In 1504, the humanist Pomponius Gauricus published a book on the art of sculpture, which he had written whilst studying at Padua's famous university. In this treatise he complained that ‘the sculptors today are so taken up with images of satyrs, hydras, chimaeras, in sum monsters which they will never have even seen in any place, that they give the impression that there is nothing else for them to sculpt.’ The quotation gives a wonderful sense of the mania at this time in Italy for small bronze sculptures of mythical antique creatures such as tritons, sea monsters and, of course, satyrs.
Archetypal figures within the Renaissance view of the ancient Greek and Roman mythological worlds, satyrs were followers of Bacchus, god of wine. Half-man, half-goat, with furry legs and hooves, pointed animal ears and horns, they may be found everywhere in Italian art from the late fifteenth century. But they were perhaps especially appreciated in Padua, where some of the most advanced thinkers of the time were working within the university. The ambivalent nature of the creatures, half man, half wild beast, would have appealed to those sceptical professors who were the main patrons of Andrea Riccio. Among examples from Riccio’s own hand are the four large crouching bound satyrs, placed on the corners below the third level of his masterpiece, the Paschal Candelabrum, made between 1507 and 1516 for the Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua. These figures provide a documented touchstone for the sculptor’s treatment of the theme, permitting the attribution to Riccio himself of three statuettes depicting seated satyrs drinking from a bowl (Allen and Motture, op. cit., nos. 10-12). Many artists since the Renaissance have depicted subjects from antiquity, but few were as successful as Riccio at capturing a sense of the cold implacability of the pagan gods and the savagery of their world. Manfred Leithe-Jasper cleverly described the finest of the three seated satyrs, the version in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, as ‘a brilliant representation of the forces of nature’ (Leithe Jasper, op. cit., p. 112). Riccio’s other satyr figures include the sublime group of the Satyr and Satyress in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Allen and Motture, op. cit., no. 1).
Whilst not by the hand of Riccio himself, the present figure is intimately related to these prototypes. It is the work of a sculptor who was evidently a close associate of Riccio. This artist has recently been identified with the sculptor Desiderio da Firenze, a mysterious figure about whom very little is known, but who was documented in Padua between 1532, the year of Riccio’s death, and 1545.
Nothing is known of Desiderio’s origins, although his name and some aspects of his style indicate that he was Tuscan. He could possibly be identifiable with a Desiderio, the grandson of the sculptor Desiderio da Settignano, who was born in Florence in 1486. In 1532 and 1533, Desiderio da Firenze is documented undertaking the modelling and casting of a bronze Voting Urn commissioned by the city council of Padua, now in the Museo Civico in Padua (Banzato, op.cit., no. 41). Desiderio was next mentioned in 1537, when the humanist collector Pietro Bembo recommended him for a bronze font cover for the Baptistry of San Marco in Venice, describing him as a ‘good master of his art and an extremely agreeable person’ (Warren 2001, op.cit., p. 95). Desiderio subsequently contracted for the font cover commission in April 1545, together with the Paduan sculptor Tiziano Minio, whose style is evident in the finished cover and who was therefore probably responsible for the model. Desiderio on the other hand, specifically described in the contract as ‘sculptor and founder’, seems to have been principally responsible for carrying out the casting.
The notion that the Voting Urn and its maker had some relationship to the work of Riccio was first mooted as long ago as the early 20th century, by the scholars Wilhelm von Bode (Bode, op.cit., I, p. 30) and Leo Planiscig. Planiscig even tentatively attributed to Desiderio da Firenze the present model, which he only knew through a version now in the Victoria & Albert Museum, which is in fact a 19th-century aftercast (Planiscig, op.cit., pp. 400-03). However, Planiscig’s subsequent attribution of a vast range of Paduan small bronzes to Riccio in his great monograph on the sculptor, published in 1927, had the effect of closing off for some decades any serious further consideration of such subsidiary figures as Desiderio da Firenze.
