Sansovino’s cartapeste: history and typology
Sansovino adopted the cartapasta technique towards the end of his career, probably in order to capitalise on the fame he enjoyed throughout the Serenissima. Combining softened paper or cloth with water (and possibly glue), which was then pressed into moulds, the medium gave the sculptor the ability to create impressive relief sculptures in multiples. The chief advantages of this technique lay in the lightness of the material (in contrast to heavier marble, bronze or terracotta), its surprising durability, and the opportunities it provided for polychromy.
The earliest known reference to Sansovino’s cartapeste appears in a letter dated 15 September 1551 from the Venetian printer Francesco Marcolini (c. 1500 – after 1559) to the writer and social commentator Pietro Aretino (1492-1556). Recounting a recent visit to Aretino, Marcolini praises the ‘great picture… of our Lady with Christ in her arms’, which had been given as a gift to Aretino by Sansovino himself; ‘a great picture of low relief and of composite marble hardness [i.e. as hard as marble]’ (Bottari, op. cit., p. 253). There is a broad consensus that Marcolini’s letter refers to one of Sansovino’s cartepeste (Ozone, op. cit., p. 121). The reference has been of particular interest to scholars as it potentially provides a terminus ante quem for the cartepeste, whilst also shedding light on how such reliefs would have been perceived by contemporary viewers. In remarking on Aretino’s relief, Marcolini, an educated Venetian, was clearly not familiar with Sansovino’s composition or the cartapesta technique; this would consequently suggest a relatively limited production, whilst also indicating that a degree of novelty surrounded the use of the medium. Moreover, in likening the relief to marble, Marcolini’s letter would suggest that Sansovino may have conceived the cartapeste as fictive marble reliefs. This reading was recently substantiated by the conservation of two of the cartepeste, the examples in the Museo del Cenedese, Vittorio Veneto, and the Musée du Louvre, Paris, in which later paint layers were removed to reveal white-grey surfaces with details picked out with gilding and polychromy, thereby simulating tinted marble all’antica.
Sansovino’s cartapeste were the focus of serious scholarly endeavour as early as 1886 when they were discussed in an article written by the great German art historian Wilhelm von Bode (1845-1929). Bode divided the reliefs into two types: the so-called Pardelfell type and what has subsequently been termed the Vittorio Veneto type. Bode illustrates the latter type with a line drawing of a sculpture then being offered on the art market, which bore the signature IACOBVS / SANSVINVS / F; this is today identified as the relief in the Museo del Cenedese, Vittorio Veneto, which lends its name to the type. The Pardelfell type is thought to be the earlier, known from only two examples: one in the Staatliche Museum, Berlin (inv. no. 285), the other in the Szépművészeti Múzeum, Budapest (inv. no. 4791). The Vittorio Veneto type has greater affinities with Sansovino’s late career, whilst the larger number of examples may signify the model’s success. The surviving reliefs of this type are held in: the Museo del Cenedese, Vittorio Veneto (Treviso); the Musée du Louvre, Paris (inv. no. RF 746); the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence (inv. no. 471); the Civico Museo Correr, Venice (inv. no. CL.XXI.92); the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum, Krefeld (inv. no. 75/1905); the Staatliche Museum, Berlin (inv. no. 287); Villa la Pietra (New York University; two examples); the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth (inv. no. 1984.25); and the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (inv. no. 1961.1.6). The Castle Howard example, which is of the Vittorio Veneto type, stands alone as the remaining relief in private hands.
The Pardelfell and Vittorio Veneto types differ in two principal respects: whereas in the former the Virgin turns to the dexter to face a standing Infant Christ, in the latter She turns to the sinister, supporting a reclining Christ Child in her arms. In accordance with earlier scholarship, Bruce Boucher in his seminal monograph, The Sculpture of Sansovino, dates both types to the artist’s Venetian career, subsequent to his work in Rome. Comparing the Pardelfell Virgin with the heads of veiled women in the background of the sculptor’s magisterial relief of the Miracle of the Maiden Carilla in the Santo, Padua, as well as the figure of Peace from the Loggetta below the Campanile di San Marco, Boucher suggests that the model dates to circa 1540 (Boucher, op. cit., p. 347). Amusingly, the Pardelfell type gains its unusual name from an error made by Bode. The German word ‘Pardelfell’ tanslates as ‘leopard pelt’, reflecting Bode’s mistaken observation that the Virgin and Child are wrapped in leopard skins, whereas in reality they are draped in white silk damask with black foliate decoration (Bode often wrote his expertises on the basis of black and white photographs).
