28th Duke of Nájera, Count of Oñate, Treviño, Campo Real and Castañeda;
Marqués de Onteiro;
La Union y El Fénix;
sold at Alcala Subastas, Madrid, 4th-5th October, 2000;
Private collection, UK
Around 1730, Bertos was questioned by the Italian Inquisition. The charge was that his astounding virtuosity in carving complex figure groups in marble was achieved by some form of pact with the devil. Bertos had to defend his pious sincerity against this false accusation, which may have been made by a jealous rival sculptor. It is believed that his multi-figure group of the Triumph of Christianity, inscribed HVCVSQ(V)E F. o BERTOS LICVIT (Thus far [and no further] it has been permitted to Francesco Bertos [to go]), was made as testimony to his religious belief and obedience. The groups which Avery suggests were used by the Inquisition as proof of Bertos's unnatural skill are the lost, but documented marble allegories of the Arts, commissioned by Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg. These ambitious marble extravaganza were partly paid for by 1732 and announce a sculptor of unique talent, but one who seems to have emerged suddenly and without a clear teacher; even Bertos's birth and death date were unknown to modern scholars until Avery's monographic study in 2008. What sketchy biographical information there is comes from some general early 19th century publications. G.A. Moschini notes that the Venetian sculptor Giovanni Bonazza (1654-1736) was his teacher - and there is a certain stylistic comparison. P. Zani described Bertos as 'a mediocre sculptor who was still alive in 1710'. However, 20 years later he had developed an exceptional dexterity in intricate marble carving. With so few known facts, any attempt to establish a precise chronology for Bertos's works is hazardous. The complexity of the present multi-figure groups places them in the sculptor's maturity, in his last decade when, aged in his early fifties, he was at the height of his powers. They epitomise the category of virtuoso marble compositions which so shocked (and no doubt impressed) the Inquisition.
The demands of Bertos's main patrons, such as Antonio Manin and Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg, certainly encouraged the erudite, not to say obscure and inventive, iconography of his compositions. A few documented commissions demonstrate that each figure should have a specific identity, but at the same time, there seems to have been built into the individual protagonists, and their relationships, an intentional ambiguity of meaning which was meant to stimulate debate amongst the observers. As Avery described it, these groups are the advanced crossword puzzles of their day.
The main subject of the present marbles is clearly stated by the inscriptions: Air, Water and Earth, three of the four Elements. Each group consists of four or five figures composed around a central rearing animal, respectively a stag, a unicorn and bull. Analysing each of the figures and their attributes more closely inevitably leads to more inventive and obscure identifications. In the group representing Air, Avery suggests that the female figure riding the stag personifies Air in accordance with Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, in which Air holds a rainbow, but here the rainbow is suggested by the bunches of flowers, possibly Iris, who in Greek mythology represented the rainbow. If that explanation can be accepted, which for Bertos is relatively straight forward, the identities of the other figures in the Air group are harder to explain, hindered also by the loss of some attributes.
The identities of the figures in the group representing Water are unusually clear. Here Avery discerns a 'marine mythological family group gathered around the unicorn, the touch of whose horn was believed to purify water'. Amphtritre stands on the unicorn's back, supported by her husband, Neptune. Her father, Oceanus, crouches under the unicorn, whilst her son, Triton, blows on the conch shell. The fifth figure of a boy on dolphin is less precisely identified but could represent one of the major rivers.
With the group of Earth, the 17th century crossword becomes advanced level. The bearded man, with lion skin at his side accompanied by a bull, suggests Hercules and the Cretan bull, but is unclear how this relates to the central theme: Earth. Hercules accompanied by the type of beautiful woman who balances on the back of the bull might suggest Omphale, Queen of Lydia. Avery tentatively, and inventively, postulates that for the Greeks 'Omphalos (literally a navel) was also regarded as "marking the middle point of the Earth"... although they placed it in Delphi [rather than Crete]'.
From the surviving documentation Bertos does not seem to have received any direct commissions from Spanish patrons. However, the appearance of the present group of three marbles in a noble family in Spain offers an indication that some of his best works made their way into Spanish collections either through acquisition or inheritance. Further proof of this is the Spanish provenance of the marble group of Hylonome Restrained which sold in these rooms for £229,250 on 8th July 2010 as lot 114. Interestingly, the Museo Nacional del Prado contains four works by Bertos, three bronzes and a marble. Whilst all these works were acquired since the late 1960s, and the bronzes have an English provenance, the marble group, representing Humility and Faith, was bought on the market in Madrid, perhaps indicating an earlier provenance there.
According to Avery the present marbles re-appeared in Madrid twelve years ago with a 'chequered recent pedigree from the family of the Dukes of Nájera, Counts of Oñate, Treviño, Campo Real and Castañeda'. Avery postulated that 'within this distinguished family, the most likely one to have come into contact with Bertos was Don Beltran Manuel de Guevara, Captain General of the Galleys of Sicily, who married the heiress of the eleventh duke of Nájera (who died young and unmarried), his sister Nicolasa Manrique de Mendoza. His employment by the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, a fief of Spain run by Viceroys, and his naval career might have brought him into contact with the maritime republic of Venice, or with the King of Sardinia, by then in the hands of the House of Savoy and by whom Bertos was to the end of his life patronised. On the other hand, they may have been acquired considerably later, as collector's items'. Recent research has indicated that the marbles were in fact inherited from a member of the Torrejón family by a descendant of Don Beltran Manuel de Guevara who was also descended from the sister of the Duque of Nájera.
This group of marbles representing the Air, Water and Earth are the most elaborate and impressive marbles by Francesco Bertos to have appeared on the market. They show Bertos at the height of his artistic skill and eccentric imagination. Alongside the seminal pair of bronze groups of The Vintage and The Art of War which sold in these rooms in the 2011 Treasures sale for £577,000, these marble groups offer a rare opportunity to acquire some of the most magnificent Italian sculptures of the early 18th century.
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