by Michael Riddick
A presumably unpublished photo from the early 20th century, kept in the civic archives of Milan,1 appears to showcase a rare pax depicting an Entombment scene by Galeazzo Mondella (called Moderno) (Fig. 01). The pax, formerly considered anonymous and of Milanese origin from the early 16th century, is kept at the Parish Church of San Giuliano in Bologna and has been uncited in the literature concerning the subject of plaquettes, paxes and Moderno’s oeuvre.
In modern art history, Moderno is best recognized as the most talented and prolific producer of bronze plaquettes. Following in the footsteps of his contemporaries, Antico (Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi) and Riccio (Andrea Briosco), Moderno appears to have embraced the reproductive faculty of small bronze reliefs and their ability to satisfy the collecting tastes of both middle- and upper-class patrons. However, his contemporaries may have perceived him foremost as a goldsmith and gem-engraver, as Giorgio Vasari recalls in his account of Moderno’s skill in the latter,2 and documents attest to his two terms as president of Verona’s goldsmith guild.3 It is perhaps his unspoken business acumen, to multiply his works in stone and precious metal, that allow us to credit Moderno today as a master of bronze rather than the trades for which he was best known in contemporary times. Even today, Moderno’s works in carved stone and precious metal are scarce and remain overshadowed by the voluminous quantity of bronze casts reproducing his compositions, some of which were continually reproduced for centuries all throughout Europe.4 However, it has long been postulated that his bronze plaquettes probably reproduce finer originals in precious metal.
Only few examples of Moderno’s works in precious materials are known. Foremost is a dated pax at the Mantua Cathedral which features Moderno’s Pietá or Christ supported by the Virgin and St. John (Fig. 02), to which the Entombment pax in San Giuliano is an evident relative. The date, 1513, is engraved at the top of the ivory backplate of Moderno’s Pietá pax in Mantua, providing a terminus ante quem for the invention of his relief and for the creation of the pax.5
Romolo Putelli first brought attention to a record in the Mantua Cathedral, from 1554, which described the pax as part of the silver items in the sacristy there.6 Luigi Bosio later suggested the pax may have been commissioned by Sigismondo Gonzaga who had been appointed as the cathedral’s perpetual administrator from 9 February 1511 onward.7 However, the original commission for the pax remains unknown.8 Paola Venturelli has more recently uncovered numerous other documents in the cathedral’s records which mention the pax. The earliest citation is a 1529 record of objects from the Santa Maria dei Votos, a small chapel or independent church within the cathedral itself, initiated by Ludovico Gonzaga in 1476 and completed in 1482.9 The chapel served as an important political and religious feature in the life of the Gonzaga court, in particular, for Francesco II Gonzaga.10
The partially gilt silver Pietá relief on the Mantua Cathedral pax is almost unanimously accepted as an original artwork by Moderno.11 In particular, an early bronze cast of the relief at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) reproduces an “M” stamped along the lower edge of the scene’s sarcophagus, presumably existing on what was probably a finer original from which that example was descendant (Fig. 03).12 The “M” monogram is employed elsewhere on several other plaquettes attributed to Moderno.13
Concerning Moderno’s Entombment relief, Douglas Lewis theorized it belonged to a series of reliefs dedicated to the cycle of Christ’s life, being a devotional counterpart to his series of reliefs dedicated to the Herculean labors. In this context, Lewis suggests the Entombment forms the third scene in a series of four reliefs altogether inclusive of an Adoration of the Magi, Presentation of Christ at the Temple, Entombment and Resurrection.14 It is unclear why Lewis omits a similarly sized Lamentation of Christ in a Landscape (Fig. 04) from this series other than that it would be redundant to the Entombment relief or perhaps because it appears to borrow from influences closer to the late 1480s rather than the early 1490s, to whose period of facture the aforenoted group of devotional reliefs are ascribed. The Lamentation is certainly less common than those belonging to Lewis’ prescribed series but its similar scale and quality-of-execution would tend to surmise a close proximity of invention.