Only in fairly recent years did it come to be recognized that Riccio in fact made relatively few small bronze sculptures, and that many of Planiscig’s attributions needed to be revised. As well as new attributions to Severo da Ravenna and Giovanni Fonduli da Crema, a group of bronze sculptures has been gradually assembled, associated with a sculptor who must have been a very close follower of Riccio, since he seems to have had some sort of access to his models. They include the Pan listening to Echo in the Ashmolean Museum (Warren 2014, op.cit., no. 49), formerly regarded as one of Riccio’s greatest masterpieces, as well as a group of standing and seated satyrs, among them the present model, and a series of large cylindrical perfume burners, surmounted by a seated satyr. Anthony Radcliffe recognised that all these satyr figures were based on the same torso model, exploited to produce a series of figures with varied arms, legs and poses. They depend closely from Riccio’s satyrs, but are derivations of lesser quality (Radcliffe/Baker/Maek-Gérard, op.cit., p. 216). Radcliffe did not suggest an attribution, but Jeremy Warren and Bertrand Jestaz have subsequently proposed that the sculptor should be identified with Desiderio da Firenze (Warren 2001, op. cit.; Jestaz 2005, op. cit.), an hypothesis which has been widely, albeit not universally, accepted. It seems probable that Riccio would in 1532 had been given the commission for the Voting Urn, had he not by then been close to death, and that Desiderio da Firenze received the commission in his stead, because of some form of association with the older sculptor. The sculptor responsible for this group of works, here accepted as Desiderio da Firenze, may well have inherited Riccio’s models. This would help to explain why several works currently attributed to Desiderio are either direct copies of models by Riccio, for example a pair of andirons in the form of sphinxes derived from the models on the Paschal Candelabrum (Victoria & Albert Museum; Radcliffe, op.cit.), or closely derived from models by Riccio, notably the Oxford Pan listening to Echo or, at slightly greater distance, the various standing and seated satyrs. Jestaz painted a picture of Desiderio as an unscrupulous purveyor of pastiches based on other artists’ designs, including many bronzes of antique subject matter, intended to attract the many visitors from outside Italy who passed through Padua. There is no doubt that Desiderio was a founder of uncommon ability, many of the bronzes attributed to him showing signs of little if any work to the surfaces after casting.
The Rampant Satyr is one of the finest versions of a model known in a small number of casts and variants. It is equivalent in quality to the best-known example, in the Musée National de la Renaissance, Écouen, but superior to two variant versions, a second example in Écouen and one formerly in the Beit collection (sold Christie’s, London, 7 December 2006, lot 192). All show the satyr leaning forward, as if cradling something in his arms, but there are variations in details as well as the satyr’s pose. In the second Écouen version, he more or less stands upright and still, whilst in the ex-Beit example he seems tentatively to move forward. It is in the best-known first version in Écouen and in the present bronze that we see the greatest dynamism, with the satyr lunging forward, the weight on his right leg. The after-cast version in the V&A is all but identical to the present bronze; it is not impossible that it was even cast from it. Although broadly equivalent casts, in some respects, notably the more subtle handling of the fur on the satyr’s legs, the present bronze is superior to the version in Écouen.
The concept of the figure may have been derived from a woodcut in Francesco Colonna’s famous dream romance Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published by Aldus Manutius in Venice in 1499. This image illustrates the episode in which the author describes a temple which contained a wondrously beautiful carved sculpture of a sleeping nymph, spied upon by a satyr sporting an erection (Colonna, op. cit., pp. 72-3). The scene was evidently popular, since it was paraphrased by Benedetto Montagna in an engraving from c. 1500-1520. This in turn was the model for a plaquette by the anonymous artist known as the Pseudo Fra Antonio da Brescia, who also worked in the Veneto.
