by Michael Riddick
Much sensationalism and research have surrounded the attribution to Michelangelo Buonarroti of a large pair of bronze nude men riding feline beasts formerly in the Rothschild collection and previously on loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge University (Fig. 01).
The bronze group, hereto regarded as the Rothschild bronzes, were purchased in Venice in March 1878 by Julie de Rothschild, sold to her as attributed to Michelangelo, an assessment she mutually agreed upon at the time of their purchase.1
The earliest known public appearance of the Rothschild bronzes was at the Exposition Universelle in Paris that same year where they were displayed as works by Michelangelo.2 The origin of the initial attribution to Michelangelo is unknown but it was evidently in question at that event. The art historian, Eugene Piot’s 1879 review of the show proclaimed the Venetian, Tiziano Aspetti, as their maker, noting the attribution to Michelangelo was a “rather large error.”3 However, Piot never published or explained his rather untenable attribution to Aspetti.
In 1907 Wilhelm von Bode discussed the bronze group in his seminal volume on Italian Renaissance bronzes, attributing them to Jacopo Sansovino sometime after 1527, drawing upon comparisons with Sansovino’s activity in Venice after that date.4
In 1921 Leo Planiscig rejected Bode’s suggestion, noting their Mannerist quality was inconsistent with Sansovino’s production. He instead reiterated a connection with Aspetti, suggesting them to be mature works by that sculptor, made ca. 1600.5
In 1967 Hans Weihrauch also maintained their attribution to Aspetti, suggesting only a slightly earlier dating6 and in 1980 James Draper’s revised and translated edition of Bode’s 1907 volume opted to catalog them as possibly Venetian from the mid-16th century, reasonably omitting their old association with Aspetti.7
When the Rothschild bronzes went to sale via Sotheby’s in 2002 their catalog entry dismissed an association with Venice in favor of a Florentine origin, noting their consistency with the milieu of Florentine mannerism of the mid-16th century.8
After a brief, though now dismissed, consideration by Frits Schloten, that the bronzes could be the early work of Willem Danielsz van Tetrode,9 David Ekserdijian subsequently suggested a mid-16th century Roman origin in the circle of Michelangelo.10
Presently, efforts led by Victoria Avery of the Fitzwilliam Museum and Paul Joannides at Cambridge University have spearheaded an attribution of the bronzes to Michelangelo. However, while the influence of Michelangelo is imbued in these bronzes, it remains speculative that he made them due to the absence of documentary evidence, Michelangelo’s substantial work-load, and some may argue: visual evidence.
While documentation concerning the commission of such an unusual group remains a mystery, the present author suggests an alternative maker based on visual comparisons and following the suggestion of Ekserdijian: that the bronzes are probably the work of an artist active in the circle of Michelangelo.
The apparent influence of the marble Laocoön group upon the Rothschild bronzes has already been noted by scholars. Joannides commented: “they owe a debt, subtle but unmistakable,” to the antique sculpture, prompting a suggested dating for the bronzes after its discovery and excavation in Rome in 1506.11 Uniquely, it is this event that foretells the author we suggest is the maker of the Rothschild bronzes:
FRANCESCO DA SANGALLO (1494-1576)
Sixty years after the remarkable excavation of Laocoön, the architect and sculptor, Francesco da Sangallo,12 recalls in a letter how:
“The pope (Julius II – ed.) ordered one of his officers to run and tell Giuliano da Sangallo (Francesco’s father – ed.) to go and see them. So he set off immediately. Since Michelangelo Buonarroti was always to be found at our house, my father having summoned him and having assigned him the commission of the pope’s tomb, my father wanted him to come along, too. I joined up with my father and off we went.”13
Witnessing the excavation of the famed Laocoön, in company of his father and Michelangelo, made an indelible impact on the eleven-year-old Francesco, evinced by its recurring influence on his work and by his recollection of the event sixty years later. In harmony with Joannides’ comment, the presence of Laocoön is subtly observed across a majority of Francesco’s sculpture whose subjects are imbued with an alike expression of anguish characterized by thickly pursed brows and a weighted flesh upon the face. One can imagine Francesco’s excitement in observing the emphasized details of Laocoön’s face, with traces of dirt captured in its grooves and gazing up toward him from a prison beneath the ground (Fig. 02).
