‘…Pozo Reale… the most delicate and pleasant place in the world that could be called paradise on earth’
A letter from Girolamo Stanga to Francesco Gonzaga, 10 April 1494 (Archivio di Stato di Mantova, Fondo Gonzaga, b. 807)
From a storied pleasure palace on the Mediterranean, sacked by a rampaging northern army, its treasures smashed or stolen, somehow, five centuries later, something as precious and fragile as a della Robbia portrait reappears in the New World. It sounds like a fairy tale or a movie script. Like a long-lost treasure, The Laureate, has been ‘found.’
THE VILLA ON THE POGGIO REALE
In the late 1480’s, Crown Prince Alfonso of Aragon, still Duke of Calabria, bought land in the countryside outside Naples to build his summer retreat that became known as the Poggio Reale. Construction began in 1487, with the arrival of Giuliano da Maiano from Florence. Da Maiano was one of Renaissance Florence’s most celebrated architects, responsible for dozens of iconic ecclesiastical and domestic projects for such patrons as the Pazzi, Strozzi and Antinori families and, above all, for Lorenzo de’ Medici. His talents are illustrated in both huge-scale projects such as the intarsia of the New Sacristy of the Florentine Duomo as well as the dazzlingly detailed and intellectually-complex Gubbio studiolo, now re-installed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Poggioreale was perhaps da Maiano’s greatest achievement. And, as da Maiano died in Naples in 1490, still working on Alfonso’s Villa, it was also his final project. Poggioreale was such an important commission, that as Pane notes, da Maiano’s principal patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Il Magnifico himself, actively participated in the design of the palace (Pane, op. cit., p. 38). The surviving documents suggest a palazzo-fortezza with a central colonnaded courtyard but probably not as perfectly symmetrical as Serlio’s re-creation of Poggioreale in his Treatise of Architecture, Book III, published in Venice in 1540, fifty years after da Maiano’s death and with most of Poggioreale already in ruins. But the direct link to Ancient Roman architecture was a deliberate reference – as were the contributions by the della Robbia workshop to Poggioreale.
ANDREA DELLA ROBBIA AT THE VILLA POGGIOREALE
Poggioreale was certainly a symbol of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s ambitions to assert the glory of Florentine art outside of the city’s walls. Indeed, the Villa not only had Giuliano da Maiano as an ambassador it was also the object of an exceptional commission for the acclaimed della Robbia workshop. Andrea della Robbia, one of Florence’s most famous artists, who was dazzling Kings and courts throughout Europe with his family’s glazed terracottas, was selected to provide tiles for the floors as well as a series of portraits celebrating the venerable Aragon ancestors and linking them, aesthetically at least, to Antiquity. ‘Fra le volte degli archi e su le porte delle scale vi erano molti tondi ornati di alcuni festoni e dentro molti ritratti di mezzo rilievo degli Eroi della casa di Aragone, di creta cotta invetriata…’ (‘Between the arches and on the doors of the stairs were numerous tondi decorated with festoons and inside numerous low-relief portraits of the heroes of the Aragon house, of glazed clay’, Gentilini, op. cit., p. 216, citing C. Celano, Notizie del bello, dell’antico et del curiozo della citta di Napoli, Naples, ed. 1856-1860, vol. 2, p. 41). Although attributed to Luca della Robbia by Celano in the mid-19th century, these can now all be attributed to Andrea as they were commissioned well after Luca’s death in 1482. Further documentation in the Neapolitan archives record the arrival of the della Robbias in Naples ‘Quattro casse de teste invitriate con le rote venute da Fiorenza’ (‘Four crates of glazed heads with circular frames came from Florence’, Gentilini, op. cit., p. 216 citing N. Barone, Le cedole di Tesoreria dell’Archivio di Stato di Napoli dall’anno 1460 al 1504, in archivio Storico per le Province Napoletane, X, p. 12). Based on the architectural reconstructions of the Villa, Pane suggests that eighteen busts were commissioned, two for each small space between the three small arches and five for each of the spaces in-between each of the six larger arches and then four above the doors of the stairs (Pane, op. cit., p. 42). The surviving fragments illustrate how unique and individual della Robbia’s work for Alfonso was. The Laureate is not just high-relief but projects so forcefully from the wall it becomes three-dimensional sculpture and, as Pane notes, the chiaroscuro, especially the deep hollows around the eyes, was exceptionally innovative for the period (Ibid., p. 43).
