by Michael Riddick
The small bronze Pieta relief cast integrally with its frame for use as a pax (Fig. 01) follows after a prototype by Michelangelo (1475-1564) made during the early 1540s. Michelangelo created the Pieta for Vittoria Colonna (1492-1547), an esteemed noblewoman with whom he shared corresponding spiritual beliefs inspired by progressive Christian reformists. Michelangelo’s Pieta relates to Colonna’s Lamentation on the Passion of Christ, written in the early 1540s and later published in 1556. In her Lamentation Colonna vividly adopts the role of Mary in grieving the death of her son. Michelangelo’s Pieta was likely inspired by Colonna’s writing, evidenced through the synchronicity of his design in relationship with Colonna’s prose. 
Michelangelo’s original Pieta for Colonna is a debated subject. Traditional scholarship suggests a sketch at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the original he made for her while others propose a panel painting supported by additional contemporary sources which discuss it. The documentary evidence suggests Michelangelo first realized a painting of the subject for Colonna, later given by her to their mutual friend, the Cardinal Reginald Pole, in 1546. Prior to its change in ownership, the subject was doubtless copied in sketched form by Michelangelo and others close to his circle. A sketch attributed to Marcello Venusti (1510-79) at the Teylers Museum (Fig. 02) is the likely prototype for a 1546 engraved reproduction of the subject by Giulio Bonasone (1498-1574). A further 1547 engraved reproduction, following after Bonasone’s, was executed by Nicolas Beatrizet (1507-65) and later printed editions were made by Giovan Battista de Cavalieri (1526-97) in 1560 and Agostino Carracci (1557-1602) in 1579. By the mid-16th century Michelangelo’s Pieta for Colonna was widely celebrated and diffused through prints as well as painted and sketched copies.
The bronze pax version of Michelangelo’s Pieta is of Roman origin, also being the locus of the original conception of its design. Only one dated example of the pax is known at the Basilica della Santa Casa in Loreto, featuring the inscription: IO.D.BASTIANO.D.NARDI,F.1586. The Pieta pax design diverges from sketched, painted and engraved versions and more closely follows two stone reliefs of the subject which are faithfully linked to Michelangelo: an incomplete relief at the Vatican (Fig. 03, left) and a finished one at the Santo Spirito in Sassia, ca. 1551 (Fig. 03, right). Both reliefs have been associated with Michelangelo’s assistants, with proposals for Pierino da Vinci (1529-53) or Jacopo del Duca (1520-1604) as their authors. Charles de Tolnay has commented on the distinction of two Pieta prototypes noting the differences between the sculpted and drafted versions. The prime distinction between each prototype regards the putto on the right who faces the viewer on sculpted versions and is turned toward Christ on drafted examples.
The Pieta pax relief specifically shares the same treatment of Mary’s collar as portrayed on the stone reliefs and her brooch featuring a winged cherub head is also less flamboyant than those depicted on the engraved and sketched versions. Further related to the stone reliefs are the exposed feet of Mary and the previously noted putto on the right who faces the viewer. Unique to the bronze relief, however, is Mary’s tilted head and the alternate feature of the right putto’s proper left-leg which is instead shown extending into the scene.
Though late 16th century Rome was home to a quantity of bronze founders, Charles Avery has suggested the Pieta pax relief may be indebted to the Duca brothers, Jacopo and Ludovico (1551-1601).  In addition to the stone relief’s previously noted association with Jacopo, the brothers also experimented with Michelangelo’s Pieta subject in bronze. Jacopo borrows the depiction of Mary for a bronze Lamentation relief panel on a tabernacle at the Church of San Lorenzo in Padula (Fig. 04, left). The tabernacle was originally connected with Michelangelo’s designs for an unrealized tabernacle intended for the Sta Maria degli Angeli, to be designed by him and cast by Jacopo. Though abandoned, Jacopo resurrected the tabernacle for a project later intended for Spain’s El Escorial. The project was likewise terminated but shortly thereafter was finally completed and sold to the Church in Padula. Jacopo’s Lamentation relief was made ca. 1574 when the tabernacle was quickly completed for its final destination in Padula. More than a decade later, Jacopo shared the panel molds of the Padula tabernacle with Ludovico for his work on the Sta Maria Maggiore tabernacle in Rome, ca. 1587-89. Ludovico refined Jacopo’s original model of the Lamentation and it is on this refined panel that correspondences can be established with the significantly smaller relief of the Pieta pax. In particular, we find on Ludovico’s Lamentation panel, Mary’s slightly tilted head along with related figural forms and simplistic, thickly incised lines that correspond with the manner of the Pieta pax (above, right). Additionally, the period in which Ludovico refines Jacopo’s panel closely approximates with the dated example of the Pieta pax, ca. 1586-89.
