair and silver eyes in a London Collection and another known only from photos, formerly in the Prince Trivulzio collection (location unknown), are thought by Allison also to date from the first quarter of the 16th century based on the 1496 model.
It must be noted that in attempting to link the Spinario and Nymph as an original pair, the base or stump of the Wrightsman Spinario is completely different to that of all the other versions. It has a smooth tree stump whereas all the other models have stippled or grainy rock-like seats. The figure of the Wrightsman Spinario was modelled separately and joined in the wax state but the two other versions seem to have been integrally cast, indicating that it is probably the first cast. One is left wondering why would Antico, who seems to have been left to his own devices in producing the companion to a Spinario for Isabella, have modelled the bronzes with such different bases and why he would have made exotic casts to place on a high shelf. Was a model already in existence as suggested earlier in the quotation of the description of Gianfrancesco's inventory and was another bronze cast from this model as was Antico's practice?
The Seated Nymph seems to have been modelled after an antique and headless marble known as the Sandalbinder now in the Uffizi, Florence and of which another version with a faun is in the Vatican Museum (Allison p.185). Antico might have seen the former marble, which came from the collection of Cardinal Della Valle (1463-1534), on his early visits to Rome. It is intriguing to note that Gori, in his publication of 1743 (op.cit), refers to the Della Valle marble as the Venere Spinaria.
The present bronze is identical in size to the Smith Nymph (19.5cm.) and with its stippled base, fire gilded hair and silver eyes, is a new addition to the versions already listed and photographed by Allison (no. 23). Of these, three are particularly relevant in relation to the present example: the Smith bronze, another in the Victoria and Albert Museum and a third of later date in the Staatliche Museum, Berlin. These casts are the only ones where the nymph has her right hand tucked through the drapery across her leg. The Victoria and Albert bronze is a poor cast but may have been repatinated. The tree stump does not compare in quality to the Smith and present examples and the bronze has no signs of gilding or silver inlay. All the other examples listed are smaller, very poor casts of brassy bronze or described as considerably later and by different hands. Only the present bronze and the Smith example can be considered as being autograph and made either for the Bishop, Isabella or another member of the Gonzaga or d'Este families from a model by Antico, probably invented for Gianfrancesco at the end of the 15th century.
It is interesting to note that the head of the present bronze is adorned with a tiara or diadem, replacing the classical knot seen on the Smith bronze. This indicates that the Smith and Bedford Seated Nymphs are autograph replicas with an interchanged part. The tiara on the Bedford Nymph also links it to the larger standing Venus Caritas in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore which also has fire gilding in the hair and silver inlaid eyes. Allison (no.278) dates the Baltimore bronze to 1520-22 and suggests that it was made in homage to Isabella and, together with the standing Mercury (no. 22b) in the the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, was placed by Isabella in her second 'Grotta' in the Corte Vecchia in around 1522. The circular stand of the Bedford Nymph can be found on other bronzes of Antico's production such as the Hercules in Madrid (Allison pl. 105), the Mercury in the Bargello, Florence (Allison pl. 120) and the signed Apollo in the Liebieghaus (pl. 39-40)
The provenance of the Bedford Antico
Although the Victoria and Albert Museum houses some of the finest bronzes by Antico, it is surprising that none of these have a definite provenance back to a major English collection. The appearance of the Seated Nymph at Woburn Abbey is therefore of particular note. This distinction is all the more interesting because we know that for a short period during the seventeenth century at least five major Antico bronzes were highly prized in the most important collection in the country.
Charles I's acquisition of sculptures and paintings from the last of the Gonzaga, Duke Vincenzo II, through the agency of Daniel Nys, is well documented. Amongst the many large antiquities that eventually arrived from Mantua were Antico's delicate bronzes of a Satyr, Hercules and Anteus, Atropos, Hercules and Mercury. Sadly this superb group remained only a few years in England as they were bought by Archduke Leopold Wilhelm von Habsburg at the Commonwealth sales about 1650 and are now in Vienna.
