The Treby Provenance
Although, to date, no documents have surfaced which can prove the provenance of the present relief, it lay unrecognised among the possessions of the heirs of George Treby III (d. 1761), who almost certainly acquired it during his travels to Italy.
George Treby I (1644?-1700) was a judge and, from 1676, MP for Plympton in Devon. He eventually rose to become attorney-general in 1692, and was mourned by Evelyn as one of the few learned lawyers of his age. His son, George Treby II (d. circa 1741), also sat as MP for Plympton, and was appointed secretary of war in 1714 and teller of the exchequer in 1724. Part of the silver service which he commissioned from Paul de Lamerie on the occasion of his marriage is in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, and is known as 'The Treby Silver'. George Treby III was MP for Dartmouth and in 1746 is known to have been on the Grand Tour in Italy. He is recorded as having been in Rome in March 1746, where Horace Mann introduced 'four Scottish gentleman' to Cardinal Albani, the great antiquarian and collector, and nephew of Pope Clement XI. These four men were the Earl of March, Sir Thomas Sebright, and 'Mr. Treby, nephew of the Duchess of Leeds, allied to several of the principal familes of England and very rich, with his companion Mr Fane' (L. Lewis, Connoisseurs and Secret Agents in Eighteenth Century Rome, London, 1961, p. 134). Treby is known also to have visited Florence and Naples, and it is possible - indeed probable - that he travelled elswhere in Italy as well. It is highly likely that he purchased the relief during his time there, and that it has remained in the family until now. In recent decades, the roundel was not displayed by his descendants, and was considered to be of relatively late manufacture. It is almost certainly because of this that it has remained unpublished until now.
The Roundel and its Iconography
The scene depicts Mars and Venus at Vulcan's forge, a theme which was popular in northern Italy in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, where it was depicted on plaquettes, and carved gemstones as well as in paintings and engravings. Venus, the goddess of love, is winged, and sits in the centre while her husband Vulcan hammers out a helmet embossed with a leaping horse on his armourer's stake. Seated beside her is her lover Mars, while Cupid stands in her lap and pricks her breast with his arrow. In the lower right, an amoretto pumps two sets of bellows below Vulcan's furnace, upon which is one of Cupid's wings being gilded in the flame. The tripod vessel may be intended to represent the bowl in which the gilding amalgam was mixed. To the lower left, another amoretto plays with Mars's sword and scabbard, a possible sexual allusion to the flirtation going on above, or a reference to the power of love to disarm.
The inscription in the exergue below is an original latin hexameter which describes the action above it. It can be loosely translated as 'Venus, Mars and Cupid enjoy themselves while Vulcan works'. The relief may originally have been one of a pair or set of four, the scenes and meanings of which would have complemented each other, although no roundels of this scale or by this hand are known to exist. The present relief may be intended to evoke the idea of the triumph of love, as embodied in the naked god of war gazing into the eyes of Venus. There is also an implicit sense of mockery in a scene where the cuckolded husband - Vulcan - is forced to work, while his wife flirts with his rival.
History of the Composition
As is mentioned above, this relief appears never to have been published, however a closely related plaster version of it was formerly in the Bardini collection in Florence (see figure 1). Although presently untraced, this plaster was published both by Wilhelm von Bode (op. cit., pp. 79-80) and John Pope-Hennessy (1980, op. cit., pp. 206-207, fig. 23). At first glance, the bronze and plaster versions appear to be identical, but there are significant differences between them. The most obvious is the lack of any inscription in the exergue of the plaster roundel, however numerous other differences also exist. The first is that the entire composition has been compressed in the plaster, most noticeably by moving the figures of Venus and Vulcan closer together, but also by reducing the space around the edges of the composition. In addition, smaller elements have been altered such as the removal of Cupid's arrow and the subtle variation of the feathers of Venus' wing, as well as details of the areas of drapery.
