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Baluster on spreading foot formed as pooling lobes, the body finely chased in high relief in the auricular style with intertwining grotesque serpents restraining with taught drapery a figure expelling breath and jeered at by jagged-toothed masks, the body with three panels chased in low relief with scenes depicting the legend of Marcus Curtius, all within auricular scrolls, chased below the spout with large bearded mask with pendant earrings, the sinuous loop handle chased with knotted vertebrae, detachable cover chased with a stylized beetle riding a cresting dolphin, signed on one side ‘A. De. Viana Fe. Ao 1619’, engraved underneath with scratchweight
9 in. (23 cm.) high
21 oz. 5 dwt. (660 gr.)
Léonce, Graaf van Bueren (1840-1919), Ghent, and thence by descent.
P. Bergmans, ‘De tentoonstelling van oude kunst in Vlaanderen’, Onze Kunst 24, Ghent, 1913, p. 179.
J. R. ter Molen, Van Vianen: Utrecht se familie van zilversmedenmet internationale faam, exhibition catalogue, Utrecht, 1984, vol. I, p. 30 and p. 79, no. 65., vol. II, pp. 82–83, no. 412.
G. Luijten, et al. Dawn of the Golden Age, Northern Netherlandish Art, 1580–1620, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam, 1993, no. 114, pp. 454–455.

Adam van Vianen’s Marcus Curtius ewer has been requested by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam for inclusion in their upcoming exhibition, Auricular - Dutch design in the age of Rembrandt, to be held from 25 June to 16 September 2018.
Ghent, L’art ancient dans les Flandres, 1913, no. 2443.
Utrecht, Centraal Museum, Van Vianen: Utrechtse familie van zilversmeden met internationale faam, December 1984 to February 1985,no. 65.
Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, Dawn of the Golden Age, Northern Netherlandish Art, 1580–1620, December 1993–March 1994, no. 114.

Lot Essay


This sculptural masterpiece is the only known auricular ewer created by Adam van Vianen to remain in private hands. One of the greatest artworks produced in the Netherlands in the early 17th century, it has been requested for the landmark exhibition planned by the Rijksmuseum in 2018. Immensely tactile, the ewer was designed to showcase the skill of its creator. With this work, Adam sought to intrigue and impress the greatest patrons, artists, sculptors and goldsmiths of the Dutch Golden Age.

The ewer perfectly exemplifies both the auricular style and Adam’s mastery of the form. To Adam, silver was an almost fluid material. His skill in the art of chasing enabled him to create the ultimate artifice: a solid, water-bearing vessel seemingly created from liquid itself.

By using a very high standard of silver (990 parts per 1000), Adam was able to fashion the vessel from a single sheet of metal – an extraordinary achievement. On one level, its iconography is self-evident: the Roman legend of Marcus Curtius is clear in the masterfully chased scenes. But with what are they encircled? The surrounding surface has an almost viscous quality, and wide-ranging changes of scale create tension. Beneath the lip, a finely-modeled, bearded mask recalls ornament on the Bartemann or stoneware jugs of the time. The calm demeanor of this figure contrasts with the two grotesquely grinning faces that flank it lower down the body. The headcloth of the bearded mask becomes the cap of the jokers, who cackle at the fate of the two-headed old man. Serpent-like monsters pull a sheet so tightly that they appear to expel the life force from the two-headed man, visible as his billowing breath.

Surprises and conceits delight the eye. The narrow, flowing stem partly conceals a face, peacefully looking out from beneath the body with an amused smile. The cover, partly shaped like a spouting dolphin, is surmounted by a beetle of comparatively massive scale.
Taken together, the element of invention, mastery of technique and rarity of form fully justify consideration of this ewer as a masterpiece of its age. Preserved in the same family since the 19th century, it celebrates the achievements of the Dutch Golden Age.


This extraordinarily sculptural object, a masterpiece of the chaser’s art, is boldly and proudly signed by the goldsmith (rather than simply being marked with his stamp). It has been suggested that the frequency with which Adam and Paulus signed their work, and the prominence of their signatures – as on the present ewer – indicates that they considered themselves to be artists in precious metals, rather than goldsmiths. See J.R. ter Molen, Van Vianen: Utrecht se familie van zilversmeden met internationale faam, 1984, vol. I, p. 115. The signing of their work; their outstanding aptitude at design; and their technical skill has helped to perpetuate their fame for four centuries. Writing circa 1670 in his Deutsche Acadamie, German baroque artist and art historian Joachim von Sandrart described Adam and Paulus van Vianen as ‘considered to be very diligent in designing, modelling in wax and embossing in silver, to such an extent they both became famous’.

