This superb bronze acrobat is the finest example of its type in existence. It portrays a contortionist with his legs wrapped around his head. Characteristic of North Italian early Renaissance bronzes, the sculpture has a function, that of an oil lamp, and so could be enjoyed by Humanist collectors both as an item of beauty and as a utilitarian object. When lit, a flame would appear to eminate from the acrobat's bottom, as if he were performing an amusing party-trick. Despite this bawdy subject, bronzes such as this were valued for their classicising connotations, and would have allowed wealthy patrons to assimilate themselves to ancient collectors, most famously the Roman Emperor Nero, who is recorded as carrying a bronze figure with him at all times.
The present acrobat was attributed to the great Paduan sculptor Andrea Riccio (1470-1532) by Joseph R. Bliss in an article published in 1995 (Bliss, op. cit., pp. 13-20). The model itself had been previously attributed to Riccio by Bode in 1907 (Bode, op. cit., p. 22, pl. XLVII) and by Planiscig in 1927 (Planiscig 1927, op. cit., pp. 180-182). Bliss, however, pointed out that the present bronze is of superior quality to the other known casts and, as such, together with a cast of the model formerly in Basel (which was subsequently sold in these rooms on 12 November 2013, lot 94), it could be considered to be an autograph Riccio bronze. He argued that the ‘contortionist displays all of the stylistic hallmarks of Riccio’s hand’, noting that ‘the meticulous hammering, filing, and overall sparkling surface effects are … technical features characteristic of the master’s working method’ (Bliss, op. cit., p. 13).
The excellent quality of the present bronze confirms that it was made by a first-rate bronze caster. The beautifully hammered surface is indeed comparable to several works by Riccio, most notably his Drinking Satyr in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (inv. no. KK 5539). The incised eyes, open mouth, thick lips and carefully delineated fingers can be seen in Riccio’s Orpheus in the Musée du Louvre, Paris (inv. no. OA 9115) and his Shouting Horseman in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (inv. no. A.88-1910). Furthermore, the construction of the projecting flame holder is similar to that seen in his Cadogan Lamp in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. 137-1865; see Allen and Motture, op. cit., p. 177, fig. 13.1). There are consequently grounds for an attribution to Riccio, and the present bronze certainly dates from the time that he was active. However, given the number of different workshops producing all’antica bronzes in the Veneto in the early 16th century, it remains difficult to make precise attributions, even with such a high quality bronze as this one.
Casts of the present model fall into two distinct groups: those which rest on a base, and those which are designed to be suspended from a bronze loop (as in the present example). Of the former type, arguably the finest is the cast formerly in Basel and sold in these rooms on 12 November 2013, lot 94, whilst another is listed by Bode as being in the collection of Prince Trivulzio in Milan (Bode, op. cit., pl. XLVII); both of these portray slightly more youthful beardless figures than that seen in the present bronze. Loop-suspension casts are recorded by Planiscig as being in the Bibliothèque national de France, Paris, and in the Berl collection, Vienna (Planiscig, 1927, op. cit., pp. 180-182), and there is another in the Bargello, Florence (Montagu, op. cit., p. 7, fig. 2). There is also a possibly later 16th-century cast in the Collezione Vok in Padua, which, interestingly, has a silvered thumb (Banzato, op. cit., no. 18). Bliss records that, in total, there are around twenty casts of the model (of both variants) in existence (Bliss, op. cit., pp. 1, 19). None of these, even the Basel cast, can compare in quality to the present bronze, with many likely to be derivatives made by different workshops (as is explained by Zock, op. cit., p. 45).
The present figure is distinguished from the other known casts by its silvered eyes and sharp casting, which immediately elevates it to a more important class of bronze. Note, in particular, the superbly cast decoration to the underside of the projecting lamp. Bliss argues that the ‘luxurious and flashy embellishment [of the silvered eyes] must have hauntingly accentuated the already eerie visual impact of this lamp when it was originally hung by the integrally cast suspension loop and the oil inside lit’ (Bliss, op. cit., p. 1). Silvering of the eyes is something associated most famously with the virtuoso bronzes of the Milanese sculptor Pier Jacopo di Antonio Alari-Bonacolsi, called Antico (circa 1460-1528), who worked for the Gonzaga court in Mantua. Antico's work is believed to have inspired skilled North Italian sculptors to gild or silver their bronzes; one such example is the North Italian early 16th-century bronze Jupiter in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (inv. no. Pl. 5769). Note also the seated figure of Pan attributed to Desiderio da Firenze (active 1532-1545), which was sold in these rooms on 9 July 2004, lot 37, and also has incised silvered eyes.
A loop-suspension cast of the present model is recorded in the 1584 inventory of Duke Alfonso II d’Este, there described as 'believed to be modern' (not an antiquity, see Bliss, op. cit., p. 14). By the 17th century, however, such oil lamps were widely considered to be antiquities. The present model, though of the type supported by a base, is recorded by the great Italian 17th-century scientist Fortunio Liceti (1577-1657) in his 1652 treatise De lucernis antiquorum (On the Oil Lamps of the Ancients) (no. LXXV). Interestingly, Liceti claims that the man represented may be an Ethiopian, a suggestion, however, that seems difficult to substantiate. In 1719, the French scholar Bernard de Montfaucon, illustrated a loop suspension cast of the model (possibly this very bronze), together with a cast of the same model as the later 16th-century Paduan oil lamp in this sale, along with a third lamp, in his L’Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures. Montfaucon amusingly comments, 'the three following lamps on this plate…seem made to show either what the workman, or he who commanded the work, could possibly imagine most odd and extravagant, and do not want any further explanation' (Montfaucon, op.cit., pl. 152). The cast in the Bargello appears prominently in Johann Zoffany's celebrated painting, The Tribuna of the Uffizi Gallery, which was the commissioned by Queen Charlotte (1744-1818), and is now in the Royal Collection (inv. no. RCIN 406983).
F. Liceti, De lucernis antiquorum, Padua, 1652, no. LXXV; B. de Montfaucon, L’antiquité expliquée et representée en figures, Paris 1719, V, II, pl. 152; W. Bode, The Italian Bronze Statuettes of the Renaissance, repr. New York, 1980, p. 22, pl. XLVII; F. Goldschmidt, Die Italienischen Bronzen der Renaissance und des Barock, Berlin, 1914, pl. 19, fig. 62 2:3; L. Planiscig, Andrea Riccio, Vienna, 1927, pp. 180-182, pl. 200; L. Planiscig, Piccoli bronzi italiani del rinascimento, Milan, 1930, p. 19, pl. LXXVII; J. Montagu, Bronzes, New York, 1963, p. 7, fig. 2; G. Mariacher, Bronzetti veneti del rinascimento, Venice, 1971, pp. 29-30, no. 79; K. Zock, European Sculpture, exh. cat. Daniel Katz Ltd, London, 2002, pp. 42-47, no. 7; D. Allen and P. Motture, Andrea Riccio. Renaissance Master of Bronze, exh. cat. The Frick Collection, New York, 2009, pp. 98-103, 158-163, 169-181, 216-221, nos. 1, 10, 12, 13, 19