There are only two other surviving della Robbia Laureates, one in the Capodimonte Museum and another in the Louvre. By great fortune, the Capodimonte Laureate retains its original frame of laurel leaves. The Louvre Laureate has no frame at all. So the survival of the Capodimonte frame illustrates what surely would have been the original frame for The Laureate. Outside of the present example, and the Capodimonte and Louvre Laureates, there is also a della Robbia bust of the emperor Antoninus Pius, the closest comparison to these Laureates and part of the relatively small group of Andrea della Robbia’s secular commissions. This tondo, surrounded by a wreath of pine cones, is also on an identical blue background with scrolling ribbons – but is actually inscribed with the emperor’s name – and was originally probably supplied to Castelvecchio and is now in the Palazzo Madama, Turin (Gentilini, op. cit., p. 217).
The Laureate appears to be in almost miraculously good condition, especially considering its age, the fragility of the material and the very short-lived protection the Villa Poggioreale probably offered The Laureate. In comparison, both the Capodimonte and Louvre Laureates are considerably damaged. Furthermore, and present condition aside, Marquand refers to the Louvre Laureate as either ‘an inferior copy or replica’ and both Pane and Gentilini also consider the Louvre Laureate of lesser quality than the present example. (Marquand, op. cit., p. 29, Pane, op. cit., p. 43-44 and Gentilini, op. cit., p. 216). Although the original frame for The Laureate is lost, it is not unusual to to find della Robbias with associated frames, and we can thank Signor Bardini for this sensitive and successful marriage of The Laureate with its present magnificent frame.
THE COLLAPSE OF NAPLES AND LEGEND OF POGGIOREALE
‘O Italian delights how your discord caused your extinction’
Such was Sebastiano Serlio’s lament on the destruction and disappearance of Poggioreale in his Il terzo libro (…) nel quale si figurano, e descrivono le antiquita di Roma, e le altre che sono in Italia (printed in Venice by Francesco Marcolino da Forli, 1540, p. CL). Over the centuries Poggioreale, and what we know of it, has shifted from memory to myth. It’s decline began only four years after it was finished. Alfonso’s rule was short, lasting less than a year, as when Charles VIII of France invaded the Italian peninsula in the autumn of 1494 and swept towards Naples, Alfonso fled for sanctuary in Sicily. Even though Poggioreale so impressed Charles that he persuaded the designers of the gardens to return with him to France, the Villa was sacked and emptied of its treasures. Worse was to come. As if cursed, the destruction of the local aqueduct made the area uninhabitable and the Villa and its gardens had the poor luck to be battlefields again soon afterwards in the first half of the 16th century and then even in the 20th century, with the three-year Allied bombardment and German occupation of Naples. So there are strong parallels between the fortunes of Naples and Poggioreale. With Charles VIII’s arrival, and the sack of the city, the Kingdom of Naples largely ceded its position in European military and political affairs. And, while far from being over, artistic patronage suffered and declined as well. The glory of Poggioreale’s architecture and the gardens can be gleaned from contemporary descriptions, but its treasures have been scattered to the winds. It is a miracle anything has survived at all. But Pane discovered the only other della Robbia remnant from Poggioreale – the Laureate now in Capodimonte – embedded above a staircase of a modest Neapolitan courtyard, number 32 via S. Maria la Nova (Pane, op. cit., p. 43). The present lot comes from a private North American collection. Who knows what else remains to be discovered?
THE RENAISSANCE REVIVAL IN GILDED AGE NEW YORK
The Laureate has a rich and complex 20th century history as well. After having been ‘lost’ – almost since it was first commissioned – The Laureate surfaced in the collections of Stefano Bardini of Florence. Bardini, a legendary collector and dealer, supplied the new generations of merchant princes of New York – who imitated the collecting tastes of the princes of the Renaissance – and Bardini is directly responsible for many of the best Renaissance paintings, sculpture and architectural elements now in American museums and private collections. Bardini offered The Laureate at a London sale in 1902 – it is illustrated in the sale catalogue with a simple molded frame – and was withdrawn. The Laureate was then offered in Bardini’s final sale, this time in New York in 1918, and it was then illustrated with its present frame. It then entered the collection of the Belgian banker Baron Cassel van Doorn. Baron Cassel, who had fled the Nazi occupation in Europe, had hidden his enormous collections in various warehouses and châteaux around the French countryside and the Nazis spent several years looking for his treasures. Eventually, in 1944, they were found and shipped off to Berlin and other various Nazi depositories. And while much of the collections were recovered after the war, Baron Cassel, who had emigrated to New York in 1941, had already begun to rebuild his collections in the New World, and the present della Robbia was included. The Laureate was purchased from Blumka by the present distinguished private collector and it has been very rarely seen since and never in public.
Please note the present lot is accompanied by a thermoluminescence test from Oxford Authentication dated 3 March 2017 stating the relief and the frame were fired between 300 and 600 years ago.