Both Adam and Paulus created their own compositions and designs for their chased plaques. In common with the goldsmiths of the day, Adam adapted engravings by Frans Hogenberg for the scenes on a magnificent ewer, thought to have been commissioned by the city of Amsterdam for presentation to Prince Maurits (1567–1625) in 1614. In other instances, the scene is of his own invention. This was true of the plaque in the 1610 tazza depicting Odysseus with the enchantress Circe, whose border is the earliest use of auricular ornament by Adam (see, G. Luijten, et al, Dawn of the Golden Age, Northern Netherlandish Art, 1580–1620, exhibition catalogue, Amsterdam, 1993, no. 110). Like Hendrick Goltzius (1558–1617), Adam was influenced by the work of the 16th-century artist Lucas van Leyden (1494–1533). Some of his motifs have been compared to those of van Leyden, but the composition and other details, such as the extraordinary wine cistern, shown nearby, are truly original. The cistern, a two-dimensional depiction of a three-dimensional work, reflects a degree of originality and virtuosity that would have astounded his contemporaries.


The final years of the 16th century and the early years of the 17th century saw an extraordinary burgeoning of wealth in the seven provinces of what was to become the Netherlands. The binding together of the provinces with the Union of Utrecht in 1579 endured the assassination of William the Silent (1533–1584) in July 1584. Following the sacking of Antwerp in 1585, the Northern provinces stood together, maintaining independence from the Spanish Netherlands to the south. This uneasy peace lasted until the start of the Twelve Year’s Truce in 1609. In the meantime, many merchants and tradesmen fled from the Spanish Netherlands to the seven provinces seeking political and economic stability. The artists, sculptors and goldsmiths of the north benefited greatly from the ensuing wealth of patronage.

Adam van Vianen (1568/69–1627) is recognized as the greatest creator of artworks realized in precious metal from the early years of the Dutch Golden Age. Born in Utrecht circa 1568/69, Adam was the son of Willem Eerstensz van Vianen, also a silversmith, who has been described as ‘an ingenious silver-worker of Utrecht’ (‘ein sinnreicher Silverarbeiter zu Utrecht’), see H. Honour, Goldsmiths & Silvermiths, London, 1971, p. 97. It seems likely that both Adam and his younger brother Paulus trained under their father. Paulus left the Netherlands after 1591, travelling to France, Italy and Germany. From 1596 to 1601 he was employed at the Munich court of Duke William V of Bavaria (1584–1628), before moving to the court of the Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietreich Von Raitenau (1559–1617) in Salzburg. From 1603 until his death in 1613, Paulus worked primarily for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II (1552–1612) in Prague. Among his Northern contemporaries contributing to the extraordinary artistic milieu of that court were the sculptor Adriaen de Vries (1556–1626), and the artists Roelant Savery (1576–1639), Bartholomeus Spranger (1546–1611) and Pieter Stevens (c.1567–after 1624).

Adam van Vianen apparently spent his entire life in Utrecht, working there from the early 1590s. His earliest surviving piece, a standing cup and cover of traditional form, circa 1594 or 1595, is now in the Hermitage (see J. R. ter Molen, Van Vianen: Utrechtse familie van zilversmeden met internationale faam, 1984, vol. II, no. 406 and C. Hernmarck, The Art of the European Goldsmith, London, 1977, vol. II, p. 42, fig. 106). In the first decade of the 17th century, the brothers, who had remained in contact, began to incorporate auricular ornament in their work. But it was Adam who would take the style to the great heights for which he is renowned. The degree to which his work was celebrated is aptly illustrated by the ewer commissioned by the Amsterdam guild of silversmiths to commemorate Paulus following his death in 1613. It is of great note that the Amsterdam guild should choose to celebrate the life of a member of a different guild who had spent most of his working life abroad. Also of note is the guild’s decision to commission Adam to produce the piece, finished in and dated 1614, though he had spent his entire working life in Utrecht.

Rembrandt van Rijn’s extensive art collection notably included works by the brothers, as recorded in the inventory made following his bankruptcy.


Of the two brothers, Adam gave the fullest expression to this extraordinary form of decoration. His followers, including his son Christiaen (c.1601–1667), Johannes I Lutma (1584–1669) and Thomas Bogaert (c.1597–1653), would later imitate and further experiment with the style.

Auricular work, as exemplified in the present ewer, is characterized by sinuous, ear-like motifs, fluid masks and grotesque figures. It contrasts with the highly mannered, detailed style of the late Renaissance, which characterized Adam’s work during the first part of his career. Adam’s earliest known surviving work, a cup and cover from 1594, seems to have been drawn from the design plates and engravings of the late 16th century. Adam’s auricular work would appear to be a direct reaction to this. One of the earliest examples of auricular-type ornament can be seen in two sheets of designs by the Flemish painter and art historian Karel van Mander (1548–1606), which feature cartouches surrounding a scene of the story of Perseus (see W. Kloek, Northern Netherlandish Art 1580–1620, in G. Luijten, et al, op. cit., pp. 53–54). The Vianen brothers took up the style of these early works, and would eventually become its most masterful practitioners.