Of all Roman founders, Jacopo would have especially been qualified to realize Michelangelo’s Pieta in bronze, having served as his bronze founder and assistant during Michelangelo’s final years and completing several of his projects after his death. Jacopo’s immediate access to and use of Michelangelo’s designs and Ludovico’s similar use of them increase the probability their workshop was responsible for the fabrication of the Pieta pax. The quantity of surviving examples suggests their serial nature, which would have provided tertiary revenue for the workshop through sales to ecclesiastic clients, donors and private households.
Nurturing an association of the pax with the Duca brothers is William Wixom’s observation that the frame is based on Michelangelo’s 1561 designs for the Porta Pia in Rome, a project that Jacopo was closely involved with as his assistant. In honor of his master, it is sensible that a Michelangelo-inspired architectural device would be married with a celebrated design by him. Further, Giuseppe Fazio has called attention to the frame’s similarity with Jacopo’s design for the portal of the Church of Santa Maria in Trivio, Rome (Fig. 05) though it lacks the standard, triangular pediment.
Francesco Rossi notes the image of God the Father, featured in the tympanum of the pax (Fig. 06, left), recalls a relief of the same subject by Giovanni Mangone (d. 1543) in his 1538 monument to Cardinal Lorenzo Magalotti at the Church of St. Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome (Fig. 06, right) and likewise on a monument dedicated to Cardinal Willem van Enckevoirt at the Santa Maria dell’Anima, also in Rome and completed around the same time. The Duca brothers could have drawn local inspiration from these tombs perhaps with a mindfulness that this model of God the Father recalls Michelangelo’s painted depiction of God in the Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel (Fig. 06, bottom).
Avery has also drawn attention to a stylistically related and similarly diffused gilt bronze lockplate of Roman origin, ca. 1580s-90s (Fig. 07, left), judged by him to emanate from the same workshop as the Pieta pax. Jeremy Warren likewise comments on the parallel architectural forms and stylistic relationships between the pax frame and the characteristics of the lockplate, calling attention to the facial features of the herms on the pax and those of the figures on the lockplate. A relationship with an applique of Mary on a ca. 1565 silver processional cross by Jacopo at the Rieti Cathedral may also be noted (Fig. 07, right).
Typical of widely diffused plaquettes and paxes, the Pieta pax design is known by a quantity of faithful and embellished aftercasts as well as several freehand copied variations. Contemporary casts of the pax are frequently gilt, sometimes inclusive also of the reverse and handle and are finely finished along their surfaces with chasing and subtle hammering. Inscribed versions referencing donors often appear equally crisp in quality; however, they almost exclusively feature some open-work treatment within the architecture of the frame, typically within the arches of the tympanum (for examples see Troncavini, 2016, Figs. 5a and 5b).
