This exceptional gilt-bronze figure of the Cristo Vivo derives from a small group of models that have been attributed to the Florentine sculptor Giambologna. In the seminal 1978 exhibition devoted to Giambologna and his workshop (op. cit.) the curators amassed a group of fourteen corpora that, for the first time, offered an opportunity to discuss the authorship of the models and the bronzes themselves. The second corpus listed in the exhibition, is the one on offer here (ibid, no. 99).
To date, Giambologna is documented as having modelled (and probably made) the following small-scale corpora: four that are mentioned in the letter of 1583 from Simone Fortuna to the Duke of Urbino (Avery, op. cit, p. 202), one made for Pope Pius V, which was probably the earliest of all since his Papacy ended in 1572, a silver one for the Grand Duchess for the shrine of Loreto (1978 exhibition catalogue, op. cit, no. 106), and two for the Grand Duke and for King Philip II of Spain respectively. Avery also mentions three more (op. cit., p. 202); one destined for Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici in Rome in 1578 (now missing), another gifted to the young soldier who posed for the central figure of the Rape of the Sabines group (also missing) and a third commissioned in 1578 to mount a ciborium on the High Altar of the Santissima Annunziata.
Of these, it is impossible to say with absolute certainty which was modelled and cast by Giambologna and which was cast by Antonio Susini (active 1580- d. 1624) or some other talented assistant, but it is very likely that the Pope Pius V, Loreto, Santa Maria degli Angiolini and Santissima Annunziata corpora were modelled, cast and finished by Giambologna himself. Of these three the most relevant to this discussion is the latter example. The Santissima Annunziata bronze is ascribed to Giambologna on account of its less intricate and 'waxier' detailing, in addition to the fact that it was given as a personal gift by Giambologna to the convent and, again, because Susini had not yet been employed in the workshop.
The bronze on offer here is identical in terms of height and composition to the Santissima Annunziata corpus. At the time of the 1978 exhibition, however, Katherine Watson proposed that the former was probably finished by Susini since its surface was much more goldsmith-like than the latter. An examination of photographs of the Santissima Annunziata bronze (Casalini, op. cit.) does indeed show that it is less fine in the rendition of the perizonium, and less refined in the treatment of the eyes and hair than the present lot. However, there is still a waxiness to the detailing of the bronze on offer that creates a much more lively and spontaneous surface. Consider for example the very subtle veining to the backs of the hands and feet, and the impressionistic detailing of the hair and beard that, unlike Susini bronzes, is voluminous, robust and modelled directly in the wax with a stylus, as opposed to being worked and chased by a goldsmith's tool. And while the perizonium of this bronze is considerably more finely modelled than the Santissima Annunziata bronze it is still not as sharp, angular or chased as one can see on other Susini bronzes. It is obvious that Giambologna worked bronzes to different standards during his career and that, depending on the nature of the commission, he also finished them to different levels. Thus, it is entirely plausible that he decided to donate the Santissima Annunziata bronze because it was a less finely finished bronze, and that the present lot, being more refined may have been kept back (or made) to be sold to a more esteemed patron, like, for example the Cristo Vivo sold to Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici that is now lost.
The documentary evidence indicates that Giambologna created the model for the Santissima Annunziata Cristo Vivo and by extension, the present bronze and, on the basis of the above-mentioned stylistic points, one also cannot exclude the possibility that Giambologna himself might have actually made both figures. One could argue that the Santissima Annunziata bronze has more a authentic 'Giambologna-esque' feel; but in looking throughout his oeuvre one can readily find other small bronzes that bear the same finely worked eyes and less waxily modelled hair that can be seen on the present bronze. Consider for example the eyes, nose, mouth and anatomy of the singed Mercury in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (2006 Vienna exhibition catalogue, op. cit, pp.260-3), or taking the argument to an extreme, every detail on the head of the sublime signed gilt-bronze Astronomy in the same museum (ibid, p. 102). The fact that the present bronze is not signed cannot, therefore, preclude the possibility that Giambologna himself may have worked on it and since it has a fine, but still un-Susini-like finish as with the two Kunsthistorisches bronzes, is one to doubt the authorship of all his finely finished bronzes?
Unfortunately, uncertainty still surrounds the production of bronzes in Giambologna's workshops, which poses a very abstract argument every time one is confronted with a bronze that is a potential candidate for an attribution to him. The master himself often conceived a model and any number of assistants would have cast and finished the bronzes derived from them. And while the model is undoubtedly the intellectual property of the former, who does one actually attribute a finished bronze to? It was arguably with the employment of Susini that the latter stage in the production of a bronze became valued and revered and that the manufacturer achieved as much fame as the modeller. Giambologna was even known to have revered the latter's casts to the point that after Susini left his employ, Giambologna once sent his chief assistant, Pietro Tacca, to buy a bronze of his own model of a Nessus and Deianira on account of its splendidly finished surface. And herein lies the argument, Giambologna considered that bronze and many of Susini's other creations to be his own work. In a much quoted excerpt, Herbert Keutner (loc. cit.) correctly observes that 'even if these works were actually cast and finished by Antonio, they left the studio of Giambologna, quite rightly, as the artistic property of the master. And in view of the fact that the Grand Dukes sent them out as gifts completely naturally as autograph creations of Giambologna, it would be a mistake to regard them in a different light today.'