Notably, silhouetted casts of the Lamentation are known and indicate the state of an original master-model, depicting only the protagonists of the scene and lacking a background (Fig. 05). The NGA example preserves also the small flange along its edges which would have been used to set the silhouetted relief securely against a ground, using the flanking pilasters of the pax-frame to stabilize and help secure the relief. The format suggests the model would have been used to produce casts in precious metal for incorporation on paxes15 as similarly observed in the precious metal examples featured on the Entombment and Pietá paxes.16 Rather than intended as a series of subsequent Passion scenes, these spiritually-minded reliefs could also have been originally intended for disparate pax commissions over a particular window-of-time, or, in some cases, commissioned in pairs, particularly for churches in which the congregation was divided between male and female patrons. In fact, the Pietá pax in Mantua Cathedral may have had a counterpart featuring a Marian scene, as inventories regularly cite another mother-of-pearl pax with a Madonna whose descriptions of its accoutrements follow rather closely, in some instances, exactly, with those used to describe the Pietá pax.17
That Moderno regularly practiced extrapolating central motifs from his compositions for variable uses, with or without backgrounds, is discussed elsewhere by the present author.18 In the case of the Entombment relief, a few bronze cast examples of the composition lack the feature of clouds, indicating how the model may have been developed “up” from what was originally a composition lacking a background or vice versa.19
Lewis cites a probable influence on Moderno’s Entombment: an exceptional partially gilt bronze plaque of the same subject by a gifted sculptor in the immediate circle of Andrea Mantegna, probably commissioned by a member of the Gonzaga court in Mantua (Fig. 06).20 The figure of Christ on this relief is transferred to Moderno’s composition with exception of the proper right arm and Christ’s head, tilted further back. The classicized tomb featuring a “Triumph over Death” is evidently the inspiration for Moderno’s feature of scenes along his tomb which John Pope-Hennessy identified as depicting stories from the Legend of the True Cross,21 two of which were subsequently recognized by Lewis as scenes of St. Helena overcoming the reticence of the Jewish witness and the proving of the True Cross.22
Lewis notes the unusual dependence upon a sculptural source by Moderno for his Entombment relief, as the vast majority of his compositions appear influenced instead by pictorial sources.23 Lewis did bring attention to a Deposition by Vincenzo Foppa, now lost, which he considered a possible revision of Moderno’s plaquette design, or contrarily, antecedent to it (Fig. 07).24 Its relationship to the plaquette may not exclude the possibility for a greater reliance on a graphic source for Moderno’s composition, particularly considering the influence Foppa had on Lombard art during Moderno’s time.
Foppa enjoyed a long period of patronage in the Sforza court of Milan and it is here that we find an undiscussed painting of the Entombment attributed to Bartolomeo Suardi’s workshop (called Bramantino) (Fig. 08, left).25 The painting reproduces very similar figures of Christ and Mary in its composition when compared against Moderno’s Entombment (Fig. 08, right). Its eccentric style evinces the influence of Ferrara’s artistic milieu and one in which Moderno appears to have been intimately acquainted, to the degree to which Lewis suggests a likelihood of Moderno’s activity there.26 However, Bramantino was chiefly active in Milan, eventually serving as ducal painter and architect to Francesco II Sforza after 1525. While the painting very likely post-dates the invention of the plaquette, its probable invention in Milan may indicate the influence of Moderno’s Entombment composition in that city, dependent upon a typology first introduced by Foppa and later influencing designs in Bramantino’s workshop.
