This impressive equestrian bronze has its origins in two sources: the antique bronze group of the emperor Marcus Aurelius in Rome, and the numerous equestrian monuments to Louis XIV of France, designed by the sculptors Girardon, Desjardins and their contemporaries.
The sitter of this bronze has been a matter of debate, but it would appear to be either Louis, Grand Dauphin of France (1661-1711), or his second son Philippe, duc d’Anjou (1683-1746), who became Philip V of Spain in 1700 at the age of 16. The sitter wears the Order of the Saint Esprit which would suggest a French origin, however the order was also bestowed on foreign rulers and noblemen of distinction. The manner in which the sitter is depicted, based as it is on royal portraiture of Louis XIV, suggests that the present bronze also represents a royal subject. Both Louis and Philippe had the slightly rounded face evident in the present portrait but the French fashion for wigs was to pile the hair high on the head, more dramatically than one sees here. It also appears that Philippe, who spent his adult life outside of his native France, had a particular affinity for wearing the Order of the Saint Esprit in official portraits.
When Philippe became King of Spain his other titles included Duke of Milan as well as King of Naples and Sicily among others.
Although the horse and rider appear to have been cast in separate foundries and almost certainly did not start off life together, both show a particular dependence on the antique Marcus Aurelius mentioned above. The horse is almost a direct copy of the antique bronze with the exception of the tail, which has been given a more naturalistic appearance. However the sitter himself displays legs which are bare from above the knee, along with the unadorned boots seen on the emperor. This is much closer to the Marcus Aurelius than any of the compositions associated with the monuments of Louis XIV and perhaps indicates a greater familiarity with the antique bronze group in Rome. It should also be noted that in the 20th century the bronze had an Italian provenance. It is therefore tempting to conclude that the present bronze was modelled in one of Philip V’s Italian territories in the early years of the 18th century.
Philip V was the great nephew of the last Hapsburg King of Spain, Charles II, as well as the grandson of Louis XIV of France. As third in line to the French throne, it was unlikely that he would ever rule France but the possibility of a united French and Spanish kingdom created by his ascension would eventually trigger the War of the Spanish Succession. The present King of Spain, Juan Carlos I, is a direct descendant.