In contrast, the Vittorio Veneto type has recently been described as representing a fine tuning, a final version of the model, its success being underscored by the greater number of cartepeste which survive (Bonelli and Vaccari, op. cit., p. 29). Boucher compares the style of the Vittorio Veneto type with Sansovino’s figure of Hope from the Francesco Venier Monument in San Salvatore, dating to 1555-1561, in which we see a similar classicizing draped female with idealized head turned in profile. Drawing also upon a relief with the Madonna and Child in the Doges Palace, which is dated 1562, Boucher concludes that the Vittorio Veneto type is likely to date to circa 1550, when Sansovino was at the height of his career in Venice.
Numerous scholars have proposed that a remarkable terracotta Virgin and Child by Sansovino in the Museo Civico, Vicenza (formerly in the Villa Garzoni, Pontecasle) may be the original model for both types (first proposed by Pittoni, op. cit., pp. 269-275; see recent discussion by Ozone, op. cit., p. 114). This group, which is also a relief, compares particularly closely with the Vittorio Veneto type, notably in the Virgin with Her head turned to the sinister; Her idealized symmetrical facial type; arrangement of Her headdress; positioning of Her arms; and the curved sash running across Her chest. The principal difference is the standing figure of Christ, who is pressed more closely to the Virgin, recalling the Pardelfell type. The obvious correspondences between the Vicenza terracotta and the cartapeste would undoubtedly indicate a close relationship between the two, and it seems likely that the Vittorio Veneto type at least is derived from this group.
Of the surviving examples of the Vittorio Veneto type, the eponymous relief in the Museo del Cenedese has the earliest recorded provenance, being listed in the 1660 inventory of the church of Sant’Augusta in Serravalle, Vittorio Veneto, where it was later seen, still in situ, by Emmanuele Cicogna in 1834 (Ozone, op. cit., p. 121). It was not until 1886, following an 1883 exhibition of Old Master paintings and sculptures in Berlin, that Bode attempted the first art historical study of the relief (or an identical one) and its type in the article discussed above. However, it is interesting to note that Lady Carlisle was fully aware of the attribution when she purchased the Castle Howard cartapesta, four years before Bode’s article, in 1882, noting it down in her ledger, ‘Pinti, Bas Relief of Madonna & child by Sansovino, £40’ (Castle Howard Archives, J23/105/14). Lady Carlisle’s reference highlights that Sansovino’s authorship was accepted by the late 19th century, probably due to knowledge of the signed Vittorio Veneto example. Each of the remaining extant cartapeste have provenance stretching back to the late 19th or early 20th century (Boucher, op. cit., pp. 346-351). The coincidence of them each resurfacing at this time can be explained by the interest in Sansovino following Bode’s article, as well as the vogue for important High Renaissance sculpture amongst collectors at the turn of the century.
The Vittorio Veneto type in the context of Sansovino’s career
Throughout his life Jacopo Sansovino adapted his sculptural style depending on the circumstances of the commission. As Boucher has argued, ‘he did not have one style but several, on which he drew according to the nature of the task’ (Boucher 2007, op. cit.).
Born Jacopo Tatti, Sansovino began his career as an apprentice to the important Florentine sculptor Andrea Sansovino, whose name the young Jacopo later adopted. Trained in Florence and Rome, his reputation was launched by his Bacchus, completed in Florence in 1512 (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence), which has become one of the most celebrated sculptural compositions of the Italian Renaissance. Between 1518 and 1527 Sansovino worked in Rome, where he created the Madonna del parto for the church of Sant’Agostino, and the St James of Compostella, for the church of Santa Maria di Monserrato, both of which draw heavily on the influence of Michelangelo. In 1527, Sansovino’s career took a new course with the Sack of Rome, which led him north to Venice. Here he was made proto (chief architect) to the Procurators of San Marco, rapidly establishing himself as the leading sculptor and architect in the Serenissima. His defining masterpiece, the Biblioteca Marciana, which formed part of his refashioning of the Piazza San Marco, was lauded by Andrea Palladio as being ‘the richest and most ornate building since ancient times’ (A. Palladio, Quattro libri dell’architettura, Venice, 1570); it is undoubtedly one of the greatest architectural achievements of the High Renaissance. In sculpture, Sansovino had no serious rivals until the second half of the 16th century. Many of his works from this period, notably the Virgin and Child in the Arsenale, and the series of bronze reliefs and the sacristy doors he created for San Marco, betray the influence of quattrocento sculptors, most strikingly Donatello and Ghiberti. The Francesco Venier Monument in the church of S. Salvatore has even been described as ‘the culmination of a type developed by Tullio Lombardo in the tomb of Doge Andrea Vendramin' (Boucher 2007, op. cit.); a wholly Venetian tradition in contrast to Sansovino’s Tuscan schooling.
