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Antico's rare Renaissance sculpture on view at The Frick Collection in first exhibition of his work in United States
Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, called Antico (c. 1455–1528), Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, c. 1496. Bronze with gilding, 12 7/8 inches. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Photo: Domingie & Rabatti Firenze.

NEW YORK, NY.- Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, known as Antico (c. 1455-1528) was a transformative sculptor who brought the classical world to life. His contributions are celebrated in Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes, the first monographic exhibition in the United States devoted to the Italian sculptor and goldsmith. The acclaimed exhibition opens at The Frick Collection May 1, 2012, after its successful run this past winter at the National Gallery of Art, Washington. It will present forty-six objects, thirty-seven by Antico, comprising almost three-quarters of the master’s rare surviving oeuvre. They span Antico’s activity and represent the genres in which he worked: medals, statuettes, life-size busts, and reliefs. Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes was organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with The Frick Collection, New York. The exhibition is organized by Eleonora Luciano, associate curator of sculpture, National Gallery of Art, in collaboration with Denise Allen, curator, The Frick Collection, New York, and Claudia Kryza-Gersch, Curator of the Kunstkammer, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Comments co-curator Denise Allen, “Following the critical acclaim of the 2008 exhibition Andrea Riccio: Renaissance Master of Bronze, we were delighted to join the National Gallery of Art and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in studying another remarkable Northern Italian artist whose oeuvre deserved better recognition in America. As with Riccio, Antico is represented in the Frick’s holdings, and we have come to appreciate our work better by placing it in the context of these loans from major public and private collections worldwide.” Among them are the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Musée du Louvre, Paris; the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In 1489 workers digging in Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere’s Roman vineyard unearthed an ancient statue of Apollo. Little more than its right forearm and left hand were missing; the god seemed miraculously preserved. The cardinal had the Apollo placed in the sculpture garden of his Roman palace, where artists studied it during the 1490s. After his election to the papacy, Giuliano, now Pope Julius II, prominently displayed it with other examples of his magnificent antique sculptures in the Belvedere Courtyard of the Vatican. Today, the Apollo Belvedere is among a handful of classical works that have been esteemed as paradigms of artistic perfection from the Renaissance through the Neoclassical period. At the time of its discovery, however, the Apollo was not yet a cornerstone of a well-known classical canon, but rather a marvelous discovery that spoke to the achievements of antiquity.

The first Renaissance artist to interpret the Apollo Belvedere was the Mantuan goldsmith-sculptor Pier Jacopo Alari de’ Bonacolsi (c. 1460–1528). Within six years of the statue’s unearthing, he masterfully re-created it as an exquisite bronze statuette, capturing the likeness of the marble god with archeological precision. His bronze figure included an imaginative restoration of the missing limbs that returned the ancient composition to its perfect state. The monumental marble’s translation into a small-scale bronze, embellished with silvered eyes and partial gilding, transformed the Apollo into a precious object. On the quiver strap across the god’s chest, Pier Jacopo inscribed an abbreviation of his nickname Antico, meaning “the antique one.” The name announced Antico’s identity as a master who recaptured the grandeur of the ancient past in sculptures of great beauty.