Although Moderno is not generally regarded as being active in Milan these correspondences show a possible awareness of the artistic culture there.27 For example, Lewis points out Moderno’s apparent mindfulness of Foppa’s St. Sebastian paintings in Milan which appear to have had a strong influence on his large plaquette composition of the same saint.28 That Moderno was recognized as a gem-engraver may also naturally link him to one of the chief Italian centers of that art, and further, his possible sojourn to France may theoretically have happened on account of Milan’s close ties to France through the Sforza court.29
As described, Moderno’s pax at Mantua Cathedral suggests an origin in Milan, or at minimum, a close connection to the city on account of the precious materials employed in its creation. Venturelli has also commented on the Lombard decorative language of the pax with its columns and capitals distinctly belonging to typologies used in the artistic environment of the Sforza court.30 While Moderno’s presence in Milan is not necessarily proven, his well-traveled nature and amalgam of regional influences make the idea a possibility and could account for his long hiatuses from Verona.31
The low-resolution black-and-white image of Moderno’s pax in Bologna (Fig. 01) does not allow for the detailed study necessary to determine its quality or confirm the materials used in its creation, but a cursory comparison with the Pietá pax in Mantua may allow for a potential sense of its appearance. A pictorial recreation of the pax, if made in similar materials, is presented here by the author (Fig. 09).32
The present form of the pax in Mantua is not indicative of its original state. Some pieces have been lost and others replaced (Fig. 02). The cross surmounting it is a later addition, as is the winged mount securing the top-most white coral bust of a putto. The feet of the pax are later embellishments, the handle to its reverse has been replaced33 and the red texture above the central arch, originally featuring red coral,34 is a 19th century composite replacement.35
Nonetheless, a truer-to-form example of the pax, inclusive of original parts, with exception of the uppermost cameo mount and red coral replacements, is shown here (Fig. 10). According to inventories the pax was beset with four pearls, possibly fixed to an original cross that once surmounted it. A 1702 inventory mentions damage to the pearls and to the mother-of-pearl, which might be a reference to damages occurring at the top of the pax since portions of the upper body made in mother-of-pearl are now missing.36 Another Italian pax, although of different origins and earlier, is found at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello and features a surmounting cross beset with four pearls, offering an example of a similarly conceived design concept.37
There are commensurate features that connect the Mantua and Bolognese paxes which suggest an authorship in the same workshop or by the same hand. These include the silhouetted feature of a central relief set against a plain ground beneath a similarly fluted arched niche, a lower base with a frieze depicting intricate pattern-work, beset by small hardstone tondos, alike columns topped by Corinthian capitals and a nielled squared backing that protrudes along the outer margins of the pax, in the former example featuring floral motifs and on the Bolognese pax, featuring a guilloche design.
Bosio suggested the architectural frame of the Mantua pax could have been inspired by the portal designed by Leon Battista Alberti for the façade of the Basilica di Sant’Andrea in Mantua while Venturelli noted its general relationship with Lombard configurations like those observed on the facades of the Colleoni chapel in Bergamo or the Certosa di Pavia. Alternatively, the present author suggests the frame’s conception could also have been inspired by designs from the architect and painter, Giovanni Maria Falconetto by way of Moderno’s documented friendship with his brother Gian Antonio Falconetto.38 The frame nonetheless speaks to the hybrid of regional influences to which Moderno is believed to have been privy.
The presumably enameled frieze along the entablature of the Entombment pax, if added contemporaneously, indicates the pax was made specifically for the church in which it still resides. A survey of records concerning the history of the church may indicate a possible context in which the pax could have been commissioned or donated.
Moderno may have made other paxes for patrons in Bologna such as versions of his Pietá known by bronze aftercasts which appear to preserve lost finer originals. Two variants are of particular interest. One is square, featuring a wide border whose original frame may have been nielled mother-of-pearl, beset with cameos or stones formerly adorning its corners (Fig. 11), and another similar example, though with a narrowed border that recalls the nielled mother-of-pearl decorative motif flanking the outer edges of the Mantua pax, surmounted by a pair of cornucopias topped by what may have originally been a small carved hardstone bust (Fig. 12). An unusually high concentration of bronze aftercasts of this latter version are found in parish churches throughout the Diocese of Bologna, possibly indicating the lost or unlocated original was made for a prominent Bolognese church or patron.
Moderno’s Entombment composition was one of his many successful designs enjoying continued reproduction into the 16th century. Jeremy Warren has called attention to its reception north of the Alps, in Germany, where it is reproduced on a 1540 bronze epitaph for Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg39 and copied in a wooden relief by Daniel Mauch, ca. 1520-29,40 and further on an additional sandstone relief by an unknown hand.41 The relief is also reproduced and modified on the central panel of a mid-16th century house altar formerly in the Rhò collection.42
1 Raccolte Grafiche e Fotografiche del Castello Sforzesco. Civico Archivio Fotografico, fondo Raccolta Iconografica, RI 6560.
2 Giorgio Vasari (1568): Le Vite dei più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architetti, Introduzione di Maurizio Marini, Roma 2003, p. 833.