The influence of classical sculpture upon Francesco began at an early age under the tutelage of his successful father, Giuliano, who brought Francesco with him to Rome to draw and study antique sculpture at the age of ten. Giuliano’s passion for antiquity was passed-down to Francesco who continued to expand the family’s private collection of antiquities in his own lifetime.14
The camaraderie between Michelangelo and Francesco’s father, Giuliano, is apparent in Francesco’s cited letter, but more important to our proposal is the early exposure and access of Francesco to the master himself. In 1524, Michelangelo employed Francesco as an assistant in Florence working on the New Sacristy of the Medici Chapel at San Lorenzo.15 In this effort Francesco completed the series of marble masks which comprise the frieze behind the sarcophagi of the Ducal tombs (Fig. 03).
Observing the fatigued character of the masks draws an immediate comparison with the imaginative faces of the Rothschild panthers, particularly their bulbous cheeks, fleshy, pinched-and-furrowed brows, pudge noses and bulky fangs (Fig. 04, left). The style of the panthers also exhibits an informed knowledge of Roman antiquities, as discussed by Faya Causey, suggesting a work all’antica (Fig. 05).16
The exaggerated brow of the panthers is also comparable with Francesco’s wooden Magdalene of 1519 at the Church of S. Stefano al Ponte in Florence while their distant, yet confident, gaze can be related to the face of St. Anne at Orsanmichele. Further correspondences between the wrinkled and heavy folds-of-flesh on the panthers is observed in Francesco’s much later marble effigy of Bishop Angelo Marzi-Medici for his tomb, completed in 1546 (Fig. 04, right). Francesco’s virtuoso realism in carved stone is brought to completion in his marble busts of the three Fates, two of which were formerly, and perhaps not coincidentally, thought to be works by Michelangelo.17
It is during the period of Francesco’s service to Michelangelo that he completes his earliest autograph and dated marble group of the Virgin and Child with St. Anne for Orsanmichele in 1526. The sculpture was carved from a block Francesco acquired from Michelangelo’s workshop.18 The statue, praised in its day by Francesco’s contemporaries,19 reflects an indebtedness to the classical while adopting a penetrating human expression that intuits the mannerism of succeeding generations.
Joannides’ closing words in the voluminous 2018 research publication of the Rothschild bronzes comments: “None of those who have denied the attribution (to Michelangelo – ed.), as we gather from internet or press gossip, has provided compelling – or indeed any – counterarguments against either the attribution or the proposed date, let alone an alternative candidate for the bronzes’ author.”20
To the present author’s knowledge, Francesco da Sangallo has not yet been forwarded as a possible candidate for the Rothschild bronzes and is given only a single mention in the 2018 series of studies, referenced as the author of a sketch once thought to reproduce Michelangelo’s lost bronze David.21
It is likely Francesco has been overlooked as a candidate for the Rothschild bronzes because of their presumed dating between 1506-08 and also because he is primarily known as a sculptor of marble. However, like others of Florentine heritage, he worked in other media like wood and bronze. That Francesco worked in bronze is inferred by his will of 24 September 1574 which includes “ancient and modern figures of bronze” to be dispersed.22
Further confirmation is observed by his signed bronze statuette of St. John Baptizing, ca. 1535-38, made to crown the marble baptismal stoup of S. Maria delle Carceri at Prato, now in the Frick Collection (Fig. 06, right).23 This bronze recalls the essence of Francesco’s earlier wooden Baptist at the Chiesa di San Romolo a Bivigliano in Florence, ca. 1515-20 (Fig. 06, left).