Little is known about Antico’s training, but an early inventory lists silver vases “signed by the hand of Antico,” suggesting that he probably began his career as a goldsmith. He spent his life working as sculptor to the Gonzaga family, who ruled Mantua, a small independent principality in northern Italy. The Gonzaga promoted a culture of splendid display that brought the glories of classical Rome to their courts. Although they did not have access to singular, large-scale ancient marbles—such as the Apollo Belvedere—they vigorously acquired small-scale antiquities, among them as cameos, engraved gems, and bronze statuettes. Antico’s first patron, Gianfrancesco Gonzaga di Ròdigo, was a renowned collector of Roman coins. His death inventory of 1496 records an astonishing group of 2,095 in gold, silver, and bronze. Ancient coins inspired the Renaissance art form of the portrait medal, and of all fifteenth-century examples, Antico’s most resemble Roman coins in format and symbolic language. His medal of Gianfrancesco is exactly the same size as an imperial sestertius, and he shows the lord draped like an emperor. On the reverse, the gods Mars and Minerva flank a personification of Fortune, and all three stand on a flat platform, called an exergue, which is typically found on Roman coins. Yet other elements, like Gianfrancesco’s hairstyle, are contemporary, and the figures on the reverse are larger and more voluptuously rendered than their classical prototypes. Antico’s command of numismatic conventions endows the medal with ancient authenticity, convincingly transformed into a modern idiom. By including his signature (ANTI) beneath the exergue, Antico provokes the comparison between past and present. He poses a question: If this medal was made by “the antique one,” does it not also equal the antique? The shared antiquarian interests of Antico and his Gonzaga patrons encouraged him to create novel works in a classical mode. He based the composition of the Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra, on the reverse of an ancient coin. But he used the relief’s large scale—about a foot in diameter—to bring into vivid focus forms that could only be inferred on a tiny coin. Even from a distance, Hercules’s pitched battle against the multi-headed Hydra is instantly recognizable. The bold contrast between dark bronze and brilliant gilding as well as the goldsmith-like definition of each detail exaggerates the composition’s numismatic clarity. Hercules’s heroic feats of strength were ancient emblems of virtue. Antico’s splendid roundel associates the virtues of Gonzaga rulership with a classical heritage writ large To Antico and his patrons, ancient sculpture represented the model of artistic perfection. Antico’s older contemporary, the painter Andrea Mantegna, set the example at the Gonzaga courts. In the Lives of the Artists of 1550, Giorgio Vasari wrote of Mantegna, “Andrea always believed that good classical statues were more perfect and possessed more beautiful parts than those that are shown by nature.” Because ancient marble sculptures known to the Renaissance were often fragmentary relics, imaginative reconstruction was required before their beauty might outshine nature’s own. Mantegna brought an entire classical world to life in his encyclopedic paintings. As a sculptor, Antico concentrated on reconstructing individual classical works, both in fact and in his own art. During the 1490s (and probably earlier), Antico spent time in Rome working as a restorer of ancient marbles. He recorded this activity by inscribing the monumental statues of the Horse Tamers on the Quirinal Hill in clear Roman capitals: ANTICUS MANTVANUS R[E]F[ECIT] (Antico the Mantuan remade this), identifying himself with the renowned classical sculptors Praxiteles and Polycleitus, who were believed at the time to have carved the group. Without Antico’s experience as a restorer, a masterpiece such as the Meleager is unthinkable. The composition derives from a battered Roman marble that, by Antico’s day, was probably headless, missing some of its limbs, and with its drapery eroded by the effects of time. From the fragment, Antico invented a complete figure and revived the mythical drama of Meleager killing the Calydonian boar. With gold tunic fluttering and silver eyes widened in attack, the hero delivers the death thrust with his spear (now lost) in a graceful movement that is as exquisite as the statuette’s precisely finished details. Although the highly esteemed Roman marble was, itself, displayed in the Belvedere Courtyard, it could hardly compare to this glittering bronze. Antico’s statuettes—including the Marcus Aurelius, Spinario, Venus Felix, Hercules and Antaeus, and Mercury (all featured in the exhibition)—presented the Gonzaga with a gallery of important Roman antiquities in a complete form that rivaled the perfection of the works that had inspired them.

After Gianfrancesco’s death in 1496, Antico became court sculptor to Ludovico Gonzaga, bishop-elect of Mantua. Ludovico was a passionate collector of ancient gems and hard-stone vessels. Antico’s meticulously executed, lavishly gilded sculptures (such as The Frick Collection’s Hercules, were probably made in large part for him. Ludovico promoted his ownership of such valuable works to enhance his public prestige. Even though he was the first Renaissance master to perfect the ancient art of indirect casting, which allows an artist to make many bronze versions of his sculptures using molds taken from a single wax model, Antico’s bronzes always seem to have been as rare as exceptional antiquities. Few works that were cast during Antico’s lifetime exist in multiple examples. Some, like the Meleager, are unique. The Hercules is known in four versions, the Apollo in only three. Comparison of Antico’s two Seated Nymphs reveals some of the small, but significant, differences that can exist between bronzes that derive from the same wax model. The hair of one is pulled into a knot above her brow, and each curl is gracefully articulated. The other wears a plain diadem. She is simpler overall and was probably less highly worked in the wax casting model than her more elaborate counterpart. Such differences may also reflect the fact that Antico often entrusted other masters to cast his bronzes. Although Antico’s replicative casting technique might have generated a lucrative income, he apparently did not undertake the serial production of his works. His obligations as a court sculptor, which included consulting on the purchase of antiquities and restoring classical marbles, may have left him little time to spare. The Gonzaga, moreover, probably forbade him to sell his sculptures on the open market. Ludovico owned and zealously guarded the rights to Antico’s creations, ensuring their rarity. When molds were stolen from Antico’s shop in 1498, Ludovico imprisoned the thief and threatened to “punish him so severely that he will regret it.” In a culture dedicated to splendid public display, owning a sculpture by Antico was a privilege reserved only for Gonzaga rulers. They integrated his magnificent works into their collections of ancient art, and they bestowed them as gifts in noble gestures of friendship and diplomacy.

