Massimiliano Soldani Benzi was descended from a noble Tuscan family, and is considered to be the last great bronze-worker in the Florentine tradition stretching back to Ghiberti. His early training was in Rome, where he was sent by Cosimo III de' Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, and then in Paris, where he was asked to enter the service of Louis XIV, which he refused. In 1682 he returned to Florence and entered the Zecca - the grand-ducal mint - where he became director in 1688.
Although Soldani continued to work at the mint for the next 40 years, it seems that he began to create sculptural groups - both religious and mythological - in the mid 1690s. Soldani's correspondence from this period until his death in 1740 shows that he actively marketed his bronze statuettes and groups to patrons across Europe (see, for example, the discussion in Avery, op. cit.).
Until now, the existence of these two compositions of Diana and Callisto and The Judgement of Paris were known only from variant examples executed in wax and Doccia porcelain (the wax version of the Diana and Callisto passed through Sotheby's, Florence, 21 October, 1976, lot 74; one porcelain version of The Judgement of Paris is listed as being in the Villa Cagnola, Gazzada in A. Mottola Molfino, L'Arte della Porcellana - Il Veneto e la Toscana, 1976, no. 470), and documentary references. The first of these references is from a letter written by Soldani on 21 November 1702 to his patron, Johann Adam, Prince of Liechtenstein. In the letter, Soldani offers the prince a list of what was probably his entire stock at the time: 19 bronze groups and a selection of 'small low reliefs after Bandinelli and other authors' (Avery, 2002, op. cit.) . From this list, the third item is described as 'Un Gruppo di 4 figure tonde, cioè Diana, Calisto e due Ninfe, con cani' ('A group of four figures in the round, that is, Diana, Callisto and two nymphs, with dogs'), and the fourth is 'Altro gruppo conpagno, cioè Paride con le tre Dee' (Another accompanying group, that is, Paris with the three goddesses).
Whether Liechtenstein ever purchased the groups is not known, although they do not appear again in his correspondence with the sculptor, so it seems unlikely. Certainly, in 1716 Soldani is attempting to interest another patron in his work, this time in the bronze of The Judgement of Paris alone. In a letter dated 31 July 1716, Dr. Gerrard - tutor to Lord Harrold, who was on the Grand Tour - wrote to Harrold's father, the Duke of Kent, about the possible purchase of a bronze from Soldani. He praises the artist, saying '...we have seen several other very good sculptors, but this gentleman seems to be the best finisher and wants none of those qualifications I mentioned last, he hath begun and modelled in clay the Judgment of Paris, which seems to be executed with very good Invention and Judgment.... I proposed to him whether it would not do well if she should have the face of the famous Venus of Medici. If your Grace should like it he will make it exactly like in the idea of the face, for as for the posture, it must have a different situation, the figures, tho naked are modest. I send your Grace his account of that and another subject, which of the several figures he proposed, seemed to Md. Harrold the best...' (Bedford, op. cit.).
These references, and the bronzes themselves, provide fascinating insights into Soldani's creative process and the manner in which he attempted to promote his work among potential purchasers. Subtle differences in the two compositions - the bases, for example, are of marginally different sizes - and the seemingly unrelated choice of subjects suggest that the two compositions may have been conceived of independently, and that Soldani subsequently decided that they were more attractive as a decorative pair of multi-figure groups when he offered them to the Prince of Liechtenstein in 1702. The reference to the Judgement being 'begun and modelled in clay' in 1716 is no doubt another piece of salesmanship. By suggesting that the Judgement is a new work, Soldani is attempting to entice the Duke of Kent when the composition was, in fact, already at least 14 years old. Interestingly, there is no mention of the Diana and Callisto in the letter of 1716; perhaps this was merely because Lord Harrold did not like it.
Whatever their subsequent history, the emergence of these beautifully finished bronzes represents an important addition to our knowledge of Soldani's work as a sculptor and bronze founder during one of his most important creative cycles. With their strong narrative content and the complex interraction of the figures, they are also a typical product of the grand-ducal court in the final flowering of the Florentine baroque period.