The pose of the present bronze figure is quite similar to the satyr in Colonna’s woodcut image, as is the salacious context. The satyr has at some point in its history been emasculated, but would originally also have been depicted with an erection. The Écouen satyr in contrast has survived unbowdlerized. In the late 19th century it was for prudish reasons consigned to the basement of the Musée de Cluny in Paris, where it remained for the next century, until its rediscovery by Bertrand Jestaz (Jestaz 1983, op.cit.). It had been acquired for the museum in the mid-19th century, together with the second standing satyr now in Écouen, and a female satyress with splayed legs. The figures had been arranged in an awkward modern grouping. After their rediscovery the figures were disassembled from their modern mount, when it quickly became apparent that their 19th-century reordering may have been done to conceal an even more explicit original arrangement. In fact, the better of the satyr figures and the satyress fit together to create a perfectly balanced composition of a copulating couple, with the lubricious satyress, who thrusts her tongue out and squeezes her breast, clasped in the satyr’s outstretched arms. It is probable that the present bronze, as well as the variant versions in Écouen and the former Beit collection, were also originally paired with a satyress, although it should be noted that no other examples of the satyress have yet emerged.
Although they may never have been very common, very few bronze sculptures of risqué subject matter have survived the moral censure of later centuries intact. One exception is a late 16th- or early-17th century casket in the Ashmolean Museum surmounted by a figure of Venus reclining and pleasuring herself, whilst her son Cupid sprawls across her and caresses her breast (Warren 2014, op. cit., no. 63). The compartments of the casket probably held cosmetics, suggesting that the original owner of this object might have been a courtesan. As well as the Satyr and Satyress group, several other bronzes attributed to the workshop of Desiderio da Firenze are pornographic in subject matter: a seated satyr and satyress copulating (Christie’s London, 11 December 1984, lot 72; Jestaz 2005, op.cit., pp. 160-61, figs. 68-69); a model of a triangular perfume burner originally surmounted with a small group of a copulating satyr and satyress (Scholten and Verber, op.cit., no. 9; Warren 2016, op.cit., no. 61) and the large circular perfume burners (Warren 2014, op.cit., no. 50), which are distinctly phallic in form. Even more graphic examples once existed, as we know from an 18th-century drawing of a lost example of the circular perfume burners, the lid of which was formed from the small copulating satyr and satyress group, placed upon a large phallus (Jestaz 2005, op.cit., p. 136, fig. 38; Warren 2014, op.cit., p. 202, fig. 97). Many of these bronzes have been mutilated in some way, probably in the 19th century; thus no examples of the triangular perfume burners survive intact with their original cover, although the version once in the Colbert and Oxford collections was still complete when it was engraved in 1720 (Warren 2016, op.cit., p. 294, fig. 61.1). The present group is most likely to have been emasculated in the 19th century, and its female companion could well have been removed at this time, and perhaps destroyed.
Early antiquaries and collectors habitually associated licence with the antique world, so it is probable that these pornographic bronzes were made to be passed off as Roman antiquities. Both the triangular and circular perfume burners were published as Roman by the early 18th-century French antiquarian the abbé de Montfaucon, in his influential L’Antiquité expliquée, of 1719-24. The fact that these bronzes were evidently fraudulently presented as antiquities provided further evidence for Jestaz’s view of Desiderio da Firenze as an unscrupulous filcher of other artists’ models.