Inscribed examples of the pax include a privately held monogrammed example: F.A.R.F.F.; an example in the Scaglia collection inscribed: DONVS LEONARDVS POTIER which Attilio Troncavini has identified as referring to the cleric Leonardo Potier who was present at the creation of a chaplaincy in favor of the Bonifaci family of Sermoneta on August 11 1567 ; an example from the Buttazzoni collection (ex-Imbert collection), with the inscription: DNS FAVSTVS BRIXI F.F whose donor, Master Fausto, was from Brescia; an example from the Vasset collection with the inscription: HIE.MELCHIOR.EPVS.MACERATEN, referring to Gerolamo Melchiorri who served as Bishop of Macerata between 1553-73; and the earlier noted pax at the Santa Casa in Loreto, inscribed: IO.D.BASTIANO.D.NARDI.F.1586, which Troncavini has revealed to have probably been commissioned by Sebastiano Nardi as a votive offering to Antonio da Leonessa, a Franciscan monk who lived in the second half of the sixteenth century, admired for his prophecy, miracles and healings and who had given encouragement to Nardi during his imprisonment for treason. Troncavini cites the published Annals of the Capuchin Friars Minor documenting the story and followed by a successive documented event dated 1587, suggesting Antonio’s consolation of Nardi happened just prior to this, apparently in 1586, as confirmed by the date on the pax.
Two later casts belonging to churches within the Diocese of Piacenza-Bobbio feature inscriptions along their base. One is a silvered example, illegible due to the quality of the photo observed, and another reads: COMMENDO VOBIS PACEM CONCORDIAM, also adding a dove applique atop the cross in the relief’s upper register.
Several divergent later examples of the Pieta pax are noteworthy such as a unique cast at the Casa Buonarroti and one at a church within the Diocese of Piacenza-Bobbio which feature blue enameling in the recesses of the pax. An example at a church within the Diocese of Siena-Colle di Val d’Elsa-Montalcino adds a cross, now broken, atop the center shell niche. An example in a church within the Diocese of Bologna features a wholly different frame with the plaquette incorporating an extended upper register with an arched top. A unique cast at the Metropolitan Museum of Art features an integrally cast applique of an effigy of St. Peter, coinciding with an inscription along its base: SOCIETAS.S.PETRI., apparently commissioned by the Society of St. Peter, possibly in Rome.
A late variant noted only by Warren and Troncavini features the Pieta integrally cast with a related frame originally suited for a Deposition scene (see Troncavini, 2016, Fig. 6), to be discussed. However, the flanking caryatids that would normally accompany the original prototype of this frame are replaced instead by plain columns. The present author counts eight examples of this variant.
Two independent later casts of the Pieta relief, free of their frames, are known: one formerly in the Bardini collection, probably intended for setting into a desktop object judging by the extended lower margin featuring a support lip and another previously undocumented example in the present author’s collection which once formed the lid to a desk casket judging by the integral hinge on its reverse and heavily rubbed surface.
A quantity of freehand versions of the relief are known, the most common of which is a Venetian variant, to be discussed. However, worthy of initial note is a unique silver gilt pax belonging to a church within the Diocese of Isernia-Venafro (Fig. 08). This divergent example follows the typology of engraved reproductions of the Pieta and of particular note is its accompanying frame which lies in the posthumous ambit of Guglielmo della Porta’s workshop and could belong to Sebastiano Torrigiani’s (d. 1596) workmanship. Torrigiani was Ludovico’s collaborator on the Sta Maria Maggiore tabernacle and their partnership on the project may have entitled Torrigiani to experiment with the subject. Two crude silver aftercasts of this variant are known but are instead featured with a different widely diffused pax frame originating with Guglielmo and Torrigiani’s activity.
A quantity of diverse 18th century freehand silver paxes of the subject are found throughout churches in Italy and an interesting example judged ca. 1560-70, at a church within the Diocese of Trento, features the scene in an octagonal relief set into an elaborate pax with attractive marble inlays. A crude free version of the relief at the Gomez-Moreno Museum is purposed as a tabernacle door.
A DEPOSITION PAX
Troncavini has called attention to the relationship of another less common pax whose frame also parallels Jacopo’s portal for the Church of Santa Maria in Trivio, Rome. The pax features a Deposition whose stylistic handling of the figures may suggest a connection with the Duca brothers (Fig. 09 [Ashmolean Museum example]). The inspiration for the frame, particularly with regard to the flanking volutes and caryatids, may also have its impetus in an engraved reproduction of a fireplace mantle designed by Giacomo Barozzi da Vignola (1507-73) for the bedroom of Cardinal Ranuccio, reproduced in Vignola’s celebrated 1562 publication of his Canon of the Five Orders of Architecture.