The roots of this style ultimately lie in the work of 16th century Italian mannerists such as Enea Vico (1523–1567). The ceramic creations of Bernard Palissy (1510–1590) and the grotesque designs of Flemish engraver Cornelis Floris II (BC 1614–1575) and Cornelis Bos (c.1510–before 1566) have also been cited as potential influences. One can detect traces of Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527– c.1607) in the design of the present ewer. Perhaps the ultimate example of this distinctive style is the covered ewer made by Adam in 1614, referenced earlier. Sold at Christie’s, Amsterdam, on 19 October 1976, the piece is now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum (see J.R. ter Molen, op. cit., no. 409). Made from a single sheet of raised silver, this astonishing tour de force of the silversmith’s art attracted enormous contemporary interest. The ewer appears in at least twenty Dutch 17th-century paintings, including works by Pieter Lastman (1583–1633), Jan Tengnagel (1584–1635) and Salomon Koninck (1609–1656). Also in 1614, Adam executed an ewer and basin in a more traditional style, chased with scenes of army and naval battles from the Eighty Years’ War (now in the Rijksmuseum). In this example, Adam’s use of auricular ornament is subtle compared to the magnificent detail of the chased battle scenes. Adam’s skill as a draughtsman is evident, as is his ability to tailor his work to suit his patrons. Apparently, a gift to Prince Maurits, the ewer and basin depict military victories that occurred under his rule, including the battle of Nieupoort in 1600.

Stylistically, the present ewer incorporates the sculptural exuberance of Adam’s auricular ewer for the Guild of Silversmiths and the masterful draughtsmanship executed in the Maurits ewer and basin. In addition to the present ewer, a third, circa 1620, is similar in shape and features chased panels depicting scenes from the legend of Mucius Scaevola (now in the collection of the Rijksmuseum, see J.R. ter Molen, op. cit., no. 413). Though this third work lacks a cover, its shape and narrow foot can be compared to the present example.

Many of the motifs central to Adam’s work were reproduced in the late 1640s in a series of engravings by Theodor van Kessel. Distinct motifs which appear in the Marcus Curtius and Mucius Scaevola ewers are identifiable in the engravings. These designs, and the work of Adam’s son Christiaen, helped to perpetuate the style. In 1632, Christiaen used the same form, and much of the ornament found on this ewer, when creating an ewer to accompany a basin. Now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, this piece was reproduced on a number of occasions by the painter Willem Kalff. Accompanied by an oval dish, the ewer was once in the collection of the Duke of Sussex, younger brother of King George IV. In 2012 the ewer, which had been sold for $12 million, was the subject of a United Kingdom export license review. Above all, Adam van Vianen’s exceptional command of both mannerist and auricular ornament marks him as one of the greatest European silversmiths.


In The History of Rome, Livy writes that in 362 B.C., ‘ground gave way’ around the middle of the Roman Forum. The Roman people attempted to use earth to fill the ‘immeasurable depth’ of the chasm, but their efforts were futile. Soothsayers declared that, in order to preserve the Republic, the Roman people must make an offering of ‘strength’ directly into the void.
In response, the soldier Marcus Curtius ‘turned to the temples of the immortal gods, stretched his hands to heaven’ and pledged to sacrifice himself. Declaring that ‘arms and valour’ represented the very essence of Roman strength, Curtius mounted his armored horse and threw himself into the abyss. This extraordinary story is depicted in three scenes on the body of the ewer. The first shows the opening of a fiery chasm in the Forum, with buildings in the background and bodies in the foreground. The second shows Romans praying to an oracle for guidance, and being told to sacrifice their most precious possession. In the third roundel, Marcus Curtius, a young Roman soldier in armor and on horseback, is shown throwing himself into the chasm as his fellow Romans rejoice.

When viewed in its historical context, Adam’s choice to depict the Marcus Curtius legend would appear to be both diplomatic and celebratory. In 1618 Prince Maurits (1567–1625) had suppressed a militia raised by Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, Landadvocat of Holland, which controlled Utrecht. Van Oldenbarneveldt and other key figures were executed, neutralizing the threat of civil war. Adam’s depiction of a noble warrior saving the city of Rome pays tribute to Utrecht’s protection by Prince Maurits. The parallel further suggests that the ewer could have been a gift to the Prince from the city.

The legend of Marcus Curtius had been depicted by Goltzius and other 16th century northern artists, and was one to which the van Vianen brothers returned on several occasions. They worked on plaquettes showing the self-sacrifice of Marcus Curtius, part of a series of Roman histories, together with those of Horatius Cocles and Mucius Scaevola. Ingrid Weber records two lead versions of this plaquette, one of which is in the Rijksmuseum, and the second of which is in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Kassel (see Deutsche, niederländische und französische Renaissanceplaketten, 1500–1650: Modelle für Reliefs an Kult-, Prunk- und Gebrauchsgegenständen. Munich, 1975, nos. 921.1, 921.3). A bronze example is in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich; one in gilt copper is in The Metropolitan Museum, New York (see Catalogus van goud en zilverwerken: Benevens zilveren, loden en bronzen plaquetten. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 1952, no. 428; Ter Molen, Johannes Rein. Van Vianen: Een Utrechtse familie van zilversmeden met een internationale faam. Leiderforp, 1984, vol. 2, nos. 71, 74).

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