3 Doug Lewis (1989): The Plaquettes of “Moderno” and His Followers. Studies in the History of Art. Italian Plaquettes, Vol. 22. National Gallery of Art, Washington DC., pp. 105-41.
4 Several of Moderno’s small reliefs were appropriated on a number of different paxes produced in Spain during the 16th through 18th century and his reliefs have also had an impact in France, where he is believed to have been briefly active. His work appears appropriated in other contexts like Germany and in other Northern territories. For a discussion on Moderno’s presence in France see Michael Riddick (2020): Glyptics, Italian Plaquettes in France and their Reproduction in Enamel. RenBronze.com.
5 Scholarship has largely judged Moderno’s Pietá relief as a late work in the artist’s career, perhaps on account of the dated pax and due to Lewis’ influential assignment of a later date for the relief. However, the dating of the pax in Mantua does not necessarily indicate the year of its invention, particularly when accounting for its multiple use on what must have been other early contemporary paxes (see Figs. 10, 11). Further, Emilé Molinier observed that Moderno’s Pietá appears to reconfigure elements from his earlier judged composition for a Lamentation relief (Fig. 04). The two reliefs are stylistically close in terms of management and modeling and it would seem doubtful to consider they were conceived twenty years apart. Further suggestive of a possible earlier dating for the Pietá is Venturelli’s observation that the sculptor, Stefano Lamberti, appears to have borrowed Moderno’s Pietá motif for the tondo that crowns the upper frieze of his frame carved for the Brescian Church of St. Francis of Assisi’s altarpiece, completed in 1502. Moderno’s Pietá is his most successful and prolific composition. The present author counts more than 300 examples reproduced over the centuries. Further, Bertrand Bergbauer has elaborated on many painted copies of the composition throughout the 16th century. Other of Moderno’s compositions were variably reproduced in further contexts throughout Lombardy and elsewhere during his lifetime. For Lewis’ assessment on the dating of Moderno’s Pietá see D. Lewis (1989): op. cit. (note 3). For Molinier’s observations concerning Moderno’s Pietá and Lamentation reliefs see Emilé Molinier (1886): Les Bronzes de la Renaissance: Les Plaquettes. 2 Vols. Paris, France; p. 23, No. 41, vol. I, no. 175, p. 132. For Venturelli’s comments on an earlier dating for Moderno’s Pietá see Paola Venturelli (2012): La ‘Pace del Moderno’ del Museo Diocesano Francesco Gonzaga di Mantova. OADI – Osservatorio per le Arti Decorative in Italia. DOI: 10.7431/RIV06042012. For Bergbauer’s assessment of painted copies see Bertrand Bergbauer (2010): Moderno et les peintres. Autour des derives anversois d’une plaquette italienne. Revue de l’Art, 167, pp. 31-40. For instances in which Moderno’s compositions were reproduced elsewhere during his lifetime see for example the Porta della Rana of the Cathedral of Como sculpted by the Rodari brothers before 1507, the façade of the Carthusian monastery in Pavia, the funerary chapel of Bartolomeo Colleoni in Bergamo and the door of Palazzo Stanga in Cremona.
6 A list at the cathedral, dated 28 March 1554, involved the transfer of silver objects to the cathedral’s sacristy, wherein the pax is described: “pace de radici di perle con una Pietá d’argento ligata in essa pace.” See Romolo Putelli (1934-35): Vita, storia, vol. II, p. 50.
7 Luigi Bosio (1974): Tesori d’arte nella terra dei Gonzaga, catalogo della mostra Mantova. Milano. no. 116, pp. 95-96.
8 Venturelli suggested the pax may have been conceived as part of a marriage gift, as was occasionally practiced, and reasonably suggests its commission was likely linked to the court of Isabella d’Este and Federico II Gonzaga. See P. Venturelli (2012): op. cit. (note 5).
9 This chapel is today identified as the sanctuary of the Beata Vergine Maria Incoronata. The pax was apparently moved from this chapel to the “robbe et vestamenti” of the sacristy of the cathedral by 1 October 1542. See P. Venturelli (2012): op. cit. (note 5).