Antico’s last Gonzaga patron, Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was the greatest female collector of the Renaissance. She indulged her admitted “insatiable appetite for antiquities” for more than thirty years and developed a famed collection that was identified with her taste, sophistication, and character as a ruler. Antico and Isabella formed a close, enduring relationship. Although she tended to manage every detail of a commission, often to artists’ dismay, in 1503 she entrusted Antico to choose the subject of a female statuette intended for the cornice over the doorway of the room where she displayed her greatest works. This statuette was most likely the Seated Nymph. Presiding over a gathering of figurative works, the delicately pensive Nymph invited the elevated state of contemplation that is inspired by beauty. For the life-size bust of Cleopatra, Antico imagined a resplendent queen whose outward beauty reflects her strength of spirit. Antico’s early bronze busts emulated the Roman marble portraits and fragmentary heads that he studied and restored. Later ones, like the Cleopatra, are the product of his ability to invent in a classical mode.

Toward the end of his career, busts rather than statuettes captured his artistic imagination. In 1519 Antico agreed to cast for Isabella the statuettes that he had long ago made for Ludovico. But he enticed her by writing that he could also create “bronze heads” that were “more beautiful” than those he had created for Ludovico. The Cleopatra was probably one of these. During the Renaissance, Cleopatra was regarded as a heroine whose suicide was an example of ancient virtue. The defeated Egyptian queen chose death rather than the disgrace of being paraded in Augustus Caesar’s triumph. Antico portrays Cleopatra confronting her terrible choice with introspective dignity. She is magnificently robed, crowned, and jeweled; her regal features are calm, her eyes downcast in thought. Below, on the bust’s socle, Antico depicts an asp, the poisonous instrument of her death and the subject of her contemplation. In this remarkable work, which has no exact classical prototype, Antico suggests that heroic acts stem not from strength of body but from character of mind. In Isabella’s collection, Antico’s noble Cleopatra symbolized the inner source of female rulership.

Isabella once wrote to Antico that “we have not found anything that is equal to your merit.” It was her way of expressing a personal appreciation of Antico’s art and service. The Gonzaga rewarded his achievements by granting him property rights and courtly favors, and by allowing him to use the noble designation “de’ Bonacolsi” at the end of this name. Born the son of a butcher, Antico died a wealthy man who had elevated his family’s standing. But his lifelong service to the Gonzaga came at the price of artistic fame. His authorship of the magnificent sculptures that graced their courts was forgotten soon after his death. Twentieth-century archivists and art historians secured Antico’s reputation, rather than Renaissance writers like Vasari. Although Antico advanced the technique of bronze casting further than any sculptor of his time, this achievement went unnoted until modern scientific studies revealed the elegant technical intricacies of his methods. When Henry Clay Frick demanded from his dealer only “the finest” bronzes from J. Pierpont Morgan’s estate, he did not consider Antico. The expert advice and magisterial catalogues of Wilhelm von Bode formed the taste of Morgan and Frick’s generation of collectors. To them the bronzes of Antico’s contemporary, Andrea Riccio, represented the Renaissance revival of antiquity at its most creative, expressive, and fascinating. Antico’s sculptures, which hewed close to ancient sources, appeared, by contrast, cold and lacking in imagination. Henry Clay Frick was willing to spend thousands of dollars on a bronze, and he gave Riccio’s Oil Lamp pride of place in his 70th Street mansion. He purchased Antico’s Hercules for eighty-five dollars to decorate the family summer house, Pride’s Crossing. The fate of this work presents an example of how specialists and collectors are influenced by the period taste they themselves help to establish. In 1970 Helen Clay Frick redressed her father’s oversight by donating it to The Frick Collection, and since then it has remained a centerpiece among the sculptures shown in the grand West Gallery. For three months this summer, this Hercules will join other masterpieces by Antico in the exhibition, together recapturing a glimpse of the bygone splendors of the Gonzaga courts.

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