BEAUTIFUL BRONZES; There Was a Time When No Mantelpiece Was Complete without Small Sculptures in Imitation of Ancient Rome. Now We Have a Chance to Rediscover a Great but Forgotten Art; EXHIBITION OF THE WEEK

Article excerpt

Byline: Brian Sewell

RENAISSANCE AND BAROQUE BRONZES

Wallace Collection, W1

ACENTURY ago, from Moscow to Madrid and from Newcastle to Naples, the mantelpieces of middle-class Europe bore a great weight of bronze in the form of small-scale sculptures. Italian foundries published fat catalogues from which the buyer might choose a copy of the Medici Venus, the Vatican Antinous, or the erotica of Pompeii discreetly neutered in any size from six inches to six feet. French foundries offered the small bronzes of Rodin, Carpeaux, Barye and Bourdelle, and their German equivalents cast the work of Hussmann, Schmidt-Kestner and a thousand other minor sculptors now forgotten. We, in England, bought the languid nudes of Alfred Gilbert and Lord Leighton, and the mania for intimate bronzes spread to Australia, South Africa and the United States. Above the flames and embers in the grate, lions mauled antelopes, dishevelled riders explored the prairie and the veldt, gods and goddesses departed for the hunt, nude women bathed, nude boys drew swords from scabbards, and nude Nubians stood guard. The small bronze was, it seems, a genre of art in which the nude, male and female, could abandon modesty and its futile wisps of drapery and stand full frontal at eyelevel on the mantelpiece. The Great War of 1914-1918 put an end to this tradition.

An ancient Roman genre, it was revived in Italy in the 15th century, tentatively at first, and these early Renaissance bronzes are extremely rare; but as the demand for them grew, so did the capacity to supply them in ever more perfect form, not only as original works of sculpture, but as miniature replicas of the great masterpieces of antiquity as more and more of these were excavated. In January 1506 Michelangelo watched the retrieval of Laocoon and his sons overwhelmed by constricting serpents; within six years the leading Roman goldsmith, Christofaro Caradosso, proposed to make a miniature replica of it in gold for his patron Isabella d'Este -- he did not, but small bronzes of it followed soon after. With such replicas, exquisitely made, every pope and prince could possess, in small, every masterpiece of sculpture -- whether from antiquity or by Michelangelo and Bernini -- within the confines of his drawing room. And as the centuries wore on, the range was widened to embrace whatever was then contemporary art -- Lord Leighton's Sluggard of 1885, for example, two metres tall in the original, was for the mantelpiece immediately reduced to 50 centimetres.

With the First World War, however, not only did taste change but scholarship began to die. As the mantelpieces of the world surrendered to the knickknackery of Art Deco, so faded the old men in museums who had been the connoisseurs of the small bronze -- it was out of fashion and so too was everything they knew. And then came the war of 1939-1945; only heaven knows how many precious bronzes were destroyed in the fireballs of Germany, but it is certain that this peculiarly German field of erudition was wiped out and no one cared until the summer of 1961, when the Arts Council sprang on us an exhibition of Italian Bronze Statuettes at the Victoria and Albert (Arts Councillors now please note: your predecessors cared as much for the arts of the past as for the future, and what heady days they were). For two whole months, we gloated over 203 small bronzes from the Renaissance of Donatello and Ghiberti to the Baroque of Soldani and Foggini, well into the 18th century. It was astonishing and, though much of the cataloguing was in error, it was educative and worked a miracle, for not only did it spawn collectors and a specialist market to supply them, it also brought from obscurity the collections in London of Robert Strauss, Paul Wallraf and Baron Hatvany (all since dispersed) who had quietly ignored the falling-away in fashion.

Nothing establishes a market faster than a sudden rise in unpredicted prices; a Renaissance bronze bought for [pounds sterling]50 in 1960 could, in 1970, be sold for [pounds sterling]5,000, and in 1980, [pounds sterling]50,000. …