10 Paola Venturelli (2013): Restituzioni 2013 Tesori d’Arte Restaurati. Intesa Sanpaolo, Turin, no.27, pp. 217-222.
11 For disputes concerning the identity of Moderno as an artist other than Galeazzo Mondella see various entries (Francesco Rossi, ed.) (2006): Placchette e rilievi di bronzo nell’età del Mantegna, Mantova e Milano. Skira; pp. 43-44, 50, 56-57; Gianfranco Ferlisi (2006): A Casa di Andrea Mantegna. Cultura artistica a Mantova nel Quattrocento, a cura di Rodolfo Signorini con la collaborazione di Daniela Sogliani, catalogo della mostra Mantova 2006, Cinisello Balsamo; and Davide Gasparotto (2008): Antico e Moderno. Bonacolsi l’antico, pp. 89-97. For the latest essay on Moderno’s Pietá relief see Jeremy Warren (2014): Medieval and Renaissance Sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum, Vol. 3: Plaquettes. Ashmolean Museum Publications, UK, no. 304, pp. 849-51 and Francesco Rossi (2011): La Collezione Mario Scaglia – Placchette, Vols. I-III. Lubrina Editore, Bergamo, no. V.39, pp. 239-40.
12 NGA Inv. 1996.41.1.
13 Several other appearances of Moderno’s monogram, not including works with his complete signature, include his small relief of a Senatorial Triumph with an “M” on a shield in the exergue (NGA, Inv. 1942.9.175.b), an “MF,” for M[odernvs] F[ecit], on a standard in his relief of Mars Enjoying Victory (NGA, Inv. 1957.14.309) and on a cartella in his large relief of St. Sebastian (NGA, Inv. 1957.14.300).
14 D. Lewis (1989): op. cit. (note 3).
15 Aftercasts of what were probably original paxes in precious materials are known to feature Moderno’s Lamentation relief, like one at the Bargello (Inv. 420 C) or two later aftercasts at the Accademia Carrara Museum in Bergamo.
16 Notably, another pax, dated 1521, at the Hermitage Museum features an additional example of the Pietá in silver and could be the product of Moderno and his workshop. See Marina Lopato (1976): Zapodnoevropeiskie Plaketki XV-XVII vekov v sobranii ermitazha. Katalog vystavki (Catalogue of Western European Plaquettes in the Hermitage), Leningrad, no. 17. Not noted in any literature is an impressive gilt silver example of Moderno’s Pietá, in the variant which adds a crucifix to the background. The relief is set within a Venetian-style pax with a rock crystal cabochon fixed within its architrave and bejeweled with additional red stones set along the corners of the central relief. While the pax could date to the last two decades of the 15th century it may also be from the first or second quarter of the 16th century. Its style is unlike what is typically observed in Moderno’s paxes preserved in bronze and could thus be a later work by an enterprising workshop. Nonetheless, it is worthy of further investigation. The pax features the arms of the Beccaria family of Padua and is located in the Vatican collections, Inv. MV 61866.
17 In the case of the earliest 1529 inventory, the original listing records a mother-of-pearl pax with the Madonna, then scratched out and replaced by a Pietá. Venturelli speculated if the Pietá may have replaced an earlier image of the Madonna, however, subsequent inventories, like those taken in 1537 and 1538, continue to alternatively mention a similarly described mother-of-pearl pax with a Madonna in addition to the Pietá, which Venturelli also inquires if there may have been two related paxes originally in the cathedral. See P. Venturelli (2012): op. cit. (note 5). It is to be wondered if this accompanying pax, presumably by Moderno, may have featured a Madonna composition by Moderno typically identified as a Holy Family with Saints. While a quantity of modern pastiches of this composition, usually in silver, lacking a handle, and featuring the Medici coat-of-arms along its predella are inauthentic, old bronze casts of the pax appear to preserve a finer original, like one at the Ashmolean Museum featuring the armorial of an unidentified donor (Inv. WA 1888.CDEF.B652) or other examples which feature various monograms (Fig. 13). That Moderno would have incorporated an armorial on a pax is proven by the inclusion of one that formerly adorned the architrave of the Mantua Cathedral Pietá pax, now missing, but whose feature is cited in the inventory of 1813. The size-and-scale of Moderno’s Holy Family composition may likewise pair it more favorably with his Pietá while the lead protagonists of Christ and Mary may alternatively have been respectively suited for male-and-female sides of the congregation. This idea provides a possible impetus for Moderno’s invention of the Pietá and Holy Family, as larger, easily recognizable, devotional subjects and again, in the case of the Pietá, recalling designs probably earlier conceived in his Lamentation relief.
