The origin of these superb reliefs can be found in a commission of 1708 from the Crown Prince Ferdinando de’Medici (1663–1713), eldest son and heir of Cosimo III, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The Prince requested the Baroque sculptor Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi (1656-1740) for a series of panel reliefs in bronze to represent the four seasons which were to be presented to the Prince’s brother-in-law, Johann-Wilhelm, Elector Palatine. The bronzes appear to have been completed in stages, as Summer and Autumn are dated 1708, whilst Spring and Winter are dated 1711.1
Surviving letters, which are now preserved in Oxford University, show the correspondence between the sculptor and a London based agent, the Florentine Giovanni Giacomo Zamboni. In a letter dated 7th January 1717, the sculptor describes to Zamboni his recent gift of the season’s terracotta models to the Prince:
'... I quattro bassirilievi, che il Sig.r Principe Ferdinando, di felice memoria, regalò a Sua Altezza Elettorale, che ora è in cielo, di bronzo, che Vostra Signoria puole aver veduto a Dusseldorff, i modelli di terracotta di questi, sono dentro ad un superbo adornamento con il cristallo d'avanti nella camera dell'Audienza attaccati, dove allora gli fece collocare l'Altezza Serenissima fra le più belle cose, che avesse, et io hò rossore, che abbino si degno luogo, perché non lo meritano',
[The four bas-reliefs in bronze were given by the Hereditary Prince to the Elector and you may have seen them in Düsseldorf; the terracotta models for these bronzes hang under glass in wonderfully ornamented frames in the audience room, where His Highness, the Prince, has placed them among the finest things he owns. I am embarrassed that they occupy such a prestigious place, as they do not deserve it].2
A second series of bronze panels was commissioned by the young Lord Burlington whilst on his Grand Tour of Italy. In a letter dated 15th October 1716 Soldani writes to Zamboni of the recent visit by the 21 year old Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington (1694-1753) to Florence and to his studio, in which he mentions the purchase of two bronze casts of the Seasons and his order of the other two.3
At an unknown date the set of four were eventually presented to King George II, and to this day remain in the Royal collection.
The Doccia porcelain factory was founded in 1737 by the Marchese Carlo Ginori (1702-57) in Sesto Fiorentino, Florence. The optimistic Marchese, eager to follow the achievements of his rivals in Dresden and Vienna spared no expensive in ensuring the venture was a commercial success, and hired the Florentine sculptor Gaspero Bruschi as director of the sculpture department, and convinced skilled workers such as the porcelain painter Carl Wendelin Anreiter von Ziernfeld to leave the struggling Viennese factory Du Paquier and join him Florence.
The Factory took several years to perfect its production of porcelain and in 1743 Carlo Ginori pursued acquiring moulds of bronzes. By this point the great Florentine sculptor Giovanni Battista Foggini was dead and Soldani-Benzi himself had recently died in 1740. The Marchese first approached Anton Filippo Maria Weber, the brother of one of the sculptor's students, and in 1744 Soldani-Benzi's son Ferdinando at which point he acquired the moulds of the four Seasons panels. The wax reliefs survive in the collection of the Museo Richard-Ginori della Manifattura di Doccia and are mentioned in the Inventario de'Modelli
, a listing of the wax, plaster and terracotta models housed at the Factory: pagina 30, No. 41 'Bassorilievo quadro rappresentante la Primavera. Di Massimiliano Soldani. L'originale è nel Palazzo dei Pitti, con le sue forme di cera con forma'
(published by Lankheit, op. cit.,
1982, p.130). pagina 31, No. 51 ' Un Bassorilievo rappresentante l'Inverno, di cera, Di Massimiliano Soldani, con sue forme, e l'originale è nel Palazzo de Pitti'
(published by Lankheit, op. cit.,
The Factory continued production through the second half of the 18th century, as is confirmed by the 1757 inventory of the manufactory’s store in Leghorn, ‘quattro bassirilievi rappreentanti le Quattro Stagioni con il quadro di porcellana, con fiori di bassorilievo fermata sopra un telaio di pero nero, zucchini 20 l’uno’,
[four low reliefs representing the Four Seasons, made of porcelain with frames of black pear wood, decorated with flowers in low relief, 20 zecchini each]5
, and also continued into the 19th century.6
1. The series is now in the collection of the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, inv. R3924- R3927., published by Eike. D. Schmidt, The Hours of Night and Day, A Rediscovered Cycle of Bronze Reliefs by Giovanni Casini and Pietro Cipriani, The Minneapolis Institute of Art, USA, 2014, pp. 96-99, figs. 56-59.
2. Referenced by D. Zikos, op. cit., 2005, pp. 426-27, where the original terracotta models of all four panels are illustrated and where the author writes that in 1713 the Four Seasons reliefs are listed as being in the estate of the Hereditary Prince; and have since remained in the Florentine collections. Museo degli Argenti, Palazzo Pitti (Polo Museale Fiorentino), Inv. Ogetti d'arte, Castello nos. 814, 439, 425, 418.2.
3. Quoted from Charles Avery, op.cit. 2005, p. 16.
4. The wax reliefs of Summer and Autumn are listed on pagina 30, No. 43 and pagina 31, No. 49 respectively and the moulds for all the panels are listed in the Archivio Ginori Lisci, Florence, 37/22, p. 33. cat. 33, published and referenced by Lankheit, op. cit., 1982, p. 131, where the wax reliefs of all four panels are illustrated, pls. 166-169; together with an example of the Spring panel in terracotta, bronze, wax and porcelain, pls. 23-26.
5. Archivio Ginori Lisci, Florence, 37/7, p. 23, referenced by Luca Melegati in, J. Kräftner (ed.) Baroque Luxury Porcelain, exh. cat., Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, 2005, p. 429.
6. The subject of 19th century plaques is discussed by Rita Balleri in her recent paper, op.cit., 2014, pp. 164-66, where the author notes the plaster mould of Spring is incised twice with the dates 1709 and 1879, the former presumably when the mould was still in Soldani-Benzi’s workshop and the latter when the factory revived production of the series. The author also notes a series of 19th century plaques are in the collection of the Museo di Doccia, with crowned N marks. These plaques feature a porcelain frame around the edge of each, which appears to be absent on 18th century examples.