by Michael Riddick
ASCLEPIUS (No. 17 / Riddick collection)
Anonymous, after an antique gem
Probably Florence, Italy; ca. 1480 | Bertoldo di Giovanni’s informal academy at the Medici’s San Marco gardens
Bronze; 38 x 57.8 mm
Adam Weinberger (dealer, NYC)
Mark Wilchusky (dealer-collector, NYC)
Johan Willem Frederiks (Morton & Eden auction, 18 April 2002, Lot 535)
Contemporary cast. Medium brown and dark patina. Incuse relief. Somewhat rubbed and perhaps weakly cast along the left side of the scene. Pierced at top. Trace amount of old label glue along lower portion of the reverse.
The present plaquette depicts Asclepius, the Greek hero and God of medicine and healing. He holds his serpent entwined staff, indicative of the ‘serpent power,’ whose presence in world traditions have long been associated with wisdom, spiritual awakening and well-being. The present plaquette is scarce and remains the only known example still privately held. Four other examples are located in museum collections.
The plaquette reproduces an antique gem, now lost, but believed to have once belonged to the collection of the Medici family during the 15th century, as suggested by Laurie Fusco and Gino Corti. The Florentine illuminator Gherardo di Giovanni di Miniato del Fora (1445-97) reproduced the gem on an illuminated title page of Pliny’s Natural History, made ca. 1479-83 (Fig. 01), along with other designs after antique gems in the Medici collection. It is probable Gherardo had access to the Medici collection since his workshop was in close proximity to the San Marco gardens where Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449-92) kept his antique and Renaissance art collections and shared them with the talented artists he brought into his fold. While most illuminators would have referred to plaster impressions for their work, the inclusion of what was possibly the gem’s setting suggests Gherardo may have had direct access to the gem.
Gherardo, or his brother Monte (1448-1533), also reproduced the Asclepius gem on a 1489 manuscript of St. Gregorio Magno’s Dialoghi de vita et miraculis patrum italicorum and likewise on a manuscript of Petrarch’s Trionfi, attributed to the 1490s. Another manuscript bearing the gem’s design is located in Valencia and is attributed to ca. 1480-90.
The gem’s appearance on the aforementioned Florentine manuscripts suggests its association with the Medici collection. The Asclepius plaquette therefore belongs to the category of other casts of classical gems probably commissioned by the Medici. It’s possible this plaquette may have been cast during the late 1470s or early 1480s, coinciding with its appearance on the cited manuscripts, and possibly under the auspices of Bertoldo di Giovanni (1420-91).
1. British Museum (Inv. 1915.12-16,168); National Gallery of Art (Inv. 1957.14.157); Hermitage Museum, Russia; Berlin Museums (Inv. 1004); a fifth example, destroyed in WWII, was formerly at the Grassimuseum in Liepzig, Germany.
Laurie Fusco and Gino Corti (2006): Lorenzo de’ Medici, Collector of Antiquities: Collector and Antiquarian. Cambridge University Press.
John Pope-Hennessy (1965, National Gallery of Art); No. 254, Fig. 45, p. 75
Ernst Bange (1922, Staatliche Museen Berlin); No. 111, p. 16
Emile Molinier (1886); No. 19, Vol. 1, p. 11