The present bromnze Venus is an example of one of Giambologna's most sought-after compositions. Beautifully finished and with a jewel-like reddish-gold lacquer, it has never been published and is one of only four casts known to exist on this scale including one in the Imperial Hapsburg collections in Vienna.
Giambologna’s rendering of the female nude in a variety of poses is among the most exquisite in all of European art. Determined to match the status and glory of Michelangelo, he reinterpreted classical statues in light of Michelangelo’s studies in contrapposto and figura serpentinata. The present model of Venus Drying Herself is emblematic of his desire to create models that could be admired in three dimensions, with no one preponderant viewpoint, the sensuous beauty of the curving nude back of Venus equal to the quixotic beauty of the slowly unveiling full-frontal female form. ‘Conceived directly after Giambologna’s Rape of a Sabine, it can be seen as the logical final development in Giambologna’s exhaustive exploration of the female nude’ (Radcliffe, 1993, loc. cit., p. 5). Such is the grace of the idealised figure that the action of drying after a humble wash is elevated far beyond a simple genre scene. Giambologna was largely unconcerned with specific subject matter throughout his career, which left him free to concentrate on the both the technical aspect and form of his figures (Avery, 1987, loc. cit.).
The present model is related to a marble figure modeled by Giambologna in Florence in the period 1580-1583. A letter dated 28 July 1580 records that Grand Duke Francesco I de' Medici promised Giangiorgio II Cesarini, Marquis of Civitanova, that he would allow Giambologna, the most brilliant artist of his court, to undertake the carving of a marble statue for the Villa Ludovis, Cesarini's palace in Rome, as soon as he had completed all his existing commissions (Wengraf in Seipel, op. cit., p. 118). On 9 April 1583 the Duke of Urbino’s ambassador Simona Fortuna wrote to the duke, Francesco Maria II della Rovere, stating that the sculptor then had the figure of Venus in hand (‘fra mano’), suggesting that the sculpture was then in the process of being carved (Radcliffe, 1996, op. cit., p. 60).
Presumably completed in 1583, it was installed in the Villa Ludovisi, where it still stands today, the villa now housing the American Embassy. In 1616 the marble was broken into many pieces and restored. During the restoration it was set into the present, circular base which, along with the more elaborate coiffure, differentiates it from our bronze model (Wengraf in Seipel, op. cit., pp. 119-120).
The present bronze is known in only three other examples of the same scale: one in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (24.8 cm, inv. no. 5874, engraved 'IOANNES / BOLOGNA . BELGA’ to base of pedestal); one previously belonging to the Hearn family trust, New York (24.9 cm); and another in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (inv. no. 5523). The Vienna example is the best known version and has been examined for several recent exhibitions and publications. It is first recorded with certainty in Schloss Ambras, where it was documented in an inventory of 1730 (Leithe-Jasper and Wengraf, op. cit., p. 151). The present bronze was examined next to the Vienna example where it was suggested that the two were probably cast from the same piece-moulds. Sturman’s technical analysis that showed the Vienna bronze to be an indirect cast leaves open this possibility (Sturman, loc. cit.). The most notable differences are that in the present example the left breast is more modestly covered, the details of the plaiting in the coiffure and curls of hair and the channeling of the folds of drapery vary slightly, while the right foot is slightly counter-sunk into the surface of the base, which possibly accounts for the millimeter difference in the overall heights of the two statuettes.
The dating of this group of bronzes, and their relation to Giambologna’s marble figure has been subject to prolonged debate. In 1584 Giambologna's biographer Borghini described a diplomatic gift from Cosimo I de’ Medici to Emperor Maximillian II in 1565 of ‘una figurina pur di metallo’ which von Schlosser associated with the bronze model of Venus Drying Herself (Schlosser, loc. cit.). This assumption led scholars to the conclusion that the bronzes had to pre-date the marble Venus and that for Cesarini’s commission Giambologna transformed a small model he made twenty years earlier into a life-size marble, reversing his more typical process of making bronze reductions of his marbles as collector’s pieces (Radcliffe, 1996, loc. cit.).
As Radcliffe argued, at the time of Cesarini’s commission Giambologna was exceptionally busy (ibid.). Re-working an earlier model would have been a time-saving device. However there must be some doubt whether Giambologna would have been content to reproduce an old model for one of his more important commissions. Previous translations of Borghini’s note as ‘a female figure also of metal’ (Wengraf in Seipel, op. cit., p. 118) may also be misleading, as ‘figurina’ literally translates into English as 'figurine’ and is therefore not gender specific. The gift to the Emperor could have been either a male or female figure. More recently, scholars have suggested that the creation of the first examples in bronze must have been contemporary with the carving of the marble in the early 1580s (Kryza-Gersch in Seipel, op. cit., cat. no. 3, pp. 195-198).
The surface of the present bronze, in particular the finely chiseled surface, sharp, angular folds of the drapery, and defined pupils and irises are all characteristic of the work of Antonio Susini, Giambologna’s principal assistant. Susini had been recommended by Jacopo Salviati to Giambologna in 1580, and was taken on in the workshop by the following year. Susini specialised in preparing moulds of Giambologna’s models for casting and finishing these statuettes when cast (Avery 1978, op. cit., p. 157).
Although there is no known early provenance for the current bronze, a number of bronzes of this model appear in sixteenth and early seventeenth century inventories. In 1586 Ferdinando de’ Medici sent Emperor Rudolf 'Una Venere di mano di Giovanni Bologna, simile a quella del S.or Cesarini’ (‘a Venus from the hand of Giambologna similar to that of Signor Cesarini’). By the 1607-1611 inventory of Rudolf’s Kunstkammer, the Emperor had seemingly acquired a second cast. A third cast of this model is recorded in inventories of the Villa Medici in 1588 and 1671 (Wengraf in Seipel, op. cit., pp. 118-120). It is possible that the bronze offered here could be one of these recorded examples.