COLLECTING BRONZES: A MODEST FOOTNOTE
When it comes to the art of bronze statues, the most important thing to underline is the executive procedure of many Renaissance pieces of this kind. Many artists established workshops not at all dissimilar from modern businesses. In these workshops many kinds of professionals worked together to achieve the final product. It might come to a surprise for many people, but the master craftsman often only provided a rough proof of concept in clay or wax and the actual manufacturing of the statue was carried out by his assistants: some of them smelted the statue, others polished and chiselled it.
With these premises, discussing the authorship of these bronzes becomes mere rhetoric.
Some workshop assistants were as skilled as their master and their casts are now recognized as original and standalone works. Antonio Susini, originally a goldsmith, was Giambologna’s right hand man and artistic successor, and his works, despite being obviously inspired by his master, are now acknowledged as authored by him by the most notable contemporary scholars. Notably, his replicas of Giambologna’s bronzes are more refined that the originals by his own maestro. In other cases, especially if the patron was particularly prestigious, the master craftsman took on the work all by himself. This is proven by various pieces being signed, like Giambologna did by carving his initials on the pedestal of his most beloved statues.
And yet, the unsigned works product of his studio are object of endless speculation and debate around their authorship. The creations of the great Flemish-born sculptor, naturalized Italian at the court of the Medici’s grand duchy, were duplicated by his apprentices many times since the market demand was tremendous, and Giambologna himself only had time to take charge for the most important bronzes. Moreover, other less important workshops regularly attempted to plagiarize designs from famous artists to make a profit, in a historical era where the fine line between “imitating” and “copying” was blurry and leaning to the latter was not considered shameful.
These are the aspects that must be taken into consideration when talking about bronze collecting.
The analysis of Venetian bronzes has undergone decades of studying based on the aforementioned premises. Many statuettes that used to be attributed to prominent artists (by art historians like Bode and Planiscig) are now thought to have been serially produced by modest workshops whose work ethic was carefully balanced between imitating and stealing. Secondary, if not obscure artists have resurfaced to fame thanks to the advancement of historical studies. Names such as Severo da Ravenna are now prominent amongst art historians: he is now thought to be the author of many bronze statues previously credited to Andrea Briosco.
Nowadays hardly any pieces made by eminent artists are signed and provided with unmistakable documentation. The statues that satisfy these criteria are treasured by connoisseurs and scholars alike and are highly sought by the most devoted art collectors.
In a “best of all possible worlds”, to put it like Candide would, all art pieces should be certified and have their authorship guaranteed. But since collecting isn’t a foolproof endeavour, it is only natural that the owners of these precious bronzes are assisted by the most renowned experts to see that their investment is sound, and their money protected.
The auctions’ world regularly offers great masterpieces with perfect certification, achieving remarkable results. Conversely, many times such credentials aren’t available, and when certain statues can’t be properly dated, auction houses make do by just slapping a “XIX century” tag on them. Some cunning collectors prefer buying prized items that aren’t certified for a lower price, then look for experts capable of assisting in properly identifying and declaring them as original pieces.
All being said, offering high quality statues isn’t the only thing we are trying to achieve. Most importantly, we are trying to provide you with discernible information about the items’ provenance and time frame, while avoiding dogmatic, preconceived notions that often conceal ignorance and bad faith. Therefore, our catalogues are always frank with missing information, not due to our incompetence, I hope, but rather because we are sincerely aware of the field’s limitations when it comes to dating bronzes. Inspiring and entertaining collectors is our goal, as well as giving them the opportunity to discover small treasures that feature detailed scientific cataloguing, even if it might not be comprehensive.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND THE ART
Force of habit and laziness have made it so all statues get called “bronzes” despite the fact that many of them are actually made of brass. Bronze and brass are both copper alloys: Fusing copper and tin produces bronze, while fusing copper and zinc produces brass. These materials usually get covered with artificial coatings that make then indistinguishable from each other without proper chemical examination. Discovering which metal was used in the making of a statue via scientific analysis can help us locate the item’s birthplace: for example, bronze was heavily favoured in Tuscany, while brass was more commonplace in France and Germany.
The alloy’s elemental proportions also offer vital information. If we’re presented with an extremely precise ratio with no impurities (such as 9 parts of copper to 1 part of tin) we can safely conclude that the ingots date to the post-industrial revolution world and that electrolytic techniques have been used to purify the metal. Ancient alloys are rougher in composition and less precise with ratios, although following the same rules.
Contemporary scientific examination has been remarkable and its usefulness in superseding traditional tactile and visual assessments cannot be stressed enough. Yet the eye of the seasoned veteran is still valuable, and their expertise must go hand-in-hand with the newest technologies.In conclusion, the veneration by the Renaissance scholars and humanist intellectuals towards the classical arts which led them to collect bronze statuettes is definitely something that brings us together, even with a centuries-long gap between us and them.
Without further ado, let the hunt begin. Good luck!