Immediate comparisons can be drawn between the two Baptist figures and the character of the nude riders in the Rothschild group, notably the strong brow, fleshy weight of the skin with sunken cheeks and wrinkles channeling from the base of the nose to the corners of the mouth, deeply set eye-sockets with acutely hollowed pupils, an intense gaze, an agitated countenance, mouths slightly agape and the sinuous tension of muscle portrayed across the sternum (Fig. 07). This later feature on the Rothschild bronzes is prefigured also by Francesco’s wood corpus for the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, ca. 1525-30 (Fig. 08). Further congruent is the similarly treated facial hair comparable between the wooden Baptist and the older male nude Rothschild bronze (Fig. 09).
While the bronze Baptizer is Francesco’s only autograph statuette, his work in bronze extends later in his career via the production of medals. Several works are attributed to Francesco, including a self-portrait medal dated 1550,24 a commemorative medal for Francesco’s patron, Paolo Giovio, dated 1552,25 a medal of his wife, Elena Marsuppini, dated 1575,26 and posthumous medals of Alessandro and Cosimo de’ Medici, dated 1570, to which date is also suggested a medal of Giovanni de’Medici della
In recent years Francesco’s bronze oeuvre has been quietly expanded to include a figure of Flora28 and most recently, the discovery of a pair of cognate statuettes thought to represent Oratoria and Grammatica, rediscovered by the Tomasso Brothers in London29 and now forming part of the Hearn Family Trust.30
These exquisite bronzes are imbued with individuality, emphasizing the humanity of the figures while revealing the monumental quality of Francesco’s refined talent. While the fleshy face of Oratoria convincingly relates to the character of the younger Rothschild figure (Fig. 10) or that of Grammatica to the panthers. Oratoria especially characterizes Francesco’s distinction of producing sculptures with raised arms (Fig. 11) as observed in the bronze Baptizer and his marble statues of that same ascetic at the Bargello and Chrysler Museums. In particular, the tense musculature of Oratio’s chest is comparable with the older Rothschild nude (Fig. 12). Further commensurate is Francesco’s penchant for incorporating a hand, relaxed alongside the leg of the protagonist, which certainly borrows from the influence of Michelangelo’s marble David (Fig. 13).
There are other sculptural idiosyncrasies that connect Francesco with the Rothschild bronzes. One is the avantgarde contrapposto realized in Francesco’s standing figures. They go against the grain of tradition and offer a type of imbalance that relates also to the awkward manner in which the Rothschild figures mount their panthers. This conspicuous quality is most apparent in comparison with Francesco’s marble Baptist at the Chrysler Museum (Fig. 14).
Another peculiarity is the unusual manner of rendering ears. In most of Francesco’s sculpture he avoids rendering ears by covering them with hair. However, their narrow and vertically elongated character inspired some of the initial suggestions that the Rothschild bronzes may represent bacchants. A close analogy of the ears with the Rothschild nudes can be observed against his marble Baptist at the Bargello (Fig. 15). Also noteworthy are the related tufts of hair which continue down the cheek.
An additional distinctive feature of Francesco’s work is the exaggeration of the sternocleidomastoid muscles in the neck which are shown protruding to form of an inverted triangle terminating at the sternum. This feature also appears on the Rothschild figures though is less apparent due to the radius of their turned heads.
We may also call attention to the triangle of auscultation, visible only by dissection, which appears included on the backs of the Rothschild figures, as noted by Julia Ruston and Peter Abrahams.31 This same feature also appears on the exposed back of the Oratoria statuette (Fig. 16).
Lastly, the facial character of the younger Rothschild figure can be superficially compared with that of Francesco’s low-relief carved figure rendered on the cope of Paolo Giovio for his monument effigy (Fig. 17).
