A new collector’s guide to Renaissance bronzes
Milo Dickinson, specialist in early European sculpture, on nine points for lovers of timeworn statuary to consider — from Venetian vs Florentine foundries to patina and whether or not to polish. Illustrated with lots past and upcoming at Christie’s
From the early 15th century onward, ambitious European makers and patrons of the arts sought to emulate the tastes and technologies of their Greco-Roman forebears.
The revival of bronze statuette production began in Florence in the mid-15th century, soon spreading to Padua, Mantua, Venice, and eventually to northern Europe. Replicating the iconography of the ancient civilisations, these pieces were created for quiet contemplation by private collectors, rather than the wider public. They were designed to be placed on desks and fountains or in cabinets, and intended to be touched, turned and passed between collectors as symbols of taste and power — thus representing a revolutionary break from the Catholic Church’s long monopoly over artistic patronage.
Their historical significance and the technical virtuosity of their execution mean that Renaissance bronzes have continued to command interest. These are the nine key things to consider.
Working in bronze afforded sculptors greater freedom. No longer constrained by architectural considerations, they were free to model in the round. Sculptors created wax, terracotta or wooden prototypes which allowed for experimentation, as well as providing something to present to clients.
‘A natural talent for modelling was a prerequisite,’ says Milo Dickinson, European sculpture specialist at Christie’s. ‘When the young Flemish sculptor Giambologna (1529-1608) was in Italy, it is said he presented his hero Michelangelo with his latest wax modello. The elderly Michelangelo swiftly crushed the model with one hand, reconstructed an entirely new sculpture from the wax, and told the young artist to practice every day of his life.’
Giambologna would go on to be recognised as the greatest sculptor of his day, creating works such as The Rape of a Sabine Woman (above), which sold at Christie’s for £3,666,500 in 2014.
Artists working in bronze typically used the lost-wax technique, a 6,000-year-old tradition employed by the Greeks and the Romans. In the simplest version, an initial modello is created and covered with beeswax, which is then covered in plaster. Once hardened, it is fired, melting the waxy contents. Molten bronze was then poured into the mould and left to cool. After setting, the mould would be broken from the bronze, ready to be perfected by hand.
This lengthy process meant that only one cast could be made from each modello, because the modello was lost in the making of the bronze. But over the centuries, increasingly complex techniques were invented that allowed multiple castings to be produced from each wax work. ‘Later techniques also enabled thinner castings, cutting the amount of expensive bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) that was necessary. As a result, the older the bronze, the heavier it tends to be,’ Dickinson explains.
The creation of a bronze statue was a collaborative process. After producing a model, the artist would often sub-contract the casting process to a foundry. Once the bronze was finished, the ‘cold work’ of refining and polishing the metal was done by the artist’s assistants.
‘The final product was a result of how the teams worked together, irrespective of the quality of the modello,’ Dickinson says. ‘Florentine foundries from Giambologna’s era onward were known for their sumptuous finish and refinement, while some large-scale Venetian foundries were mass-producing bronzes with less attention to detail.’
After a bronze had been cast, it was treated with oils to crate a patina — a thin layer of tarnish caused by oxidisation. ‘From teal to scarlet, patinas develop over time, often because of the natural oils secreted from the human hands which have touched a bronze’s surface,’ says the specialist. ‘Rich patinas can indicate where an object has been stored and how it has been handled over the centuries, adding to the artwork’s narrative.’ Florentine bronzes from the 16th to the 18th centuries were particularly prized for their translucent red-gold lacquer, and these remain highly sought after today.
An extremely fine bronze of Hercules Pomarius, offered on 4 December at Christie's in London, was inspired by Roman sculpture. ‘Remarkably, its surface has not been restored since its creation in the mid-16th century and it exhibits a beautiful, warm, dark brown patina, typical of the period,’ Dickinson says.
Even though Renaissance bronzes were created in the Christian age, the influence of antiquity bore heavily on their creators: most depict Classical gods and heroes such as Jupiter, Hercules, or Venus. To a Renaissance sculptor, the noblest task was representing the human form. The sturdiness of bronze allowed for outstretched limbs and twisting torsos, while its fluidity suited the rendering of defined musculature and subtle shadows.
The above bronze, also offered on 4 December, demonstrates that Renaissance bronzes were not always made purely for academic study. ‘The makers and patrons of these bronzes clearly had a sense of humour,’ says Dickinson. ‘This exuberant bronze is an incense burner in the form of an acrobat. There are holes in the eyes, mouth and bottom from which smoke would have emerged, as if the acrobat was performing an amusing party trick.’
6. The artist
Renaissance bronzes were rarely signed, and identifying their authorship is a long and complex process. Attribution is often contentious, because it can make prices rocket.
‘The Dutch sculptor Willem van Tetrode was until recently poorly understood and largely ignored,’ says Dickinson. ‘That changed with a 2003 exhibition and catalogue of his work. In 2015 Christie’s broke all its auction records for the artist when his Hercules Pomarius sold for more than $2 million.’
‘Rediscoveries still happen all the time,’ Dickinson continues. ‘In 2014 Christie’s sold a bronze Bacchic figure by the north European Mannerist sculptor Adriaen de Vries (1556-1626), executed during the last year of his life. It had sat atop a column in the centre of a fountain in the courtyard of an Austrian hunting lodge for 300 years.’
The sculpture, unidentified until recently, fetched a cool $27.8 million at Christie’s, and still holds the world record for the most expensive Renaissance bronze. In the past decade Christie’s has also rediscovered works by Giambologna (1529-1608) and Barthelemy Prieur (1536-1611).
Systems were developed that enabled models to be cast multiple times, as well to make copies of existing bronzes, which makes identifying the rarity of a statue a key consideration.
‘In 2003 Christie’s unearthed a bronze roundel, above, depicting Mars and Venus at Vulcan’s Forge, that had never been seen before in any version,’ Dickinson explains. ‘Made in the late 15th century in Mantua, Italy, it was totally unique. It realised £6.9 million, then a world-record price for a Renaissance bronze, despite the fact that it had been impossible to identify the maker for certain. The fact that the artist remains a mystery highlights how much scholarship in the field remains to be done.’
As with all art, condition should be carefully considered when buying Renaissance bronzes. But because of the chemical and compositional strength of the statues (which were sometimes designed to live outdoors), and the fact that the surface improves with handling and age, collectors can be confident that their piece will stand good ground in the future. But some words of caution from our specialist: 'Never over-polish the surface or you run the risk of ruining centuries of maturity.’
During the Renaissance, bronze statues were often given as diplomatic gifts between monarchs, the aristocracy and the clergy. The Florentine Medici family sent a group of bronze statues to the brother of Charles I of England, igniting his passion for collecting. Charles I was the first person to bring them to the English court.
‘The history of a bronze statuette and the importance of its previous owners add a lustre which can increase its desirability,’ Dickinson notes.
In 2015 Christie’s sold the Abbott-Guggenheim Collection of bronzes, which included statues, inkwells, candlesticks and busts. The collection was amassed by Dr Peter Guggenheim, who together with Dr John Abbott continued his family’s legacy of collecting and loaned generously to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, the Royal Academy and the Louvre. A highlight of the sale was a parcel-gilt rectangular bronze relief of Christ as Salvator Mundi, above, which because of its rarity, quality and provenance, sold for $605,000 — more than twice its low estimate.