By Andrea M. Gáldy –
Two concurrent complementary exhibitions in Florence in 2015 have been dazzling and hugely aesthetically rewarding: Power and Pathos. Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World (Palazzo Strozzi, 14 March to 21 June 2015) and Small Great Bronzes. Greek, Roman and Etruscan Masterpieces (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Firenze, 20 March to 21 June 2015).
Bronze is a notably expensive material that has been used in the past for works of art, for minting coins as well as for weapons and armour. Held in high regard from antiquity to our own days, it lends itself particularly well for the creation of works of art that mimic the softness of human flesh in statuary that seems to breathe. Greek artists were able to do what Virgil had described in the Aeneid as “excudent alii spirantia mollius aera”, i.e. cast bronze sculpture that look alive.
Unfortunately, bronzes can be melted down for a new purpose whenever the art has ceased to amaze or when more pressing needs – such as weapons or cannons – gained the upper hand. Occasionally, bronzes survived shipwrecks at the bottom of the sea to be rescued centuries later by underwater archaeologists. Restored to their former glory they bear witness of the artistic power that once went into their creation. Every saved masterwork also represents the sad tale of innumerable original works of art from the Greek world irredeemably lost due to fashion, war, natural disasters and greed. Nonetheless, rather than bemoaning what is lost, we should perhaps take up the offer of two complementary exhibitions and celebrate that so much is still there to be admired.
In some cases, survival was a close-run thing that depended on the attraction bronze statuary held for collectors of the early modern period. The Power and Pathos show, accordingly, opens with the famous statue of the Arringatore, Aulus Metellus. Brought to Florence from Lago Trasimeno the bronze entered the collection of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici where it was usually inventoried as a “Scipio made of bronze” despite the clearly visible inscription on the hem of his garment. The statue had been discovered by a peasant who had planned to cut it to pieces and sell the bronze. A Medici agent had prevented this act of vandalism but the ensuing court case brought against the peasant by the owners of the land where the Arringatore was found landed him in a Roman gaol. The duke was trying to help with money and legal advice for he wanted to ensure that future discoveries would be reported and make it safely into his collection.
The sculptures displayed in the exhibition’s seven sections focus mainly on the depiction of humans from the fourth century BC. Bronze heads give insights into the portraiture of power and explore the difference between likeness and expression. The human body, its natural grace and fluidity, receives particular attention as well as its (semi-)divine counterparts in the guise of gods and heroes. Bronze and marble replicas of bronze originals are discussed as well as retrospective styles adopted during the Hellenistic period. Many of the pieces in the show are life-size and over. Discovered often by chance, they entered (princely) collections during the fifteenth or sixteenth century and received the care and restoration available at the time. For example, the eighteenth-century restoration given to the Minerva of Arezzo (Museo Archeologico, Florence) was finally removed a few years ago and the statue is now visible in its fragmentary but more authentic state.
Some of the bronzes discovered during the early modern period were either copied (sometimes in in reduced size) after being unearthed or inspired new works of art. In antiquity, copies were also made: some large, some small, some in bronze and many more in less costly marble. The profusion of (now) white marble statuary still influences our view of antiquity. Despite knowing better, it now comes as a wholesome shock to be able to compare directly a bronze version of Apoxyomenos to the marble statue from the Uffizi. At the time, when the interest in such sculptures as collection pieces caused a lively trade in antiquities to be developed, the similarity between certain types of statues in diverse materials was of course noted, even though it would have been rather more difficult to trace the route as well as the steps of transmission from one material to the next.
Or, from one size to the next. As the accompanying exhibition at the Archaeological Museum in Florence demonstrates many important works of sculpture by the great artists of ancient Greece exist as bronzetti. Such miniature reductions may have once been used as votive gifts to sanctuaries but also as decorative elements in gardens and dining rooms. Often discovered in the form of caches, similar to hoards of coins, such small bronzes not only became coveted collectors’ items but also inspired small early modern works of art as well as copies of the antiques. Some of the most important sculptors of the Renaissance, for example Bertoldo di Giovanni, Benvenuto Cellini, Pietro da Barga and Wilhelm Tetrode restored and copied small antiquities or were inspired by this work to create objects all’antica.
Because of their reduced size and of the circumstances of their discovery, many more bronzetti survive to this day than is the case with large-scale bronzes. The Archaeological Museum in Florence hosts substantial numbers of such objects, which have been displayed in a number of rooms and according to diverse modes of exhibition over the centuries. Originally, they had been part of the (grand-)ducal guardaroba at Palazzo Vecchio. Some had even once been owned by the Medici of the fifteenth century in the family palace north of Florence Cathedral. The most splendid collectibles were later taken to the Tribuna of the Uffizi to be displayed side by side with choice pieces from antiquity and those made by early modern artists. The exhibition scheme in the Renaissance also tended to mix large and small bronzes with pieces in marble to show the wide reach of artistic creation in antiquity as well as the unbroken chain of creativity from ancient times to the early modern period.
With the exhibition Small Great Bronzes and with the beautifully illustrated Catalogue, the museum is finally doing justice to the bronzetti. Articles as well as catalogue entries discuss the history of collections in early modern Italy and different genres and subject matters most popular for reduced size copies. It is particularly fortunate to have this show running in tandem with the Pathos of Power exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi to which the Archaeological Museum has lent several of the most admired pieces, turning the two events into a celebration of profusion rather than a memorial of loss.
The show through June 21 at Palazzo Strozzi – curated by Jens Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin as a collaborative event between Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC and the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici della Toscana – will also be shown in the US. Small Great Bronzes, curated by Andrea Pessina, Mario Iozzo and G. Carlotta Cianferoni has paired with Power and Pathos in Florence.
As usual with exhibitions at Palazzo Strozzi, these events are accompanied by talks, concerts, movies and special outreach programmes. In the case of the Power and Pathos exhibition a talk by Fabio Isman, a journalist with a long-standing interest in art, heritage preservation and restoration, adds an extra dimension to the celebration of beauty and artistry. “Raiders of the Lost Art” highlights the problems of illicit excavations and art trade, which have endangered the works of art and scientific data, provided by proper documentation, for centuries. They also brought some of the leading museums in the world very negative headlines.
Power and Pathos is the final exhibition to open in Palazzo Strozzi under James Bradburne’s mandate. During the nine years of his innovative directorship, Palazzo Strozzi developed into far more than just another exhibition space in Florence. Under Bradburne’s auspices, the staff at Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi tackled a great variety of themes and invariably put together fascinating shows across a wide chronological, medial and geographical range. Perhaps the most amazing achievement, however, has been the palace’s transformation into a meeting place, in which the visitors became users of this cultural space, regularly returning for more.