Until Giambologna conceived his bronze model of Nessus Abducting Deianira, the convention of representing this subject matter was a rare one in early Renaissance art. The story was first scripted in Book IX of Ovid's Metamorphoses where Ovid recounts Hercules and Deianira journeying back to Tyrins and coming upon a swollen river which they had to cross. Nessus, who was already ferrying other people across it, saw them and offered to carry Deianira to the other bank. When Hercules reached the other side, however, Nessus turned around and abducted Deianira. On seeing this Hercules drew an arrow - that had previously been dipped in the Hydra's blood - and shot it at Nessus. Moments before his death, and in an act of pure cunning, Nessus convinced Deianira to collect his blood and use it on Hercules as a love potion. Variations in the story describe Nessus as giving her a blood stained garment, while others describe her as collecting the blood in a vile, but either way, it was Deianira that delivered the poisoned blood to Hercules that finally killed him.
In the present model, Giambologna has depicted the precise moment that Nessus abducts Deianira and the instant immediately before his death. It is a scene of great pathos and drama that is accentuated by Nessus' rearing, with drapery trailing to his sides and Deianira thrown across his back. As she struggles, she is depicted in torsion, stabilising herself with one foot on his back, her arms flailing and head thrown back in desperation. At the time of its conception it was seen as a radically complex and dynamic composition.
This precise arrangement of the group is what Charles Avery and Anthony Radcliffe defined as a Type A bronze (London, op. cit., p. 109) - the two other variations being labelled Types B and C. The date of this former group has been inferred approximately from documents found in the archives of the Salviati family, by whom Giambologna was patronised. In December 1575 he is documented as working on a 'Centauro che rapisce una donzella di Bronzo' (A centaur that abducts a woman in bronze) and on 30 April 1577 as having received payment for it (Pampaloni, loc. cit.). This particular bronze has been identified as the one mounted on a cabinet in the Palazzo Colonna, Rome.
All three Types are clearly distinguishable by the form of the composition, and no two bronzes within each Type are absolutely identical - this is presumably the result of the artist catering to the demands of different patrons. Not including the Salviati group, the three signed examples of his subject are all Type A; these can be found in the Louvre, Paris, the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, and the Huntington Library, San Marino (London, op.cit., no. 60, 61 and Wark, loc. cit., pls. VI-IX respectively). However, in attempting to categorise the bronze offered in the present lot, it becomes clear that there is an important and additional subgroup within Type A. In this subgroup are three virtually identical, highly finished, bronzes; one in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (see comparative illustration), another in Longford Castle (previously offered in Christie's, London, 7 December 1993, lot 108) and the present lot. On the basis of compelling stylistic evidence, all have been attributed to Antonio Susini, who was Giambologna's chief workshop assistant between circa 1580 and 1600.
In a 1609 inventory of the inheritance of Jacopo Salviati's son, Lorenzo, there are two entries indicating 'Un centauro di bronzo con una femmina addosso, di mano di Gio. Bologna…' (a centaur in bronze with a woman on his back by the hand of Giambologna) and later 'Un centauro di bronzo con una femmina in bracio di mano del Susini…' (a centaur in bronze with a woman in his arms by the hand of Susini (London op. cit., p. 109)). If one takes the entries literally, the latter statement suggests that Susini conceived a revision of the Nessus and Deianira group - where Deianira is held in Nessus's arms as opposed to seated on his back - this model is now generally known as a Type B. To date the location of this precise bronze is not known, and since it was in Jacopo Salviati's collection before he died in 1586, this would imply that Susini made the bronze very early in his career between 1580 and no later than 1586.
To date, it is not clear how many top quality, Type A casts Susini worked on while still under Giambologna's employ nor how many Types A and B he made after leaving it. One can, however, reasonably surmise that Susini could only have worked on a small number of them since their production was both costly and time consuming. What one can be certain of is that our bronze represents the amalgamation of two clearly individual styles. Giambologna is unquestionably the author of this highly innovative and dynamic model and in this bronze's creation Susini was simply applying to it his top rate casting skills and superlative finish. An example of his mastery of this medium can be read in his biography by Baldinucci who recounts that after Susini left the workshop in 1600 he continued to work on the Nessus and Deianira group and that Giambologna apparently admired these later casts so much that he sent Pietro Tacca, his eventual successor, to purchase one for the princely sum of 200 scudi (Ranalli, loc. cit).
In comparing the three signed Type A casts to Susini's, one can see how the former are spontaneous, lively and highly worked in the wax. A perfect example of this can be seen in the modelling of the hair on the Dresden bronze (Hamburg and New York, loc. cit.), which is rough and relatively untouched post casting. The drapery of this bronze is also very spontaneously modelled; with deep folds and varying, rippling, textures. Similarly, the faces of Nessus and Deianira on the Huntington group are both dramatic and lively, while their hair is thick and boldly modelled. When comparing it to the present lot, one sees these Giambologna-esque echoes, but our bronze remains unquestionably the product of Susini's hand. Generally speaking, it has the rich, dark brown, patination with hints of a reddish brown lacquer that many of his bronzes have. More specifically, one can see that the surface has also been so extensively worked and that the filing marks are barely visible in the areas where the patination has worn. As one would expect, the bronze has the same bold modelling in the wax, but typical to Susini's casts, it is filed and chased to the minutest degree throughout. It is in the details that Susini demonstrates his virtuosity; the hair on both Nessus and Deianira is both bold and meticulous - individual strands are accentuated with chasing, and are juxtaposed with thicker locks of hair. Furthermore, Susini has paid incredible attention to the workings of the musculature and veining beneath the skin. While, of course, this is evident in the three signed casts, in our bronze one can see, for example, how he has given extra thought to the veining and to the torsion of the muscles on Nessus's right forearm. Finally, the highly stylised drapery is unlike that of the signed casts insomuch as it is sharp, angular and stiff as opposed to light and rippling. It is certainly more rigid than on Giambologna's casts, but it remains, nevertheless a stylistic trait that is typical to many of Susini's bronzes.
To summarise, the present bronze shows Susini working within the parentheses of Giambologna's original model. It is not totally clear at what stage of his career he might have done this, but it is possible that it was achieved while still working in the latter's workshop and under his aegis between 1580-1600. There is no denying that Susini owed a great debt to Giambologna's initial conception. Like any ambitious and talented assistant he adopted his master's ideas and with time allowed them to evolve. Our bronze, therefore, arguably represents the twilight hours of a relationship that saw the combination of two virtuoso styles; Giambologna as the father of the composition and Susini as the master craftsman who brought life to every detail.