Like Michelangelo, Francesco enjoyed a favorable patronage under Medici influence, engaged in projects commissioned by the family and their associates. While overlooked by modern art historical discourse, his work was so esteemed in contemporary times that the poet and co-founder of the Accademia Fiorentina praised him as the new Praxiteles or Lysippus, the most important sculptors of ancient Greece.32
The avantgarde subject of the Rothschild bronzes, though certainly inspired by antique sculpture, further suggests an affinity with Francesco, not only for his rich exposure to the classical world but also by way of his production of eccentric subjects like the bronzes of Oratoria and Grammatica, his marble busts of the Fates or the probable marble bust of Invidia that William Wallace convincingly attributes to him.33 These eccentric subjects further suggest a reasonable proximity between the Rothschild bronzes and Francesco’s choice production.
While Francesco’s bronze medals date to the later part of his career, it is more likely his bronze statuettes, like his sculptures in wood, are concentrated during his early activity before giving almost total attention to the mastery of marble, much in the footsteps and influence of Michelangelo.
While Francesco’s bronze Baptizer was created between 1535-38 and his statuette of Flora has been attributed to the 1530s,34 it remains possible he could have worked in bronze during the mid-to-late 1520s and perhaps, in certain cases, under guidance of Michelangelo through the sharing of models and sketches. It is known already Michelangelo freely shared sketches with Francesco’s father, Giuliano, and Francesco would have had tertiary access to such works. His previously noted service as an assistant to Michelangelo between 1524-25 is also tantamount to this idea. If not representing a Bacchic putto riding a panther from a classical sarcophagus or some other antique source, the drawing brought to attention by Joannides (Fig. 18) may reflect Michelangelo’s provision of designs for such a project or simply a sketch of his assistant’s independent project in-progress. In addition to Francesco’s service to Michelangelo, he was simultaneously working on his Virgin and Child with St. Anne for Orsanmichele, originally contracted in 1522,35 and thus could have engaged in additional projects during the period in which he worked alongside Michelangelo.
Francesco’s overarching service to the Medici and their associates could account for the probability the panthers are an all’antica representation of lionesque beasts honoring Florentine power. However, as noted by Timothy Clifford, Wallace, et al, the panthers are subordinate to the heroic figures they support.
It is worth recalling again Francesco’s Virgin, Child and St. Anne and the long tradition in Florence of celebrating St. Anne’s Feast Day on July 26 in that city. On that same day, in the year 1343, the tyrannical Duke of Athens was expelled from Florence. In this respect, the feature of St. Anne was not just religious but also a politically charged symbol that edified the virtue of good government and the expulsion of corrupt leadership. The removal of the Duke of Athens may also recall the Tyrannicides who slew the tyrant of Athens, Hipparchus, in 514 BC. Francesco’s connection to Orsanmichele, where processional celebrations for the Feast Day of St. Anne would have ended (beginning at the Palazzo Vecchio), may suggest an added credence to Meg Galindo and Wallace’s suggestion that the Rothschild figures represent the Tyrannicides: Harmodius and Aristogeiton.36
If Francesco is the author of the Rothschild bronzes he is likely to have realized them during the late 1520s or during the 1530s. The amount of lead in the Rothschild bronzes, if made in Florence, suggests a date prior to the 1540s when metallurgic refinement processes had improved.37 Francesco’s autograph bronze Baptizer, profound in its sculptural quality and expressiveness, is yet cast in an unsophisticated manner using the direct casting process, suggesting it was made in a foundry probably responsible for bells and mortars.38 Of like comparison are the Rothschild bronzes whose technical analysis concluded they were probably cast in the modest foundry of a bell-maker. In similar manner, Arie Pappot and Robert van Langh comment that while “the original models were clearly made by a brilliant sculptor…the bronze casts of them are comparatively unsophisticated.”39 It would seem unlikely that Michelangelo would haphazardly source his work to a bell foundry, while this practice was evidently an option Francesco or his patron chose for casting at least one known example of his work.