The Vittorio Veneto type, as was outlined above, has close affinities with works created by Sansovino in Venice in the 1550’s, a period in which the sculptor returned to an aesthetic indebted to earlier quattrocento models. Donatello’s influence is particularly evident in the composition, with Virgin and Child both in profile facing each other, their bodies closely entwined. This arrangement is reminiscent of Donatello’s numerous Madonna and Child reliefs, exemplified by the Pazzi Madonna in the Bode Museum, Berlin, in which Mother and Child gaze into each other’s eyes, transfixed, whilst the Virgin cradles the Infant Christ and He reaches out to touch Her in an expression of tenderness. Compare also the manner in which Sansovino has delineated the Virgin’s ear, which shows through Her headdress; this is paralleled in the relief with the Virgin and Child associated with Donatello in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. 57.1-1867). The Vittorio Veneto type references works by Andrea Sansovino, in particular, the Virgin and Child with St. Anne in the church of S. Agostino, Rome (circa 1512). Here a playful reclining Christ looks upwards to the warm gaze of the classicizing figure of the Virgin, Her hair, as in the Vittorio Veneto composition, arranged in the style of a Roman matrona. Both models are ultimately indebted to Michelangelo’s Pieta (St Peters Basilica, Rome, circa 1498-1499), notably the Vittorio Veneto Madonna, with Her headdress composed of multiple folds and the sash running in an arc across Her chest. Michelangelo’s influence is evident more generally in the large proportioning of the figures and sense of monumentality, particularly in their arms and hands. Each of these influences represent a conscious decision on the part of Sansovino to link his work with previous generations of Tuscan artists, therefore burnishing his Florentine artistic heritage.
The Facture of the Castle Howard Madonna and Child
Sansovino is believed to have had prior experience of working in cartapesta: in 1515, in conjunction with Andrea del Sarto, he had designed a temporary façade for the Florence Duomo and a monumental equestrian group to celebrate the arrival of Pope Leo X, transitory works which are likely to have been constructed from cartapesta and wood (Ozone, op. cit., p. 108).
The Castle Howard Madonna and Child would have been created following a complex production process requiring numerous expert hands in Sansovino’s workshop. First the positive clay or wax model would have been used to determine the number of plaster molds required; recent studies have concluded that the cartepeste would have been formed from up to twenty two individual molds (Ozone, op. cit., p. 116). The slightly raised lines running across the surface of the present relief are the joints of these molds and, significantly, they appear in the same places in each of the reliefs in the series, leading Ozone to conclude that ‘a single set of molds was used for the production of all of the known Vittorio Veneto-type reliefs’ (op. cit., p. 125). The more conspicuous of these lines, which reappears in most of the reliefs, is the line running from the Virgin’s drapery below Christ’s raised proper right arm, down in a curve across Her abdomen to the proper right forearm; together with the line running from above the lower left corner horizontally across the Virgin’s proper right thigh. In ten of the eleven reliefs, including the Castle Howard example, there is a slight fissure at the base of the Virgin’s neck, which again is simply a join line (Ozone, op. cit., p. 125).
Once each of the plaster molds were assembled within a larger mother mold, a negative of the relief was ready for the casting process. A release agent would have then been applied, and the liquid cartapesta poured into the lacuna, with the water gradually being absorbed into the plaster, resulting in a dry cartapesta impression. Each of the individual cartapesta sections were then strengthened with strips of fabric, followed by a layer of plaster. They were then each cut apart, before being glued back together again, with strips of fabric being applied to the reverse of the joints. The resultant image would then have been nailed to a wood board, coated with size to prevent water absorption, and then painted. With regards to the polyrchromy, it is clear, as outlined above, that two of the reliefs were painted so as to mimic the appearance of tinted marble. However, it seems likely that such finishing would have been determined by the client or the nature of the commission; this may account for the differences in colour scheme within the cartapeste group.
