5 minutes with... The Marcus Curtius ewer by Adam van Vianen

Harry Williams-Bulkeley, Christie’s European Head of Silver, explains what makes this Dutch Golden Age silver ewer so extraordinary — and why the Rijksmuseum wants to borrow it

Why is Adam van Vianen (1568/69-1627) recognised as the greatest silversmith of the Dutch Golden Age? Harry Williams-Bulkeley, International Head of Silver at Christie’s in London, says it’s because ‘he saw himself as a sculptor in precious metal, not as a silversmith’. As a result, the specialist adds, ‘he was seen as a great artist.’ 

Along with his brother, Paulus, Adam van Vianen established a Utrecht workshop that became famous for its extraordinary sculptural objects. Paulus travelled across Europe, and ended up working for the Holy Roman Emperor in Prague. ‘Adam, in contrast, never left Utrecht,’ explains Williams-Bulkeley. ‘But it’s Adam who really created the great masterpieces.’

Adam van Vianen invented a new, Mannerist style of silver-working, dubbed the ‘auricular’ style because the scrolls of the chased material were thought to resemble the cartilage of an ear. He also signed his work — further evidence that he viewed himself as an artist rather than a silversmith.

On 20 April, a silver ewer by Van Vianen will be offered in The Exceptional Sale  at Christie’s in New York. Chased in 1619 from a single sheet of high-grade silver, the ewer bears three roundels that recount the Roman myth of Marcus Curtius. As described in Livy’s History of Rome, the Roman soldier sought to to appease the gods and preserve the Roman Republic by throwing himself — horse, armour and all — into a fiery chasm that had opened up in the floor of the Roman Forum. Each of these scenes perfectly embodies the ideals of ‘sacrifice, duty and honour’, says the specialist.

Earlier lead, bronze and gilt copper plaquettes made by the Van Vianen brothers and recounting the same myth are now in the permanent collections of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Kassel; the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich; and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The brothers’ frequent depictions of this myth perhaps reflect that war formed the backdrop of their lives. In 1568, the year of Adam’s birth, 17 provinces of present-day Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands revolted against the rule of Philip II of Spain, sparking an 80-year war that resulted in the establishment of the Dutch Republic.

‘It’s right up there with the greatest sculptures and paintings of period. It’s as if the metal has come alive across the surface of the ewer’

This ewer, the last known example in Adam’s signature style to remain in private hands, was designed to impress. ‘It was a piece to be marvelled at, and which you would have showed important guests as a great work of wonder by this amazing silversmith,’ Williams-Bulkeley says. ‘It would have been seen as very avant-garde at the time.’ It could be argued that the auricular style — a remarkable period in Northern Mannerist art — produced similarly fantastical anthropomorphic forms to those that appeared in Surrealism some 300 years later.

Adam’s work was so popular in the 17th century that after Rembrandt declared bankruptcy, his house inventory listed him as the owner of the silversmith’s work. Another of Adam’s silver ewers, now in the Rijksmuseum, features in no fewer than 20 paintings of the Dutch Golden Age.

The Rijksmuseum has made a request to borrow this ewer ahead of a landmark exhibition in 2018 — a fact that comes as little surprise to Williams-Bulkeley, who considers the piece ‘right up there with the greatest sculptures and paintings of the period. It’s as if the metal has come alive across the surface of the ewer,’ he continues. ‘It’s a complete tour de force.’