Whilst Desiderio certainly borrowed from other artists such as Severo da Ravenna, it is to Riccio that his best work owes its origin, which raises the important question of just what the relationship between Riccio and Desiderio was, before the older sculptor’s death in 1532. Although until further documents come to light this question is unanswerable, it seems very probable that the two men had some form of working arrangement. Perhaps Desiderio, a skilled founder, was responsible for casting some of Riccio’s bronzes. The question is especially pertinent in the case of the present satyr which, like the version in Écouen, shows considerable evidence of hammering of the surface in some areas, notably the front torso. Hammering has long been recognized as a hallmark of Riccio’s autograph whereas, as noted above, many of the bronzes attributed to Desiderio da Firenze are remarkable for their apparent lack of afterworking. The present standing satyr and the complete group in Écouen unquestionably owe many debts to Riccio. In addition to the afterworking, the Écouen satyress is clearly derived from the same model used in Riccio’s lubricious canoodling satyr and satyress in the V&A. In his 2005 article on Desiderio, the status of the Écouen satyr puzzled Bertrand Jestaz who, whilst accepting that many elements of the model were entirely characteristic of Desiderio’s less subtle style and that the group had to be his invention rather than Riccio’s, found it difficult to reconcile this evidence with its overall high quality, especially in some of the afterworking. He posited a number of scenarios for this ‘intimate fusion of the [two artists’] manners’: could Desiderio have brought his ability to imitate Riccio to a point of perfection? Could he have copied an original work by Riccio in his own manner? Or could the group have been a collaborative work between the two artists?
Jestaz rightly concluded that there are at present no answers to these questions. But this model, in the present version and its cognate in Écouen, seem to provide some support for the notion that Riccio and Desiderio did work alongside one another. It is by no means impossible that Riccio had some part in the creation of the two bronzes. But quite apart from its authorship, this splendid figure, with its sharp modelling and vibrantly worked surfaces, unquestionably brings us close to that fascinating semi-Pagan world of early 16th-century Padua, and thus to the beating heart of the Italian Renaissance.
D. Allen and P. Motture (eds.), Andrea Riccio: Renaissance Master of Bronze, exh. cat. Frick Collection, New York 2008; D. Banzato (ed.), Donatello e il suo tempo. Il bronzetto a Padova nel Quattrocento e nel Cinquecento, exh. cat. Palazzo della Ragione, Padua 2001; W. Bode, The Italian Bronze Statuettes of the Renaissance, 3 vols., London 1908–12; F. Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, trans. by J. Godwin, London 1999; B. Jestaz, ‘Un groupe de bronze érotique de Riccio’, Fondation Eugène Piot: Monuments et Mémoires, 65 (1983), pp. 25–54; B. Jestaz, ‘Desiderio da Firenze. Bronzier à Padoue au XVIe siècle, ou le faussaire de Riccio’, Fondation Eugène Piot: Monuments et Mémoires, 84 (2005), pp. 99–171; M. Leithe-Jasper, Renaissance Master Bronzes from the Collection of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington etc., Washington 1986; L. Planiscig, Venezianische Bildhauer der Renaissance, Vienna 1921; A. Radcliffe, ‘Ricciana’, Burlington Magazine, 124 (July 1982), pp. 412–24; A. Radcliffe, M. Baker and M. Maek-Gérard, The Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection: Renaissance and Later Sculpture with Works of Art in Bronze, London 1992; F. Scholten and M. Verber, From Vulcan’s Forge: Bronzes from the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam 1450–1800, exh. cat., Daniel Katz Gallery, London 2005; J. Warren, ‘“The faun who plays on the pipes”: a new attribution to Desiderio da Firenze’, in Small Bronzes in the Renaissance, ed. D. Pincus , Washington 2001, pp. 82–103; J. Warren, Medieval and Renaissance Sculpture: A Catalogue of the Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, 3 vols., Oxford 2014; J. Warren, The Wallace Collection: Catalogue of Italian Sculpture, 2 vols., London 2016
We are grateful to Dr Jeremy Warren for cataloguing this lot.
XRF Data for the present lot:
Left hand: Cu 90.4%; Sn 7.5%; Zn 0.7%; Pb 0.6%; Fe 0.3%; Sb 0.5%
Right hand: Cu 65.4%; Zn 29.9%; Pb 4.2%; Fe 0.5%
Right leg: Cu 87.8%; Sn 9.2%; Zn 0.9%; Pb 0.8%; Fe 1.3%
Centre of back: Cu 90.9%; Sn 7.4%; Zn 0.4%; Pb 0.6%; Fe 0.3%; Sb 0.4%
X-rays are available on request
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