In 1925, Bode published the plaster relief as a work of Bertoldo di Giovanni (d. 1491), who trained with Donatello and was active in Florence in the service of the Medici for most of his career. However, Pope-Hennessy subsequently attributed the plaster to Alessandro Leopardi (fl. 1482-1522), a Venetian sculptor who most famously finished Verrocchio's Colleoni Monument after Verrocchio's death. It is apparent that Pope-Hennessy never saw the plaster, but must have made his attribution on the basis of the photo in Bode's 1925 publication, as he considered it to be a pair with a bronze roundel in the Victoria and Albert Museum which is only 15.2 cm in diameter. Bode actually referred to the roundel as large ('einem grösseren Rundrelief'), and one must assume that it was of approximately the same dimensions as the present bronze relief which measures 42 cm in diameter. The relationship of the plaster to the bronze roundel is unclear, although it may represent a cast of a rejected stage in the evolution of the composition.
Neither of the attributions to Bertoldo or Leopardi are currently accepted. Certainly, firmly attributed works by Bertoldo such as his rectangular bronze relief of the Equestrian Battle Scene in the Bargello (illustrated in Bode, op. cit., pp. 56-57) display a very different physiognomy, and greater willingness to depict the figures in a variety of positions relative to the picture plane. Similarly, Leopardi's reliefs on the base of the flagpoles in the Piazza San Marco, Venice, display different compositional techniques, and details such as the facial types and the hands are executed in a robust way that is quite unlike the bronze roundel, even when one takes into consideration the difference in scale between the pieces.
The technical sophistication of the present bronze roundel, the beauty of the composition, and the unusually large size all indicate that its creator was a master who must have been working for the most important patrons of his day. Furthermore, the exquisitely rendered details such as the curling locks of hair, the decoration of the scabbard, the masks on Venus's sandals and even the gilded crow's feet in the corners of Vulcan's eyes all suggest that the author had a goldsmith's training.
The roundel has been expertly cast using the lost wax method and using a bare minimum of bronze which was an expensive element of the process. The thickness of the frame at the reverse has an average width of approximately 3mm and in at least one spot, the bronze is so thin that a minute hole is visible. The contours of the reverse closely follow the figures on the opposite side. There were at least two significant cracks which must have appeared as the bronze cooled, but these have been expertly patched and are invisible from the front. The gilded areas are almost certainly mercury- or fire-gilded. This is a process known since antiquity whereby ground gold and mercury are combined as an amalgam in a crucible and then applied to the bronze. This is then heated, driving off the mercury and leaving the gold which adheres to the surface. It may well be that the silver was applied in a similar way, although the small areas covered make it difficult to identify the process that has been used. The weight of the bronze in the relief is unevenly distributed which accounts for the fact that the suspension loop, originally at the exact centre of the frame, was moved marginally to the right so that the relief would hang evenly.
A recent scientific analysis of the alloy used reveals that it has a very high copper content of 93.97 (see table). As pointed out by the author of the report, Dr. Peter Northover, high copper content was used by bronze founders both for the richness of the patina which could be achieved, and for the ductility of the alloy, which meant that the finished product could be extensively chased. He also noted that the alloy of the present roundel was comparable to the alloys in a study of renaissance portrait medals in the National Gallery in Washington. It is particularly close in overall composition to the medals of Pisanello who, it should be noted, had also worked in Mantua (a copy of the full report #R2293 is available upon request).
Metal analysis of the alloy
Fe Co Ni Cu Zn As Sb Sn Ag Bi Pb Au S Al Si Mn
0.09 0.00 0.12 93.97 1.86 1.16 0.18 1.64 0.18 0.05 0.24 0.02 0.41 0.02 0.05 0.00
Possible candidates for authorship
In its overall format, subject, and use of partially gilded decoration, the roundel can readily be associated with the bronze roundels attributed to Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi, popularly known by his pseudonym, Antico, due to his promotion of antique sources and ideals. Antico was the son of a Mantuan butcher but very little else is known about his early career. He probably first entered the service of the Gonzaga family in 1478 or 1479, and was to spend the rest of his career in the service of various branches of the same dynasty. He died in the summer of 1528, a respected courtier and a wealthy man.
Today, Antico is the best known of the sculptors and bronze founders whom we know were working in Mantua in around 1500, and a large body of works have been attributed to him over the years, most recently in an authoritative study by Ann Allison (op. cit.). Among the attributed works, seven of these are roundels, all relating to scenes from the life of Hercules, which are held by three museums: the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the Bargello in Florence. Of these, the examples in the Bargello are the only partially gilded examples and are of the highest overall quality (see figure 2).
