It would be hard to imagine objects more redolent of Rothschild taste than these magnificent andirons. Late-Renaissance objets de luxe on a monumental scale they successfully bridge the gap between fine and decorative arts. While they are functional – and would have looked dazzling with the flickering flames visible though the open framework of their bases -- their primary effect is sculptural. The figures, probably Omphale and Mars or a Roman Emperor, are glorious examples of Venetian metalwork, significant works of sculpture by themselves.
In the Rothschild collections for at least 140 years, these andirons featured prominently in the two rooms of one of the grandest of all the Rothschild palaces, the château de Ferrières. Eugène Lami, the interior architect of Ferrières, who also helped supply much of the collection, illustrated them in a watercolor as early as 1860 in the Dining Room and then, by the 1880s, they were moved to the Great Hall, one of the most spectacular rooms created in the 19th century.
THE ROTHSCHILDS AND THE CHATEAU DE FERRIERES
The château de Ferrières, in the départment of Seine-et-Marne, was purchased in 1829 from Joseph Fouch, duc d'Otrante, by James de Rothschild (1792-1868), the founder of the French branch of the family. Finding the house somewhat small for his social ambitions, he demolished it and in 1854 commissioned the great English architect Joseph Paxton to construct a far grander house along the lines of Mentmore, the staggeringly large and complex palace in Buckinghamshire which he had built in 1850 for his cousin Mayer (1818-1874). James de Rothschild was said to have demanded of Paxton: ‘Build me Mentmore, only bigger.’ Paxton's initial plans for a house like Mentmore in the Jacobean style, were modified to include English, French and Italian Renaissance elements. Work began in late 1856 and the interior decoration was entrusted to the painter Eugne Lami (1800-1890) who also advised James de Rothschild on his purchases. The resulting eclectic mix, ranging from the 16th to the 19th centuries, sets Ferrières very much apart from the prevailing decorative style in the larger French country houses. Donated by the Rothschilds to the University of Paris in 1975, its interiors remain intact and it is considered the most spectacular house built in the 19th century in France. For a further discussion of the building and decoration of Ferrires see P. Prévost-Marcilhacy, Les Rothschild bâtisseurs et mécènes, Paris, 1995, pp. 94-98 and pp. 106, 107, 109, 123, 124-5, 129, 131, 134, 135 for watercolors by Lami of the main rooms.
VENETIAN SMALL BRONZES AND TIZIANO ASPETTI
The attribution of the present pair of andirons to Tiziano Aspetti (c. 1559 Padua - Pisa 1606) is based upon the comparison of the two finial figures with a body of bronze statuettes generally accepted as by Aspetti (Planiscig, op. cit, figs. 620-1, 625). Another example of the male figure, though of inferior quality, has been attributed to the circle of Aspetti and can be found in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest (Bologh, loc. cit.).
By the late 16th century, andirons had become a speciality of Venetian sculptors. While changing fashions meant that the lower elements of such andirons would be discarded, the bronze finial figures often survived as art objects in their own right, making the present andirons remarkably noteworthy for their complete state. The lower portion of these andirons relates to another pair in the Bargello attributed to Niccol Roccatagliata (Planiscig, op. cit., figs. 663 and 664), and a further pair from the Pierpont Morgan Collection, by Alessandro Vittoria (W. Bode, The Italian Bronze Statuettes of the Renaissance, 1980, figs. 65 and 66). The Morgan andirons were originally in London and are now on-view at the Morgan Library in New York. Such ideas and motifs appear to have travelled freely between workshops and foundries, though it is interesting to note that Aspetti's oeuvre shows the influence of Vittoria above any other.