This sensitively executed bust of a young boy combines an air of idealised nobility with the charm of an intimate portrait. It follows in the tradition of sculptures of negros which began in antiquity but which was revived in the renaissance by such artists as Nicolas Cordier, whose celebrated full length marble figure of a moor was executed between 1607 and 1612 and is now housed in the Louvre (Pressouyre, loc. cit). Unlike Cordier's work, however, the present bust lacks any sense of ostentation; one senses that it was carved for the personal pleasure of either the sculptor or a close friend or family member of the sitter.
Melchior Barthel was a German artist who began and finished his life in Dresden, but who spent 17 years of his career working in Venice. One of his major commissions was for the work he did on the tomb of Giovanni Pesaro in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, which included negro caryatid figures executed in black and white marble. In the Saint Louis Art Museum there is also a marble bust of a male negro signed with the letters 'MB.Sc' which has been attributed to Barthel (for an illustration see Bacchi, op. cit., pl. 26). Although that bust also has white marble shoulders, it may be that it was destined for a more public location than the present bust, and therefore required a more complex treatment. Stylistically, there are a number of similarities between the Saint Louis bust and the present lot. The letters 'B.F' carved into the shoulder of the latter - which could be taken to signify 'Barthel Fecit' - would support the attribution to Barthel.