As with the present lot, the roundels attributed to Antico are of mythological scenes, executed in relatively shallow relief and, in the case of two of them, with elements picked out in gold. In six of the examples, the scene is set on an artificial 'stage' with an exergue below, and all of them have an identical moulded frame to the one visible on the present lot. This frame not only reinforces the stylistic similarities, but may, indeed, suggest that the seven Hercules roundels and the present lot were intended for the same patron.
However, when one compares the roundels in greater depth, it becomes apparent that the Hercules roundels and the present lot are not from the same hand. Although only subtly suggested, the author of the latter roundel has attempted to create a space in which his figures exist, unlike the Antico reliefs where they are abstractly placed against a blank ground. Antico's treatment of the drapery is also quite different, with its illogical use of numerous kinks and folds. Most importantly, however, there is a fundamentally different approach in the way the two artists have modelled and finished almost every detail. Whereas the Hercules roundels - and, indeed, all of Antico's bronzes - are made up of almost glacial, defined elements which combine to form a whole, the author of the present lot has a more painterly touch which blurs edges and varies the surface of even the tiniest element to produce a work which is human and engaging.
It is not only the association with Antico which suggests a Mantuan origin for the present bronze relief, as one can also detect the influence of Andrea Mantegna in various elements of the composition. Mantegna, considered to be one of the greatest artists of the Italian renaissance, worked as court painter to the Gonzaga family in Mantua from 1460 until his death in 1506 with only brief interludes during which he travelled abroad. His antiquarian interests led him to create his own collection of antiquities and he was asked by his patrons to advise them on their purchases of antique marbles as well. He controlled nearly every aspect of artistic life at the court through his paintings, engravings and sculpture, although the latter aspect of his career has largely been forgotten due to the lack of attributed examples of his work to survive.
The most obvious connection to be made is through the strong emphasis that the creator of the present lot has placed on his knowledge of antiquity. Elements such as the classical decoration on the sword scabbard, and the military trophy held by Mars are reminiscent of details in Mantegna's celebrated Triumphs of Caesar (Royal Collection, see London, Royal Academy, op. cit., pp. 350-392). The overall format of the relief is also ultimately derived from antique intaglio gems, and the pose of Mars must be a conscious quote of the famous Diomedes and the Palladium (see figure 3). Even the use of 'Cypria' when referring to Venus shows the sculptor's knowledge of the ancient world; it revealed his awareness of the poetic introduction to Homer's Iliad, which celebrated the 'Cyprian Aphrodite'.
Stylistically, there are also echoes of Mantegna in the relief, most notably when one compares the amoretto playing with the sword and the infant St. John the Baptist in Mantegna's Holy Family with St. Elizabeth and the Infant St. John the Baptist of circa 1485-1488 (ibid, no. 51, pp. 225-226). The head of Venus also reveals close similarities to many of the figures in Mantegna's works such as some of the classical statuary carried in the Triumphs, or such paintings as his Four Dancing Muses (ibid, pp. 360 and 434, see also figure 4 for an engraving after Mantegna's original composition of the latter painting). However, despite the fact that we know from documents that Mantegna did work in bronze - the bronze portrait bust of Mantegna on his monument has been attributed by Radcliffe to the artist himself (ibid, no. 1, pp. 89-90) - once again the physiognomy of the figures and finishing of the bronze roundel do not appear to be consistent with the work of Mantegna. Even compositionally, it seems unlikely that Mantegna could have provided a model or sketch which was then cast by another artist.
The Vienna Entombment
Although it has not been possible, thus far, to make a firm attribution for the roundel, it seems highly likely that it is by the same hand as a magnificent rectangular relief of the Entombment which is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (most recently published in Leithe-Jasper, loc. cit., see also figure 5). That relief, which is first documented in the collection of the Hapsburg Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in 1657, may have been one of the items bought by the Archduke from Charles I of England, who famously purchased a large portion of the collection of the Dukes of Mantua. It may also be identical with a reference in the inventory of Duke Ferdinando of Mantua in 1627 which lists 'Un quadretto di bronzo di bassorilievo con Cristo cavato del sepolcro' ('a bronze scene in low relief with Christ taken out of [sic] the sepulchre').