Finally, in discussing the marble busts of the Fates Wallace attributed to Francesco, he notes the unique position Francesco maintained in early 16th century Florence, observing the busts as “products of an increasingly sophisticated comprehension of ancient art, carved in a style that one should well expect from a sculptor who was ‘weaned’ on the Laocoön, nourished on the antiquities of Rome, and matured under the aegis of Michelangelo.”40 This assessment may likewise be applied to the Rothschild bronzes, and if by Francesco, would be an important, informative and rare addition to his oeuvre.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Riddick is an amateur art historian, collector and dealer. His interest in Renaissance sculpture began in 2013 when acquiring his first Renaissance bronze plaquette. He remains an avid researcher on the subject, publishing his theories and discoveries online at: http://www.renbronze.com
1. Dimitrios Zikos (2018): Noble Minds. Adolphe and Julie de Rothschild: the first owners of the Rothschild bronzes and their collection. Michelangelo: Sculptor in Bronze. London, pp. 252-61.
2. Victoria Avery and Paul Joannides (2015): A Michelangelo Discovery. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Oxford, UK, pp. 14-15.
3. Eugène Piot (1879): La sculpture au Tracadéro in Gonse, pp. 130-88.
4. Wilhelm von Bode (1907): Die Italienischen Bronzestatuetten der Renaissance, 3 Vols., Berlin, pp. 82-83, pl. CCLVIII.
5. Leo Planiscig (1921): Venezianische Bildhauer der Renaissance. Vienna, p. 593.
6. Hans Weihrauch (1967): Europäische Bronze-Stauetten 15.-18. Jahrhundert. Brunswick, p. 159, fig. 192.
7. Wilhelm von Bode (James David Draper, ed.) (1980): Die Italienischen Bronzestatuetten der Renaissance / The Italian Bronze Statuettes of the Renaissance. NY, p. 110.
8. Sotheby’s European Sculpture and Works of Art 900-1900, London, 9 July 2002, lot 109, pp. 98-103.
9. Frits Scholten (2003): 1 Bachus form, Antik, mit 1 form van der Tiger van Tettero. Amsterdam and NY, pp. 16-17, 32.
10. David Ekserdjian (2012): Bacchants Riding on Panthers. London, p. 270, no. 101.
11. Paul Joannides (2018): The Catalyst: A brief narrative in the first person. Michelangelo Sculptor in Bronze. London, pp. 271-74.
12. It is worth noting that the Francesco da Sangalla we discuss here is distinct from another artist of the same name: Francesco Baccelli da Sangalla who was active in the Marches (Loreto) during the same period. The two are often confused for the same artist. This matter was recently resolved by Alessandra Giannotti. See Alessandra Giannotti (2016): Franceso da Sangallo: Un nome per due scultori. Paragone, Anno LXVII – Numero 126 (793) Marzo 2016. Mandragora, Firenze.
13. Leonard Barkan (1999): Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture. Yale University Press. The letter is first published in Carlo Fea (1790): Miscellanea filologica critica e antiquaria, Rome, p. 329.
14. The prestigious and informed collection of Giuliano and Francesco’s antiquities and inventory will be discussed next month in a seminar by Alexander Röstel (2020): At Home with the Artist in Renaissance Florence. The Inventory of the House of Giuliano and Francesco da Sangallo at the at the Courtauld Institute.
15. Francesco’s employ by Michelangelo likely came about through the help of Giovanni Fattucci who wrote to Michelangelo about Francesco’s interest in working for him. Francesco subsequently appears on the list of Michelangelo’s assistants in the Medici Chapel on 20 August 1524. See Paola Barrochi (ed.) (1973): Il carteggio di Michelangelo, III, p. 66.
16. Faya Causey (2018): What a Ride! Brilliant balance and the beasts of the Rothschild bronzes. Michelangelo: Sculptor in Bronze. London, pp. 200-19.
17. The busts of the Fates were successfully identified and attributed to Francesco in William Wallace (1986): Marble Busts Attributed to Francesco da Sangallo. Apollo Magazine, April, No. 290, pp. 237-41.
