The present group is the only surviving and identifiable ancient marble sculpture in the round from Lorenzo de' Medici's collection in Florence.
In early 1489, under the cover of darkness, Roman antiquities dealer Giovanni Ciampolini excavated the present group in the gardens of the convent of S. Lorenzo in Panisperna, on the Viminal Hill in Rome. Several ancient sculptures, including the Apollo Belvedere, had already been found there recently, and further excavations had been prohibited by decree of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, under whose jurisdiction the convent stood. As an example of poetic justice, 17 years would pass before the same prelate, now Pope Julius II, would own the very sculpture of which the present group appears to be a parody, the Laocoon itself.
Shortly after the discovery of the group, two of Lorenzo de' Medici's agents in Rome, Luigi da Barberino and banker Nofri Tornabuoni, acquired it from Ciampolini on behalf of the Magnificent. On February 13th, 1489, da Barberino wrote a letter to Lorenzo describing the group as "three beautiful fauns on a small marble base, all three bound together by a great snake... and even if one cannot hear their voices they seem to breathe, cry out, and defend themselves with wonderful gestures; that one in the middle you see almost falling down and expiring. These we have been promised and will cost 50 scudi; and the reason for the price is that he [Ciampolini] has to pay off his friend, so that he will not talk about it. When you shall see them you will not think the money sill spent" (Fusco and Corti 2006, doc. 110, p. 308). About two weeks earlier, in a letter dated January 31st, 1489, Tornabuoni had given Lorenzo a less lyrical but more more detailed description of the group complete with measurements matching those of the present sculpture: "tre... fauni in sur uno piano, chè e lungho circha a due braccia quasi, che l'uno tocha l'altro, e sono ginocchioni; el terzo è in mezzo di loro, quasi a diacere, e una serpe chombatte chon loro et àgli cinti tutti et tre. Quello di mezzo pare chaduto vinto, e diresti che lo spirito li mancha; li altri due, che sono ginochioni, chombattono chon quella serpe e fanno molte buone attitudine. Sono piccoli, perché quelli che stanno ginocchioni non sono più alti che poco più che un braccio" (Fusco and Corti 2006, doc. 109)
The satyr group left Rome for Florence on the morning of February 13th, packed in a crate and strapped to a mule, together with one of the broken arms described as "uno braccio d'epsi sinistro, involto tucto in uno panno et cincto delle serpe." (Fusco and Corti 2006, doc. 117); in his letter of January 31 st Tornabuoni had already mentioned that an arm had been retrieved, although the head of the serpent at its extremity was still missing. This arm would have belonged to the satyr kneeling on the left, since of all three missing arms, not only is his raised left arm the only one wrapped both in animal skin and snake, but it is also the only one for which the original break was preserved above the shoulder and not smoothed down for restoration. This arm is now missing, but maybe not for ever if one thinks of the raised arm of the Laocoon, which resurfaced in a Roman stone cutter's workshop almost 400 years after the discovery of the group itself.
Although no inventories exist placing the three satyrs in Lorenzo's collection in Florence between the time they were shipped to him and the year of his death in 1492, indirect evidence exist indicating that it was indeed there. Two artists belonging to the Magnificent's circle appear to have used parts of it as inspiration for their own creations: Pollaiuolo for one of the fallen figures in his engraving entitled "Battle of the Nudes," circa 1489, and Michelangelo for two figures in his Battle of the Centaurs" marble relief, circa 1490-1492 (see Fusco and Corti 2006, figs. 32-35).
Lorenzo's collection was dispersed under obscure circumstances shortly after his death, which coincided with major social and political upheaval in Florence. From then on the satyr group does not appear to be recorded in any other Italian collections of the Renaissance or Baroque eras until its reappearance, about 350 years later, in a private collection in Split on the Dalmatian coast (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire); this is where the current owners' ancestor acquired the group, mentioned it and drew it in his journal, and brought it to Graz circa 1857. Photographs of the group were published about 80 years later (Schober 1937), which is presumably when a plaster cast of the group was made for the University Museum in Graz (Settis 1999, figs. 18-19).
Ever since the 1937 publication scholars have debated whether the present group and the one described in Luigi da Barberino's letter were one and the same; confusion reached its peak when suggestions were made that the group in Graz was a modern forgery inspired by the figure of a fallen satyr fighting a giant with serpentine feet now in the Centrale Montemartini Museum in Rome (Vorster 1999 and Stähli 1999), which is clearly related typologically and iconographically but different enough that it allows the present group to stand on its own; also, it was discovered in the 1880s, later than when the present group was purchased in Graz. Laurie Fusco's masterly publication of the group in 2006, with its comprehensive appendix of primary sources reproduced in extenso, including all the letters quoted above and especially Tornabuoni's letter of January 31, finally allowed for a positive identification and resolved the issues that had been raised concerning the group's age and provenance. For other examples of fighting satyrs in similarly dramatic postures see M. Moltesen, Imperial Rome II. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, 2002, no. 96, and G.M.A. Richter, Catalogue of Greek Sculptures, Oxford, 1954, p. 108, no. 213, pl. 149d-f (in The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
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