The Vienna Entombment has been attributed to a number of artists over the years, including Donatello, Mantegna and Bertoldo, but is currently described simply as Mantuan or Paduan, circa 1470-1480. At first glance, it appears to have little relation to the present roundel, but this impression is based on the effect created by the psychological intensity of the scene - totally unlike the serenity of the seated classical gods - which is, in turn, created by the expressive faces and the highly agitated nature of the drapery of the Entombment. In fact, what little drapery is included on the roundel corresponds very closely to that of the Entombment, with its shallow folds and delicately incised lines. The portions of drapery running over Mars's left forearm and Venus' right shoulder are particularly close.
However, it is not only this element of the two reliefs which draws them together. The initial conception of each is identical in its medallic approach, and its use of the costly gilded surfaces to make the compositions more readily legible. As is noted by Leithe-Jasper in his entry on the Vienna relief, the composition is flat, with the heads almost all in profile and the figures deeply undercut to lift them away from the background. The composition is more graphically then sculpturally modelled (Leithe-Jasper, op. cit., p. 61).
It was possible recently to examine the present relief next to the Vienna Entombment, and it is after a comparison of other, more specific, motifs that the attribution of the two reliefs to the same hand becomes most convincing. The Mantegnesque head of Mars, with its chiselled, curling locks of hair and its long, high-bridged nose is highly similar to the head of the man who holds Christ under the arms in the Vienna relief. Similarly the head of the richly dressed figure to the far right of the Entombment with its silvered eyes and distinctive profile recalls the head of the Venus in the roundel (for both of these comparisons see figures 6 and 7 beside detail photos). However, perhaps most forceful among these similarities is the sensitively modelled torso of Christ on the Vienna relief when compared with the torso of Mars (see figure 8 and detail photo). Both display the distinctive 'w' shaped formation of the pectoral muscles, the incised circular nipples and the inverted 'u' form of the rib-cage. It might be argued that the present roundel dates from, perhaps, ten to fifteen years later than the Vienna Entombment in that it seems to have moved further away from the naturalistic influence of Donatello and towards an interest in more stylised classical forms, however it seems highly likely that the same artist is responsible for both works. This attribution is reinforced by a consideration of the casting technique of each; the Entombment is also cast to a thickness of approximately 2-3mm, and the contours of the figures are visible from the reverse.
Mantua in the late 15th century
If one rejects the idea that the present relief is by Antico, then one must re-examine the artistic world of Mantua at the end of the 15th century, and the patronage of the Gonzaga dynasty. The Gonzaga were a relatively new family, having gained supremacy in Mantua only in the early 14th century after a military coup. Their finances were also modest compared to many other princely families in Italy, and it was perhaps because of this rather tenuous position that they emphasised their cultural pretensions, and did their utmost to impress others with the intellectuality of their court and the extent of their artistic patronage (London, Victoria and Albert Museum, op. cit., pp. XVII-XVIII)
In 1490, Isabella d'Este arrived in Mantua as the 17 year old bride of Francesco, the 4th marquess. Her parents' court at Ferrara was a highly cultivated one, and she had received an excellent humanist education as a girl. Until her death almost half a century later in 1539, Isabella resided at Mantua, and she was responsible for the purchase and commissioning of numerous works of art by artists such as Mantegna, Perugino and Correggio. During his brief sojourn in Mantua Leonarda da Vinci drew her portrait (now in the Louvre), although she was never able to convince him to produce a painted version of it for her.
The focus of Isabella's collection of paintings, bronzes and antiquities were the Studiolo and Grotta which she created in a tower of what is now the Palazzo Ducale. Built on an intimate scale, these two rooms became one of the highlights of the city which were shown to visiting dignitaries, filled as they were with artistic treasures, and one can easily imagine the present roundel in such a context, placed next to bronzes after the antique by Antico and amongst her collection of antique marbles and gems. There are, in fact, two intriguing references in Gonzaga inventories which refer to roundels. The first is in an inventory of the estate of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, Isabella's uncle by marriage, in 1496, which refers to 'due tondi cum certe figure suso' ('two roundels with some figures on them'), and in 1542, in an inventory of Isabella's Grotta, there is a second reference to 'duoi tondi di bronzo di basso rilievo ('two bronze roundels in low relief', both references cited in Allison, op. cit., p. 97). Unfortunately, the descriptions in these inventories are not precise enough to attempt to connect them firmly with any roundels known today.
