Conceived in the 1560s by the Italo-Flemish sculptor Giovanni Bologna, better known as Giambologna (1529-1608), the Mercury is an iconic work in the canon of the Western sculptural tradition. Adopted worldwide as a symbol of communication, in which guise the Mercury appears on stamps, company logos or badges (for example, that of the British Army’s Royal Corps of Signals), it is probably the only Renaissance bronze sculptural model that to this day is easily recognisable to the wider public, even to people who know nothing of the source of the image or its author.
The Mercury was Giambologna’s most famous work, one which sealed his professional success at the Medici court in Florence, the city in which the sculptor arrived from Rome in the early 1560s. Relishing the technical and artistic challenges that the subject presented, Giambologna would remain preoccupied with the composition throughout his career, making five slightly varied versions. He is first recorded as engaging with the subject in 1564, when he was commissioned to make a statue of Mercury, in connection with negotiations for the marriage of Prince Francesco de’ Medici, the later Grand Duke Francesco I, with Joanna of Austria, sister of Emperor Maximilian II.
The alloy measurements for the Mercury correspond to readings for bronze figures made in the workshop of Francesco Righetti or his son Luigi who, with their rival Giovanni Zoffoli, were the leading bronze manufacturers in Rome in the decades around 1800. Both workshops were well placed to take advantage of the huge demand from foreign visitors for reproductions of the great sculptural monuments of the ancient Roman world. Francesco Righetti’s studio was on the Strada della Purificazione in Rome, until he entered the service of the Pope, first as Founder to the Fabbrica di San Pietro and, subsequently from 1805, as Fonditore Camerale. We are fortunate that printed catalogues from the 1790s of bronzes offered by the Righetti and by the Zoffoli survive in the Victoria & Albert Museum, giving us a better understanding of the range of models each foundry offered and the prices charged.1 The full-size replicas of the Mercury by the Righettis were very expensive and, given its size, a cast of the Mercury may have been in the highest-priced category of their works.
An example of Righetti’s full-size Mercury forms part of the exceptional group of seven casts in lead in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, from a group of originally twelve figures commissioned from Righetti in 1781-82 by the Anglo-Dutch banker Henry Hope, for his country house at Welgelgen near Haarlem. As Frits Scholten has pointed out, Hope’s commission must have cost him some 5,000 zecchini, a colossal sum, but the use of lead for the casting would have made the order a great deal cheaper than if it had been in bronze.
The Amsterdam lead version is the only full-scale version of the Mercury that is documented as coming from the workshop of Francesco and Luigi Righetti who, as the leading bronze casters in Rome at this time, are nevertheless likely to have produced more. The excellent quality of the present figure permits a cautious attribution to the foundry of Francesco Righetti or his son Luigi. Full-scale casts of models such as Giambologna’s Medici Mercury were very expensive, sculptures that only the very wealthiest collectors could contemplate buying. The early provenance of the Mercury is currently unknown, but it surely would have been commissioned by a client of the stature of Nikolai Demidoff or the Third Marquess of Hertford. The demand from such discerning connoisseurs for full-size casts of Giambologna’s Medici Mercury bears witness to the enduring esteem for this famous model, the verve and technical brilliance of which retains its power to astonish and delight us to this day, a masterpiece which may truly be regarded as a milestone in the story of European sculpture.
1. F. Haskell and N. Penny, Taste and the Antique, New Haven/London 1981, pp. 342-43.
2. Inv. BK-2006-12. F. Scholten, ‘Francesco Righetti and Henry Hope: The Welgelgen Lead Statues’, Rijksmuseum Bulletin, 61, no. 1 (2013), pp. 2-23, fig.8.
The complete essay by Jeremy Warren DLitt, M.A., F.S.A is available upon request.
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