Other characteristics suggest a nominal relationship of this pax with the same workshop responsible for the Pieta paxes. One observation is its uniform integration of the relief with the frame, gilt obverse on contemporary casts and scarcity of independent examples.
The open-work tympanum on both paxes is synchronous and the use of the Pieta pax relief on a modified version of the Deposition’s pax frame also speaks to a possible relationship as the crude casts we observe might point to an earlier qualifying original that is now lost, unidentified, or possibly the product of workshop descendants. Although the type of foliated handles featured on both paxes are related, in particular, the winklepicker-shaped base (Fig. 10), the style of the handle itself is common to a diverse array of 16th century paxes.
An example of the Deposition pax at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is inscribed: .IO.ANTONIVS.PETRASANTA and another later cast is inscribed along its architrave: S.STEFANO at the Budapest Museum of Fine Art.
THE VENETIAN PIETA
Possibly the earliest association between Michelangelo’s Pieta in bronze and the Duca brothers was forwarded by Maria Accascina’s attribution of a slightly later and half as common freehand variant of the relief (Fig. 11) attributed by her to Ludovico. Operating from knowledge of only one example of this variant, Accascina’s suggested attribution first called attention to the relief’s connection with the Duca brothers. This freehand variant of the subject diverges from the earlier Roman design with the right putto’s leg bent at an angle rather than extending forward and Mary’s head centered rather than tilted. Clouds have been added to the scene, as well as the sun, moon and a titulus is fixed to the cross. In several respects, this variant is more conforming to the stone reliefs than the Roman Pieta pax. It is probable its author had access to an early prototype, notably one forwarded by Fazio as a freehand terracotta Pieta at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome (Fig. 12), attributed by Paola Berardi to Jacopo, ca. 1565. Fazio observes the terracotta’s congruence with the plaquette varying only in the characteristics of its upper register. Most notable are the clouds which replace the floating putto heads that surround the scene in the terracotta relief. While the terracotta Pieta provides a model for the plaquette, the treatment of the plaquette’s vermiculate clouds and increased Mannerist tendencies point to the product of a Venetian workshop, active from the 1590s through the 1620s, known to have serially produced paxes for private and public devotional use. The hallmark of this workshop is the intensely Mannerist style pax frames they produced, known to alternately feature a variety of plaquettes of Venetian origin. The scale of the Venetian Pieta plaquette was tailored specifically with the intention of setting it into this pre-existing pax frame.
The frame is commonly found featuring a plaquette of the Coronation of the Virgin, possibly originally conceived with the frame and produced probably after 1582 when the Chapel of the Rosary was completed in Venice. While the maker of the Coronation of the Virgin plaquette is unidentified, he is understood to belong in the ambit of Alessandro Vittoria (1525-1608) borrowing influences adopted also from artists like Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570), Michelangelo and Bartolomeo Ammannati (1511-92).
In addition to the Coronation of the Virgin, other stylistically related plaquettes belonging to the same master are incorporated with this frame as well as designs by other artists possibly active or collaborating with the same workshop or perhaps products realized by assistants following the death of their master. The Venetian Pieta may be one such product as the rendering of the clouds appear related to the workshop’s master but not by him.
Several dated examples of the Venetian pax frame offer insight into its historical use and production. The earliest dated example is in the Venetian Treasury of the Frari, dated 1595. Two examples featuring the Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John, are dated 1608. Another featuring the Coronation of the Virgin belongs to a church within the Diocese of Bologna, also dated 1608. An example in the present author’s collection, featuring a silver plaquette of the Marriage of the Virgin features a dedication and the year 1624 inscribed on its reverse, suggesting its use into the 1620s and supporting the notion future assistants may have continued the workshop’s activities.
The creation of the Venetian Pieta may rest in the ambit of 1608 when this workshop appears most active. It would also perhaps entitle the workshop to more readily take the reins on reproducing this motif since by 1604 the Duca brothers appear to have been deceased.
A distinct version of the Venetian Pieta pax, formerly in the Adams collection, features an added bronze appliqué depicting the unidentified bust of a woman on its central base, possibly a later addition.