Sculpture has always been closely associated with the collections of the Dukes of Bedford at Woburn Abbey. The sculpture gallery there houses one of the foremost private collections of antique marbles in Britain, complemented by fine examples of 19th century Neo-classical sculpture. It is likely that the Bedford Antico entered the collection between 1730 and 1830 probably during the Grand Tour. John Russell 4th Duke of Bedford (Fig. 3), who purchased the famous series of 24 paintings by Canaletto on the Grand Tour in 1733, would certainly have had the opportunity to acquire such a treasure as the Seated Nymph. However, his son Francis, Marquess of Tavistock (Fig. 4) who took the Grand Tour from 1761 to 1762 seems to have had a greater inclination for sculpture. Indeed he was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds with a bronze of Samson slaying the Phillistine, after Michelangelo, which he must have acquired during his sojourn in Italy and which is still in the collection at Woburn Abbey. Although, it must be said that the only published documents concerning Francis Marquess of Tavistock's travels in Italy relate to his amorous and gambling exploits rather than his collecting, his taste as a collector, can be judged by his probable acquisition of Claude Lorrain's Classical Landscape with Pastoral Figures when he was in Rome. The 5th Duke transformed the conservatory into a sculpture gallery around 1800 when Bedford House in London was demolished and the sculptures transferred to Woburn, but it is the 6th Duke who is credited with building 'that extensive and splendid collection of sculpture which now adorns Woburn Abbey' (History and Description of Woburn and its Abbey, 1890, p.101). The 6th Duke would certainly have been sympathetic to such a fine object which took its influence from antiquity, although his more neo-classical aesthetic would have been more inclined to marble rather than bronze. Indeed it is possible that when the bronze was purchased, it might have been thought to be an antiquity. When the 6th Duke was in Paris in 1803, during the Peace of Amiens, he acquired a large number of antiquities from Napoleon which arrived at Woburn in 36 large cases.
The X-rays of the Bedford Antico show that the head is a solid cast and the torso and rock seat are hollow (Fig. 5). The uneven line visible around the neck indicates where the wax head was attached to the torso. The majority of the arms and parts of the legs are solid. A small circular chaplet is visible in the middle of the back, which has a slight magnetic pull indicating it is made of iron. All these features are consistent with the technical examination of some key Antico bronzes published by Richard Stone in 1981 (see below). An XRF examination has given an alloy analysis reading, taken from the middle of the back, of 91.4% copper, 7.4% tin, 0.3% vanadium, 0.3% lead, 0.2% iron, 0.1% zinc, 0.1% silver and 0.0% cobalt and is consistent with examinations of other Antico bronzes such as the Smith Nymph and the Vienna Venus Felix. The alloy of the separately cast base is higher in lead (5.6%) and antimony (3.0%). The XRF examination has also confirmed that the gilding in the drapery and hair is mercury gilding (containing 4.0% and 6.9% residual mercury in the samples taken). The eyes are inlaid with silver. We may conclude from the technical data supplied by X-rays and XRF of the Bedford Seated Nymph that the facture confirms Antico's authorship of this bronze. It has been suggested by Rupert Harris Conservation that the loss of the toes may have been compounded by an original casting flaw, similar to the flaw on her left calf and that Antico may have had to add on separately cast toes which made them vulnerable to fracture.
Richard Stone's article in the Metropolitan Museum Journal (vol. 16 (1981) pp. 87 -116), entitled "Antico and the Development of Bronze Casting in Italy at the End of the Quattrocento" gives the fullest account of Antico's innovative casting method. Stone notes that the importance of Antico's casting is that he 'was perhaps the first sculptor to realise the advantage of being able to cast identical replicas of his small bronzes and thus occupies a special position in the development of Italian sculpture'. Multiple replicas are only possible where the original model, usually in wax, plaster or wood is preserved for future use and the bronzes cast from these models are 'indirectly cast'. For example, those 'replicas' made for Isabella around 1519 are made from the surviving wax models from bronzes executed some twenty years earlier for Bishop Ludovico. The Bedford and Smith nymphs being the same size and form are replicas, possibly from a model made in 1503 or earlier.
The appearance of the Bedford Seated Nymph from the famous collections at Woburn Abbey adds an important new masterpiece to the few autograph bronzes by Antico. It provides us with a fresh insight into the patronage of one of the most advanced Renaissance courts in Italy, evoking the refined taste for Antiquity championed by the Gonzaga and Isabella d'Este. The Bedford's acquisition of this beautiful and luxurious bronze reflects the passion for Italian art stimulated by the period of the Grand Tour and is a reminder of the once rich group of Antico's work that existed in British collections. The calm grace of the Seated Nymph and her soft and supple female anatomy are as moving for the collector today as they must have been for the Mantuan nobility in the early sixteenth century.
A. F. Gori, Inscriptiones graecae et romanae in Etruriae urbibus exstantes, Florence, 1743
H. J. Hermann, Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi gennant l'Antico, in 'Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien', XXVIII, 1910, p.210-288
W. Bode , The Italian Bronze Statuettes of the Renaissance, edited by J. Draper, New York, 1980, pp. 42 and 96 pl. XCI
Splendours of the Gonzaga, exhib. cat., Victoria and Albert Museum, London 1981-82
A. H. Allison, The Bronzes of Pier Jacopo Bonacolsi called Antico, 'Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien', 88-89, 1993-1994, pp.35-310
'La Prima Donna del Mondo Isabella d'Este Fürstin und Mäzenatin der Renaissance, exhib.cat. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, 1994
A. Radcliffe & N. Penny, The Robert H. Smith Collection. Art of the Renaissance Bronze, 1500-1650, London, 2004, no. 13
Bonacolsi l'Antico Uno scultore nella Mantova di Andrea Mantegna e di Isabella d'Este, exhib. cat., Palazzo Ducale, Mantua, 2008
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