Sansovino at Castle Howard
The circumstances surrounding the arrival of Sansovino’s relief at Castle Howard are grounded in the context of the last decades of the 19th century and specifically the tastes and aesthetic values of the 9th Earl of Carlisle and his wife. George Howard, who became Earl of Carlisle in 1889, and his wife, Rosalind Howard, were closely connected with the Aesthetic movement, being intimate friends with Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, and socializing with Frederick Leighton, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown, William Holman Hunt and many other artists and writers associated with the Pre-Raphaelite and burgeoning Arts and Crafts movements. Their residence, prior to George Howard’s becoming 9th Earl, was 1 Palace Green in Kensington, an extraordinary unsymmetrical Queen Anne style residence designed by William Morris’ friend, the architect Philip Webb. It’s centerpiece was the dining room, which was decorated by a magnificent frieze painted by Edward Burne-Jones, depicting the myth of Cupid and Psyche.
Lady Carlisle acquired the Sansovino from 'Pinti’ in 1882, almost certainly Raffaelle Pinti, the Italian art dealer who had died in 1881, and whose posthumous sale was held in London in 1882 (The Times, 5 May 1882). Raffaelle Pinti was one of the leading restorers and art dealers in London in the second half of the 19th century. A native of Italy, Pinti came to London circa 1848, where he set himself up as a picture cleaner with the help of Lord Northampton. He later worked for the Royal Collection, discovering Lorenzo Lotto's signature on the portrait of Andrea Odoni. His life was not without controversy, however: Pinti was declared bankrupt in 1861 and his appointment as restorer at the National Gallery in 1858 was criticised by Sir John Charles Robinson who warned that his presence 'would inevitably lower the character of the institution' (NPG, op. cit.). He was nonetheless close to Sir Charles Eastlake, Director of the National Gallery, and cleaned many of the gallery's acquisitions from that period. As an art dealer, Pinti sold works to the South Kensington Museum and had an important role in selling the picture collection of Guglielmo Lochis, Bergamo, in 1874 (NPG, op. cit.). No prior provenance is given for the Castle Howard Sansovino in the Howard archives and there appears to be no sale catalogue for the auction, though it is highly likely, given the Marcolini reference (above), that the relief would have originally come from a Venetian noble collection.
The Madonna and Child is first recorded at Castle Howard as being in the Private Chapel. Given Lord and Lady Carlisle's tastes – as well as the devotional nature of the image - it is likely that the relief was specifically acquired for display within this location. The Chapel had been redesigned for Lord and Lady Lanerton (George Howard’s paternal uncle and aunt), under the tenure of the bachelor 8th Earl, in a style heavily influenced by the Aesthetic movement, with a set of five bespoke stained glass windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones and made by Morris & Co. representing the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Adoration, and the Flight into Egypt. A painted frieze designed by Charles Eamer Kempe, famed for his stained glass work in Oxford colleges, and executed by his students, adorned the upper register of the walls, whilst the 18th-century columns and elaborate ceiling in the style of Holbein’s Chapel Royal at St James’ Palace, were replastered, gilded and partially polychromed by Francis Rawlings; an elaborate refurbishment which cost £9,500. As Christopher Ridgway has argued, ‘it is highly probable that … [the Lanertons] were influenced by the advice and recommendations of others, most notably their young nephew and wife who, by 1870 were loud advocates of the work of Burne-Jones and the designs and furnishings of Morris & Co’ (Ridgway, op. cit., p. 13).
In order to appreciate George and Rosalind’s approach to collecting it is important to first return to Palace Green, where there were as many as fifteen paintings in Lady Carlisle’s boudoir, including four pictures by Burne-Jones, together with a copy of Holbein’s double portrait of the Earl and Countess of Surrey painted by George Howard in 1868, and four large John Jackson woodcuts after Tintoretto, Veronese and Bassano. Aside from demonstrating a clear interest in Venetian art on the part of Lady Carlisle, this arrangement shows a concern for mixing Mannerist images with contemporary Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Like their friend Edward Burne-Jones, the Howards had a clear interest in Italian Renaissance Art. Lord Carlisle had copied drawings from the Venetian Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, almost certainly from a rare edition owned by Burne-Jones. Moreover, Lady Carlisle, in her diaries of their trip to Italy between November 1865 and June 1866, recorded that George made pilgrimages to see frescoes by Perugino, Pinturicchio, Fra Filippo Lippi, Ghirlandaio and Faddi. In 1868, he borrowed a Mantegna from his cousin, Lord Taunton, for the purposes of copying, and he is also known to have sketched Donatello’s relief with St George and the Dragon (Bargello, Florence). Ridgway has concluded that Lord and Lady Carlisle's Palace Green dining room frieze, with its thinly applied Early Renaissance limited palette and Pre-Raphaelite composition, ‘was probably viewed as a natural way to combine their two great passions, Italian quattrocento painting and the work of their great friend Burne-Jones’ (op. cit., p. 10). Indeed, the frieze, now in the Birmingham City Art Gallery, was, according to Burne-Jones’ associate Walter Crane, ‘painted in flat oil colour on canvas enriched with raised detail gilded somewhat after the manner of Pinturicchio’ (as quoted in Ridgway, op. cit., p. 11).
