Benedetto Pistrucci (1784-1855) was as distinguished a gem engraver and medallist as he was a sculptor, and for the first half of the 19th century he was considered to be among the most influential engravers in Europe. He first achieved prominence in Rome, but after short spells in Florence and Paris he eventually moved to London, in 1815, where he remained until his death.
His talents were well-recognised in England and in 1817 he surpassed William Wyon to become Chief Engraver at the Royal Mint. Pistrucci's recalcitrant nature, however, proved to be his downfall after refusing to use Francis Chantrey's marble bust of George IV as the model for coinage in 1828. Wyon was subsequently promoted and Pistrucci demoted to second engraver.
It is shortly after this that the headstrong Pistrucci carved the present lot, placing on it an inscription stating that he carved it negl' anni i piu infelici di sua vita (in the unhappiest years of his life). While the function and purpose of the piece is not clear, the artist has presented the onlooker with a mixture of images relating to his life work and possibly his anguish. Included are symbolic representations of Hercules seated on his pelt, caged beasts, a chained man and Cerberus guarding the gates of Hades. In addition to these are various profile portrait reliefs of a Canova-esque bacchante, George IV and another unidentified male figure. This juxtaposition of classical elements with contemporary images is open to interpretation, but it may be that Pistrucci was placing together images that were of artistic, or aesthetic, importance to him - for example his patrons' portraits, the echoes of Canova and via the Hercules his vision of the Belvedere Torso as a completed work. On the other hand, it may also be a metaphor of his insecurities as an Italian working in the English establishment - Hercules representing strength, courage and wisdom, the lion's mask a reference to his fortitude and endurance, the seductively recumbent woman perhaps a reference to his passion to create. Either way, the present lot is an enticing insight into the psyche of a significant, although troubled, artist.