These two plaques are from an important series of four plaques representing the Four Seasons after the terracotta originals by the Florentine sculptor, Massimiliano Soldani Benzi (1656-1740). The bronze plaques made from the terracotta originals were given by Ferdinando de Medici (1663-1713), the Hereditary Prince of Tuscany, to his brother-in-law, Johann Wilhelm, the Elector Palatine in Dusseldorf.1 Although the bronze plaques of Summer and Autumn are dated 1708, and the plaques of January and Winter are dated 1711, it is known that Soldani Benzi began work on the clay model for Winter in 1708.2 He gave the four terracotta originals to the Prince of Tuscany, who prized them so highly that he hung them in the audience room at the Palazzo Pitti in glazed frames. This is recorded with some embarrassment by Soldani Benzi in a letter to Giovan Giacomo Zamboni: ‘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 Dusseldorf [sic]; 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).3
Shortly after Medici rule in Tuscany came to an end, Marchese Carlo Ginori (1701-57) established the Doccia porcelain manufactory near Florence in 1737. He recruited Giorgio delle Torri and J.K.W. Anreiter von Zirnfeld, both of whom had worked at the du Paquier factory in Vienna, as well as the Florentine sculptor Gaspero Bruschi as the chief modeller. Porcelain was a new and fashionable medium, and as Ginori was in possession of the secret of ‘true hard-paste’ porcelain from Vienna, this opened up sculptural possibilities for his factory which were not available to factories making ‘soft-paste’ porcelain, as soft-paste porcelain was extremely unstable when fired. At the time, the only other factories in Europe which were making hard-paste porcelain were Meissen and du Paquier.
Only a few years earlier Augustus ‘The Strong’, the Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, had commissioned his own factory, Meissen, to produce large life-size models of birds and animals for his ‘Japanese Palace’ in Dresden. This extraordinary porcelain menagerie project may have, in part, kindled Ginori’s ambition to produce large-scale sculptures in porcelain at Doccia. Ginori was also eager to meet the demand for copies of classical antiquities and more recent sculptures, and he acquired wax models and moulds of these so that his factory could produce them in porcelain. After Soldani Benzi’s death in 1740, Ginori purchased the moulds of his work from his pupil Lorenzo Maria Weber in 1743, and also from Soldani Benzi’s son, Ferdinando, in 1744. The moulds for Soldani Benzi’s plaques of the Four Seasons were among those he purchased.4 He also bought red wax models from Giovanni Battista Foggini’s son Vincenzo, and he subsequently bought moulds of Giuseppe Piamontini’s work from his son Giovanni Battista Piamontini.5
By the time Ginori’s factory began producing porcelain sculptures in 1744, the golden age of Florentine bronze-making was already over. The principal sculptors had died, but Ginori shrewdly recruited craftsmen who had worked for Soldani Benzi and Giovanni Battista Foggini, as they had valuable expertise in making moulds and the casting process. It is now known that Soldani Benzi partly relied on the use of moulds when he was making his terracotta originals, uniting individual components to form a whole composition.6 Given that Ginori was employing two of Soldani Benzi’s pupils, Anton Maria Weber and Antonio Selvi, it is perhaps not surprising that this practice should have been transferred to porcelain-making at Doccia, where porcelain groups based upon individual elements of Soldani’s larger compositions were made. These early figures and groups all appear to have been modelled as table centrepieces and decorations.7
The date when plaques of this type were produced is not entirely clear. In 1765 a new porcelain body was introduced at Doccia, and a glaze with tin oxide (to give whiteness and opacity) was also used. It is thought that the large plaques of this type date from about this time (due to their whiteness), rather than an earlier period. It seems curious that earlier individual groups derived from Soldani Benzi’s originals have survived, yet no earlier plaques have survived. Not only had Doccia been in possession of the moulds since 1744, but also plaques of this type were certainly being made by 1757. Typically plaques are given only very scant descriptions in the 18th century manufactory inventories, making them practically impossible to identify, but in the case of these large plaques representing the Four Seasons the description is more clear, presumably indicating the high regard in which they were held at the time. The factory inventory taken on 7 June 1757 describes them as ‘4 Bassirilievi rappresentanti Le quattro stagioni con il quadro di Porcell.a; con fiori di bassorilievo fermate sopra un telaio di pero nero, zucchini venti l’uno’ (4 Reliefs representing the four seasons with the porcelain picture; with relief flowers on a black pear wood frame, 20 zecchini each).8
When bronzes are translated into porcelain, the visual effect is completely different. Soldani Benzi’s original terracotta plaques were given a fine wash of almost transparent white paint (a practice he used on other terracotta sculptures), so the porcelain versions of them are closer in feel to the originals.