18 Morton & Eden auction catalog, 28 November 2019, lot 333. The theory suggests Lewis’ notion of an “Augmented Roundels Master” may be dismissed in favor for a reinstated attribution to Moderno concerning reliefs by Moderno that were “augmented” with background compositions.
19 For examples of the Entombment without clouds see Ashmolean Museum (Inv. WA 1888.CDEF.B619); Museo Nazionale del Bargello (Inv. 419 C); and an example in the collection of Mario Scaglia (Inv. P530 or no. V.10 in Francesco Rossi’s 2011 catalog of Scaglia’s collection [see endnote 11]).
20 Kunsthistorisches Inv. KK 6059.
21 John Pope-Hennessy (1965): Renaissance Bronzes from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. Reliefs, plaquettes, statuettes, utensils and mortars. Phaidon Press, London; no. 150, p. 47.
22 D. Lewis (1989): op. cit. (note 3).
23 For a survey of Moderno’s use of pictorial references as inspiration for his compositions see D. Lewis (1989): op. cit. (note 3).
24 D. Lewis (1989): op. cit. (note 3).
25 For a discussion on the attribution of this painting see expertise written by Emilio Negro (2020): Deposition of Jesus in the Tomb. With thanks to Numero 7 Antiquariato in Pistoia, Italy.
26 D. Lewis (1989): op. cit. (note 3).
27 Davide Gasparotto, for example, argues for Moderno’s strong awareness of Lombard art and suggests the artist originated there. See D. Gasparotto (2008): op. cit. (note 11).
28 D. Lewis (1989): op. cit. (note 3).
29 For Moderno’s possible presence in France see M. Riddick (2020): op. cit. (note 4).
30 P. Venturelli (2012): op. cit. (note 5).
31 Lewis, for example, compares Moderno’s background to the engraver Nicoletto da Modena, some of whose prints, bear likeness with Moderno’s designs (for example, his print of St. Sebastian, ca. 1510-15, whose figure closely follows Moderno’s large plaquette of St. Sebastian and whose background corresponds with Moderno’s Flagellation relief). Like Moderno, Nicoletto was equally as traveled, cultured and witting of the various artistic modalities around Ferrara, Padua, Mantua, Bologna, and is likewise thought to have probably been active in Milan. See D. Lewis (1989): op. cit. (note 3).
32 The Entombment pax in Bologna, for example, could instead be entirely or predominantly made in silver rather than mother-of-pearl, as here suggested.
33 The original handle was made in gilt silver, probably featuring a double-volute, as described in an undated Mantua Cathedral inventory from the second-half of the 16th century. See P. Venturelli (2012): op. cit. (note 5).
34 Moderno’s use of coral on his Pietá pax may have been more than decorative but also intentionally symbolic. For a recent study on Moderno’s use and understanding of the symbolic power of coral see Douglas Lewis and Amy Struble (2018): A new redemptive symbolism in Moderno’s plaquettes. The Medal, no. 72, pp. 42-55.
35 For an analysis on the construction and materials used in the Mantua pax see Lucia Miazzo (2013): Il restauro della Pace del Moderno, 1513 (?). Mantova, Museo Diocesano, Restituzioni 2013.
36 P. Venturelli (2012): op. cit. (note 5).
37 Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Inv. 732 C. The pax, comprised of various parts and materials, dates to the 1480s-90s and is generally attributed to the goldsmith Paolo di Giovanni Sogliani.
38 D. Lewis (1989): op. cit. (note 3).
39 Kunstgewerbemuseum, Inv. K 4277.
40 Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Inv. 1865-768.
41 Warren notes the relief is described in a private collection in Berlin with a provenance from Bavaria. For the original citation see Philipp Maria Halm (1918): Zur Frührenaissance Süddeutschlands. Kalender bayerischer und schwäbischer Kunst, 14, pp. 7-9.
42 Edmund Wilhelm Braun (1908): Die Bronzen der Sammlung Guido von Rhò in Wien. Verlag von Anton Schroll & Col., fig. 15, pp. 30-31.