Andirons - or firedogs as they are also called - are the decorative elements from which the metal supports which actually held the logs in the grate depended. They became something of a speciality among Venetian sculptors of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, but comparatively few of them have survived intact. As fashions changed, so the lower elements tended to be discarded, with the result that many figures that originally surmounted andirons enjoyed a new lease of life as independent bronze statuettes.
In the present instance, although some minor elements have been replaced, these firedogs are unusually complete. The decorative vocabularly of the lower elements is closely comparable to that found on a pair of andirons in the Bargello (Planiscig, op. cit., figs. 663 and 664), which are universally agreed to be the work of Niccolò Roccatagliata. It remains the case, however, that ideas and motifs appear to have travelled freely between workshops and indeed foundries. In consequence, it is the finial figures which are most significant in determining an attribution. Another, clearly inferior quality example of the male figure from the present pair is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, and has been attributed to the circle of Tiziano Aspetti (Bologh, loc. cit.). Comparison with generally accepted statuettes of Mars by Aspetti (Planiscig, op. cit. figs. 620-1, 625) tends to support the ascription to Aspetti.
The andirons in the Bargello mentioned above are topped by two putti, but the usual arrangement was to pair a male and a female figure. In the present instance, the laurel wreath and baton of the male figure indicate that he is meant to be a Roman emperor, but do not allow for a more precise identification. In the present context, he may represent Fortitude. By contrast in the case of the female figure, all three highly distinctive attributes confirm that she represents Virtue. In Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, which was first published in 1593 and soon became a standard manual for artists, Virtù is described as having the sun on her breast or a tortoise beneath her foot, while Virtù Heroica is represented by Hercules with his club. The present iconography involves an amalgamation of all these.