Gian Marco Cavalli
It is remarkable that two works of such outstanding quality as the present lot and the Vienna Entombment should remain unattributed. Although it is clear that Antico and Mantegna are today the best known artists working in Mantua at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries, we know from documentary sources that there were other influential artists who were active in Mantua at the time. Among these, there is an artist named Gian Marco Cavalli who may, in fact, be responsible for these reliefs.
Gian Marco Cavalli is a name which has floated through discussions of Mantuan bronze founders since the 19th century, but the lack of any firmly attributed works has meant that art historians have been unable to construct a reliable oeuvre. He was first noted in two articles by Umberto Rossi in 1888 and 1892, when he published several documents which outlined some of the projects which he had evidently made for members of the Gonzaga family, and it was in these articles that the attribution of the bronze portrait bust on Mantegna's monument to Cavalli was proposed, an attribution which continued to be accepted for the better part of a century (Rossi, ops. cit.). What emerges from the documents published by Rossi and, very recently, by Andrea Canova (ops. cit.) is that Cavalli had all the qualifications and connections to make him a possible candidate for these two reliefs.
We know that Cavalli was a goldsmith from as early as 1481, when he was referred to in a letter of 6 June as 'Iohanni Marco de Caballis, aurifici'. The letter discusses the commissioning by the marquess, Federico Gonzaga, of some small vases ('quelle nostri vasetti') and, as noted by Rossi, the tone of the letter gives the impression that this was not the first commission given by the marquess to Cavalli (Rossi, 1888, op. cit., p. 440). We know further that he was in direct contact with his fellow artist Antico, who provided models for him such as a Spinario in 1499 (ibid, p. 450). In 14??????, documents show that Cavalli was approached by Andrea Mantegna to execute the copper plates for the latter's engravings (Canova, op. cit, p. ???), and he witnessed Mantegna's will in June 1504. It was on the strength of his relationship with Mantegna that Cavalli was given the authorship of Mantegna's bust in the latter's funerary chapel in S. Andrea, Mantua.
In a letter dated 21 May 1499, there is mention of four silver roundels of signs of the zodiac ('piatti d'argenti su cui dovevano essere effigiati dei segni celesti') which, frustratingly, are today either unrecognised or destroyed (Rossi, 1888, loc. cit., p. 447). He worked for the Gonzaga in the form of the cultured young bride of Francesco, Isabella d'Este, in the 1490s and the early years of the 16th century, and in the Mantuan mint, probably until he is recorded at the mint of the Holy Roman Emperor in June 1506. He is last mentioned in the town of his birth, Viadana, in 1508.
Although almost forgotten today, Gian Marco Cavalli was a trained goldsmith, a medallist, and a close associate of both Antico and Mantegna. He worked for one of the most culturally important courts of his day for at least 25 years, where he was esteemed by such discerning patrons as the celebrated Isabella d'Este. As a further possible connection, it should be noted that in almost the centre of the relief - on the helmet being created by Vulcan - there is a leaping horse which is disproportionately large to be a matter of mere decoration (see detail photo). It would be a typical renaissance pun if the horse - in Italian, 'cavallo' - was a play on the artist's own name, and that the horse, in fact, was intended as a kind of hidden signature. In a letter dated 19 May 1501 Cavalli refers to himself as 'Cavallino da Viadana' - literally, the little horse from Viadana (ibid, p. 449). Unfortunately, the lack of any other works firmly attributed to Cavalli means that it is impossible to make any stylistic comparisons to the present relief. Until another document or signed work surfaces, the attribution to Cavalli can remain only an interesting hypothesis.
Whether the present relief is a work of Gian Marco Cavalli or another hitherto unidentified artist, it remains unquestioned that it is a work of supreme beauty. Like another of the great masterpieces of the era, the Martelli Mirror (in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London), it may resist giving up the secret of its author's identity, but that does not detract from our appreciation of the creation itself. The roundel, with its classical allusions, hidden allegories and its artistic sophistication, perfectly encapsulates the Italian princely court at the end of the quattrocento.