Viewed within this biographical context it is entirely consistent with their tastes and artistic education that George and Rosalind Howard would have acquired the Sansovino for the Chapel in 1882, three years after having embarked on the redecoration of Castle Howard, having assumed control of the house following the death of Lord Lanerton in 1879. Situated within the Chapel, Sansovino’s masterpiece, which itself evokes quattrocento models by Donatello, would have combined their two guiding interests, Renaissance sculpture and paintings, within an interior governed by the principles of the Aesthetic movement. Framed by ornate columns, offset by marble clad walls, and viewed through the coloured light of Burne-Jones’ stained glass windows, few other settings would have been more impressive than the Chapel at Castle Howard.
Sansovino’s Madonna and Child finds a number of parallels within the collection formed by the Howards, not least in the Palace Green frieze, which combined painting with relief work composed of another ephemeral material, gesso; note, for example, Psyche’s raised and gilded casket. At Naworth Castle, another of their residences, the Howards enlisted Burne-Jones and Joseph Edgar Boehm to create a plaster bas-relief of Flodden Field, with echoes of Uccello. The most interesting correspondence, however, is with the superb terracotta and bronze portraits of Lord and Lady Carlisle by their friend Jules Dalou, who was the sculptor par-excellence of Mother and Child groups in the 19th century, the natural inheritor of Sansovino, who had been celebrated by Vasari during his lifetime as having no other equal in the genre. The Castle Howard Madonna and Child, the last known remaining Sansovino cartapesta in private hands, bears testament to Vasari’s praise.
W. Bode, ‘Die Italienische Skulpturen der Renaissance in der Koniglichen Museen zu Berlin, VIII. Jacopo Sansovino’, Jahrbuch der Koniglichen Preussichen Kunstsammlungen, VII, 1886, pp. 33-39; L. Pittoni, Jacopo Sansovino sculture, Venice, 1909, pp. 269-275; J. Pope-Hennessy, Catalogue of Italian Sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum, cat. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, vol. I, London, 1964, pp. 321-323; U. Middeldorf, Sculptures from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools, XIV-XIX Century, London, 1976, pp. 74-76; D. Lewis, ‘Jacopo Sansovino, Sculptor of Venice’, D. Rosand (ed.), Titian: His World and Legacy, New York, 1982, p. 163-166; Jacopo Sansovino a Vittorio Veneto. Il rilievo in cartapesta della Madonna col Bambino, exh. cat. Museo del Cenedese, Vittorio Veneto, Treviso, 1989; B. Boucher, The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino, New Haven and Yale, 1991, pp. 346-349; E. Hartley, ‘Morris & Co. in a Baroque Setting', Journal of the William Morris Society, 1 1 (2), Spring 1995, pp. 5-9; C. Ridgway, ‘A privileged insider. George Howard and Edward Burne-Jones’, The British Art Journal, vol. iii, no. 3, London, 2002, pp. 4-18; R. Casciaro, La scultura in cartapesta. Sansovino, Bernini e I Maestri leccesi tra technical e artificio, exh. cat. Museo Diocesano, Milan, 2006, pp. 58-60; M. Bonelli and M. Grazia Vaccari, ‘‘Il gran quadro di basso rilievo…’ Un ritorno a Jacopo Sansovino’, M. Grazia Vaccari, Jacopo Sansovino. La Madonna in cartapesta del Bargello, Rome, 2006, pp. 25-37; J. Ozone, ‘One of Many: A Cartapesta Relief by Jacopo Sansovino’, Facture: conservation, science, art history, I, Washington D.C., 2013, p. 105-127; Bruce Boucher and Donata Battilotti. "Sansovino." Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. Web.http://www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T075803pg1, accessed 23 April 2015; http://www.npg.org.uk/research/programmes/directory-of-british-picture-restorers/british-picture-restorers-1600-1950-p.php, accessed 23 April 2015
Sotheby's is grateful to Dr Bruce Boucher, author of The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino (1991), the seminal study of Sansovino's work, for his kind assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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