The present Doccia porcelain plaques of Autumn and Winter are very close in form to the terracotta originals, although there are some slight variations in the plaque emblematic of Winter. Venus’s right foot is at a slightly different angle from the terracotta original, and so is her head which is more bowed on the terracotta, and Adonis holds a sword on the porcelain plaque, rather than the hunting spear of the original. Other differences have arisen from the firing process. The head of Vulcan’s hammer on the far right of the plaque of Winter has fused onto the plaque at an impossible angle, suggesting that Vulcan’s hand and the shaft of the hammer came off during the firing process. Similarly, the swan’s head has also fused with the plaque at a slightly different angle from its neck. This firing fault has been filled, and it is very possible that the material which has been used dates from the time of manufacture. These faults testify to the difficulty of firing such large pieces of porcelain in the 18th century. Meissen faced similar difficulties when firing their large models of animals and birds for the Japanese Palace (see lot 5 in this sale), and they filled gaping firing faults in a similar way.
The known plaques of this type after Soldani Benzi are listed by L. Ginori Lisci, Le Porcellana di Doccia, Milan, 1963, p. 133. An example of a plaque representing Autumn, which was sold by Christie’s in the 1920s and subsequently by Sotheby’s, London, on 26 February 1963, lot 9, is published by John Winter, ibid., Florence, 2003, pp. 84-85, no. 16. Winter also illustrates two plaques of Spring and Winter in the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Venezia in Rome on pp. 86-87, figs. 1 and 2, and suggests that the plaque of Autumn could possibly be from the same set.9 A full set of four 18th century plaques after Soldani Benzi’s Four Seasons was sold by Christie’s Geneva on 2 October 1969, lot 91. A plaque emblematic of Winter was sold by Sotheby’s, Florence, on 22 October 1976, lot 166. A plaque emblematic of Spring was sold by Sotheby’s, London, on 21 April 1998, lot 35. A set of four 19th century plaques (with crowned N marks) is in the Museo di Doccia.10
1. The bronzes are now in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich (inv. R 3926 and inv. R 3927). See Eike D. Schmidt et al., The Hours of Night and Day, A Rediscovered Cycle of Bronze Reliefs by Giovanni Casini and Pietro Cipriani, 13 September 2014 – 4 January 2015 Exhibition Catalogue, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, 2014, pp. 98-99.
2. Noted by Dimitrios Zikos in Baroque Luxury Porcelain, The Manufactories of du Paquier in Vienna and of Carlo Ginori in Florence, 10 November 2005 - 29 January 2006 Exhibition Catalogue, Liechtenstein Museum, Vienna, Munich, 2005, p. 426.
3. Cited by Dimitrios Zikos, ibid., 2005, pp. 426-427.
4. Recent scholarship has revealed that Weber bought some of the moulds from Soldani Benzi’s son, and that he sold them to Ginori in 1743; see D. Zikos, Sulla natura delle “forme” acquistate e commissionate da Carlo Ginori, in Amici di Doccia, Quaderni, Vol. IV, 2010, p. 21. The wax reliefs that were produced from the moulds of the Four Seasons plaques are still in the Museo Richard-Ginori della Manifattura di Doccia today; see G. Liverani, Il Museo delle Porcellane di Doccia, Milan, 1967, pl. CIL. For the moulds, see Klaus Lankheit, Die Modellsammlung der Porzellanmanufaktur Doccia, Munich, 1982, p. 131, No. 49 (Autumn), where it is described: ‘Un bassorilievo rappresentante l’Autunno, di cera. Di Massimiliano Soldani, con sue forme’, and p. 132, No. 51 (Winter), where it is described as: ‘Un bassorilievo rappresentante l’Inverno, di cera. Di Massimiliano Soldani, con sue forme, e l’originale è nel Palazzo de Pitti’. Also see the inventory of moulds kept in the Archivo Ginori Lisci, Florence, 37/22, p. 33, cat. 33.