Later cast examples of the Venetian Pieta are known, some cast integrally with their frame. Independent casts of the plaquette, lacking their contextual frame, tend to be of lesser quality and are reduced versions. A large and eloquent freehand plaque after Jacopo’s terracotta Pieta (or after the Venetian Pieta) is at the Gomez-Moreno Museum (Fig. 13) and a freehand carved rock crystal version, enclosed in a gilt bronze pax, is at the Victoria and Albert Museum (Fig. 14).
Special thanks to Attillio Troncavini for his research on inscribed casts of the Roman Pieta pax, Javier Moya Morales (Fundación Rodríguez-Acosta) for his notes on examples of the relief at the Museo Gomez-Moreno, Doug Lewis for his confirming feedback regarding the Venetian Mannerist pax frames, Marty Kober for his valuable references and Charles Avery for his kind edits.
1. See A. Condivi: The Life of Michelangelo, ed. A. Sedgwick Wohl, Pennsylvania State University 1999, p. 103; G. Vasari: Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects. Vol. IX., ed. G.C. de Vere, Macmillian/Medici Society 1915, p. 108; and M. Forcellino: ‘The Pieta by Michelangelo, for Vittoria Colonna: sources, documentation and art-historical literature,’ The Ragusa Pieta: History and Restoration, Fondazione Roma Arte-Musei 2010, pp. 87-90, for historical documentation discussing Michelangelo’s Pieta for Colonna
13. The dating of the panel is based on the presence of wax residue on the reverse of the tabernacle’s Crucifixion panel, incised with the date 27 January 1574 while another date of 30 May 1572 was found incised on the earlier cast bronze base of the tabernacle (see G. Redin: ‘Jacopo del Duca, il ciborio della certosa di Padula el il ciborio di Michelangelo per Santa Maria degli Angeli’, Antologia di Belle Arti, 63-66 , p. 132)
17. F. Rossi discusses an aftercast of this tympanum featured on a reasonably diffused pax depicting the Lowering of Christ in the Tomb. See F. Rossi (Musei Civici di Brescia) 1974, No. 214, pp. 127-28
20. It is to be pondered if there is a reason for the silhouetted characteristics on inscribed versions. Though a modest conjecture, perhaps the purchaser could select this option because the reduction of bronze saved in casting the pax equated to the value of adding an inscription? It’s noteworthy that some contemporary casts are entirely gilt, with no concern for expense, while others feature the economic gilding of only the obverse.
23. A. Tronacavini: ‘Una Pieta di Michelangelo e la sua Diffusione,’ Antiqua.mi.it, September 2016 (accessed via private communication, July 2016)
25. Annali de’ Frati Minori Cappuccini composti dal M.R.P. Zaccaria Boverio da Saluzzi e tradotti in volgare dal P.F. Benedetto Sanbenedetti da Milano Predicatore Cappuccino, Tomo II parte prima, p. 107 n. 42, Giunti e Bava, Venezia 1645.
47. This pax frame has traditionally been identified as a “Sansovino frame,” though Charles Davis (C. Davis: ‘Jacopo Sansovino and the Italian Plaquette’, [NGA 1989], pp. 265-89) and Tim Newbery (T. Newbery: Italian Renaissance Frames [The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, 1990], No. 25, p. 54) have clarified that the pax is Mannerist in its arrangement rather than Sansovino-like. Newbery has further noted that the volutes, clasps and cartouches on the frame appear similar to a drawing attributed to Ammannati.
50. J. Warren discusses two such stylistically related plaquettes, a scarce Assumption of the Virgin, known by a bronze example at the MET (Inv. No. 1975.1.1351), and a likewise scarce silver cast Assumption of the Virgin (see footnote 49), of different design, belonging to the Venetian Treasury of the Frari (J. Warren 2011, op. cit. [note 28], No. 415, pp. 949-50)
51. Other plaquettes found commonly integrated with this frame include a very widely diffused Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John (for an example see F. Rossi, 2011, No. IX. 5) and a plaquette of Christ Lifted Out of the Tomb by Angels (for an example see F. Rossi, 2011, No. IX.25)
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