The present crucifix is an incredibly fine and rare survival of a statuette in gold from the Renaissance. Gold has long had a mythical quality, and during the Renaissance it was considered the finest and most luxurious material, only available to the richest royal and ecclesiastical authorities. The ability to make statues in gold was one of the hardest challenges for an artist, and accordingly only specialised goldsmiths were allowed to work with such a precious commodity. The present crucifix has recently been convincingly added to the oeuvre of the Medici goldsmith Gasparo Mola, who gained fame across Europe for his unsurpassed ability to work with gold.
The Crucifix in the Renaissance
During the Italian Renaissance the carving of a Crucifix became an occasion for a sculptor to demonstrate his mastery in his field. The Crucifix was no longer just an object of devotion but at the same time a manifesto of a sculptor’s understanding of anatomy and their ability to create a work of art of extreme sanctity. Vasari recorded how Brunelleschi criticised the exaggerated naturalism of a wooden crucifix by Donatello, calling it a 'peasant on the cross' instead of the body of Jesus Christ. Challenged by Donatello to do better, Brunelleschi carved such a sublime work that at the sight of it Donatello dropped to the ground and smashed the eggs in his lap that he had brought for dinner (G. Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, vol. 1, translated by Gaston du C. de Vere, republished Everyman's Library, 1996, pp. 328-9). By the end of the sixteenth century, the desire amongst leading artists to tackle this subject and the precepts of the counter-Reformation created a vogue for small Crucifixes amongst the ecclesiastical and aristocratic classes.
Three Gold Crucifixes
The present gold and ebony crucifix is one of three known examples; the other versions are in the Museo della Città, Rimini (fig. 1) and in the Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan. The Rimini example was donated to the city of Rimini on 27th March 1612 by Cardinal Michelangelo Tonti (1566-1622). Tonti was a favourite of Camillo Borghese, who elevated Tonti to Cardinal after he became Pope Paul V in 1605. Tonti was the Pope’s most influential advisor, and through this was able to provide his hometown of Rimini with substantial funding. Tonti’s influence eventually led to his downfall, and he was forced out of Rome in 1612 to settle in Cesena. It was during this journey he visited Rimini and donated the golden crucifix to his citizens. The Poldi Pezzoli example also has an early provenance; it was part of the Riccardi collection, mentioned in the household goods of the Marquesses Gabbriello and Francesco Riccardi in 1671, recorded in several subsequent inventories and almost certainly the same one that was eventually donated to the museum in 1987, due in part to the description of the base in those inventories, which do not correspond to the Rimini or Michael Hall examples (di Lorenzo, loc. cit.).
The three crucifixes were analysed closely in a study undertaken by Andrea Di Lorenzo, Davide Gasparotto and Lorenzo Morigi in 2011 (ibid.). This study identified the Michael Hall example as being entirely original and intact. As the most complete example it was used as a point of comparison for the two other crucifixes. The present lot preserves the crown of thorns in gold on the head of Christ and is still fixed with three gold nails on its original ebony cross, in which a thin gold thread is inlaid along the entire perimeter. The cross is grafted onto a base made of the same technique, of ebony inlaid with a gold thread. On the cross is a cartouche with the legend ‘INRI’ in gold and polychrome enamels, analogous to the Rimini cross, while at the centre of the base is a gold plaque depicting the Lamentation, which is almost identical to the Rimini plaque, except for some additional details. All three crucifixes have the same trapezoidal hole at the reverse, which allowed the sculptor to remove the stucco core from the inside. In contrast to the Michael Hall example, the Rimini cross is a later replacement, as is the base of the Poldi Pezzoli version.
Gasparo Mola: Goldsmith to the Medici
Gasparo Mola first worked in Milan as a goldsmith; his earliest extant work is an engraved silver crucifix, signed and dated 1592 (Church of Tavernerio, near Como). He was then lured to Florence to work for the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando I de’ Medici. For Ferdinando he is known to have made some richly decorated weapons in gold and enamel, and two bronze panels for the door of the Cathedral of Pisa. In 1597 Mola was given the role of die-cutter at the Florentine Mint.
Mola is documented as having produced crucifixes from gold for the Grand Duke of Tuscany. In 1600 he was asked to produce crucifixes and other items in addition to his job at the Mint. The lack of a salary increase resulted in Mola leaving Florence for Turin, but he was back in Florence by 1609, and created two crucifixes in gold for Cosimo de Medici in 1611-12. Such gold crucifixes realised by Mola for the Medici are listed in several inventories throughout the 17th century (di Lorenzo, op. cit., pp. 29-30). However, these crucifixes measured 3/5 of a braccio fiorentino, approximately 35-40 cm., and therefore do not correspond to the crucifixes mentioned above.
Mola gained great celebrity in his day for his ability to makesuch sculptures in gold foil. The Hall, Rimini and Poldi Pezzoli crucifixes are not cast but have been carefully beaten into form using the repoussé method. The hands and the feet were cast and welded onto the body (ibid, pp. 59-63). This was a difficult and much admired technique, which very few goldsmiths mastered.
Gasparo Mola and Guglielmo della Porta
The source for the model of the present corpus figure has traditionally been attributed to Giambologna, due to his erroneous association with a silver crucifix in the Palazzo Apostolico in Loreto. More recently, Rosario Coppel has attributed the model to the Roman sculptor Guglielmo della Porta (R. Coppel et. al., Guglielmo della Porta: A Counter-Reformation Sculptor, Coll & Cortes, Madrid, 2012, pp. 62-73). Neither della Porta nor Giambologna were goldsmiths themselves, and it is very likely that Mola used and modified a model that della Porta had created by at least 1570.
Further evidence in favour of the attribution to Mola is the inclusion in the bases of the Hall and Rimini crucifixes of a plaque depicting the Lamentation of Christ that derives from a painting by Gaudenzio Ferrari (c.1471-1546), in the Szépmuvészeti Museum, Budapest (inv. no. 3540). It is unusual that a much earlier painting, which dates from between 1527 and 1529, was used as a source for this plaque. However, Gasparo Mola was both a collector and dealer in works of art, and in 1606 he sold this painting to the Duke of Mantua. Before 1606 he presumably owned the painting himself, and thus was able to use it as a model for his plaque. 1606 is therefore a likely terminus ante quem for the creation of the present crucifix.
The presence of fleur-de-lis decoration on the perizonium of the present crucifix, a motif associated with the city of Florence, together with Mola’s occupation working for both Ferdinando II and Cosimo de Medici, suggests that the present crucifix may have been a Medici commission, possibly intended as a gift to royal and noble dignitaries abroad.
Gold testing carried out on 23/10/19 showed a gold purity in excess of 22 karats.