5. See Dimitrios Zikos, ‘Prince Johann Adam Andreas I of Liechtenstein and Massimiliano Soldani Benzi’, in Baroque Luxury Porcelain, Exhibition Catalogue, 2005, p. 158.
6. See Dimitrios Zikos, ibid., 2005, p. 159, where he discusses Soldani’s relief of the Allegory of the Manoel de Vilhena in the V, which restorers discovered had been created with individual components. Zikos also discusses (p. 164) Soldani Benzi’s practice of uniting individual components when creating his bronzes, citing the sculptor’s letter to Zamboni: ‘…you have to make up the bronzes out of individual pieces so as to be able to get everywhere with the chasing tool. Then you join these pieces together with fluid bronze of the same quality so that the colour remains the same. This is done with such wonderful skill that it is not easy to describe’.
7. An early Doccia group of ‘Vulcan’s forge’, thought to date from circa 1745-50, is derived from the figures on the far right-hand side of Soldani Benzi’s plaque emblematic of Winter. This group (probably modelled by Gaspero Bruschi) has the standing figure of Vulcan holding a hammer, and his assistant seated next to him working on a decorative shield, as seen on the present plaque representing Winter. See Baroque Luxury Porcelain, Exhibition Catalogue, Munich, 2005, pp. 428-429, no. 280, where Andreina d’Agliano notes that records of payments to Giuseppe Romei for painting two porcelain groups after Massimiliano Soldani Benzi in 1746 could refer to this group. Another group, formerly in the Enrico Questa Collection, derived from the same part of the Winter plaque, has just the seated figure with the shield, see Andreina d’Agliano et al., Lucca and the Porcelain of the Ginori Manufactory, Works Commissioned by Aristocratic Families and Court Patronage, Fondazione Ragghianti, Lucca, 28 July – 21 October 2001 Exhibition Catalogue, Pisa, 2001, p. 304, no. 158. Another group, based on figures from Soldani Benzi’s plaque of Summer, is illustrated in Baroque Luxury Porcelain, Exhibition Catalogue, Munich, 2005, p. 429, no. 281, and a centrepiece group (in three parts) of ‘The Triumph of Ceres’ after the plaque of Summer is in the Museum of Art, Toledo, see Baroque Luxury Porcelain, Exhibition Catalogue, 2005, p. 430, no. 282, and John Winter, ibid., 2003, p. 87, fig. 3.
8. In folio 23 of the June 1757 inventory, cited by Rita Balleri, ‘Bronze into porcelain. The Enduring Legacy of Giovanni Casini's Reliefs in the Manifattura Ginori di Doccia’ in Eike D. Schmidt (ed.), The Hours of Night and Day, A Rediscovered Cycle of Bronze Reliefs by Giovanni Casini and Pietro Cipriani, Exhibition Catalogue, 13 September 2014 – 4 January 2015, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, 2014, p. 161 and p. 194, note 56. We are grateful to Oliva Rucellai for bringing this inventory reference to our attention.
9. The Museo di Venezia plaques are also illustrated by Dimitrios Zikos, in Baroque Luxury Porcelain, Exhibition Catalogue, 2005, p. 427, nos. 278 and 279.
10. For a discussion of the 19th century plaques see Rita Balleri, ibid., 2014, p. 165, where she notes that the 19th century plaques have a narrow porcelain frame around the edge, something which is absent on all of the 18th century versions, is absent on the Soldani Benzi moulds and on the wax casts taken from them. She also notes that the plaster mould of Spring in the Museo di Doccia is incised with two dates, 1709 and 1879; the 1709 date most probably being inscribed when the mould was in Soldani Benzi’s workshop, and the 1879 date referring to the year that the plaques were revived at Doccia.