18. Lucilla Bardeschi Ciulich and Paola Barocchi (eds.) (1970): I Ricordi di Michelangelo. Florence, p. 212. (the correspondence, records and memoranda of Michelangelo).
19. Giorgio Vasri and Raffaello Borghini publish their praise of the works. See respectively Giorgio Vasari (1568) (Gaetano Milansi, ed.): Le vite de’ piú eccellenti pittori, scultori ed architetttori, 9 vols., VII, p. 624 and Raffaello Borghini (1584): Il Riposo, Florence, p. 541.
20. P. Joannides (2018): op. cit. (note 11).
21. Victoria Avery (2018): Brazen Defiance. Young Michelangelo, bronze and the David for France. Michelangelo: Sculptor in Bronze. London, pp. 22-47.
22. “figure di bronzo o di marmo antiche o moderne…” See Alan Phipps Darr and Rona Roisman (1987): Francesco da Sangallo: A Rediscovered Early Donatelleque ‘Magdalen’ and Two Wills from 1574 and 1576. The Burlington Magazine, vol. 129, no. 1017, pp. 784-93.
23. Frick Museum, Inv. 1916.2.41. Documentation for this project was published by Piero Morselli (1982): Florentine Sixteenth-Century Artists in Prato: New Documents for Baccio da Montelupo and Francesco da Sangallo. Art Bulletin, Vol. LXIV, pp. 52-59.
24. For an example see Inv. 7557-1861 (Victoria & Albert Museum), discussed by Stephen Scher (2007): The Currency of fame: portrait medals of the Renaissance, New York.
25. For an example see Inv. 50.58.12 (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
26. For an example see Inv. 1957.14.1320 (National Gallery of Art), discussed by John Graham Pollard (2007): Renaissance Medals. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. 2 vols., vol. 1, no. 358.
27. For an example see Inv. 50.58.11 (Metropolitan Museum of Art).
28. Claudio Pizzorusso (2005): Vetera et Nova, catalog a cura di M. Vezzosi, Florence, pp. 70-77, cat no. 4.
29. Tomasso Brothers Fine Art (2016): Important European Bronzes. Tomasso Brothers Fine Art, London, pp. 92-97, no. 15.
30. Emanuela Tarizzo, Elliot Davies, Alexandra Popa (eds.) (2018): Tomasso XXV: A Celebration of Notable Sales, p. 58, no. 25.
31. Julia Ruston and Peter Abrahams (2018): An Anatomical “Whodunnit.” Dissecting the Rothschild bronzes. Michelangelo: Sculptor in Bronze. London, pp. 148-159.
32. Detlef Heikamp (1957): Rapporti tra accademici ed artisti nella Firenze del ‘500. Il Vasari, XV, pp. 139-163.
33. W. Wallace (1986): op. cit. (note 17), reproduced, fig. 9.
34. Francesco Ortenzi (2006): Per il Giovane Francesco da Sangallo. Nuovi Studi – Rivista di arte antica e moderna, no. 12, pp. 71-84.
35. Francesco received the commission for the statue on 12 February 1522. See A. Darr (1987): op. cit. (note 22).
36. William Wallace and Meg Galindo (2018): Tyrants and Lovers. Subject and meaning: the Rothschild bronezs. Michelangelo: Sculptor in Bronze. London, pp. 234-41.
37. Arie Pappot and Robert van Langh (2018): The Science of Art. Technical considerations of the Rothschild bronzes. Michelangelo: Sculptor in Bronze. London, pp. 160-73.
38. We might consider the analogous situation of Angelo de Rossi’s bronze statuettes for the holy water stoups in the Church of San Giorgio in Braida being cast by Joseph de Levis whom specialized in casting bells and mortars. See Charles Avery (2016): Joseph de Levis & Company. Renaissance Bronze-founders in Verona. London, nos. 40-41, pp. 132-33.
39 A. Pappot and R. van Langh (2018): op. cit. (note 37).
40. W. Wallace (1986): op. cit. (note 17).