France, Private Collection.
Verrocchio’s Lost Bronze Profile Reliefs
Andrea del Verrocchio made “two bronze heads (teste di metallo), one of Alexander the Great in profile, and the other an invention of his own representing Darius. Both were in low relief (mezzo relieve) and differed from the other in crests, armor, and decoration. These heads were sent by Lorenzo de Medici, the Magnificent, to King Mathias Corvin in Hungary along with many other beautiful things.” The imaginary profiles of great generals from Antiquity were probably intended for Buda Castle which Mathias I, grand amateur of art and literature, was in the process of rebuilding in the purest Renaissance style with the best Florentine and Neopolitan artists. Known as “the pearl of the Danube,” the royal Castle of Buda was taken and destroyed by the Ottoman army in 1526, but the trace of Verrocchio’s oeuvres had already been lost long before this disaster.
Not until the 19th century and the 1847 acquisition in Italy, by the sculptor and art critic Eugene Piot, of an antique marble depicting Scipio the African did the question of the two reliefs by Leonardo’s master resurface. (Louvre Museum, inv. RF 1347) The youth in strong profile, clothed in antique style armor with long leather straps, spaulders (shoulder protection) in the form of dragon scales, a winged menacing harpy on the gorget, a helmet decorated with shell and laurel motifs crowned by a dragon, was neither Alexander the Great nor Darius. Nonetheless, Verrocchio’s name was rapidly evoked. It was recognized that the drawing of the head was a bit too cold and too much an imitation of Antiquity without the refinement which made Verrocchio’s works attractive. However Eugene Piot’s marble undoubtedly had been inspired by the Hungarian king’s lost Alexander, the name associated with a very similar terracotta by Andrea della Robbia in Vienna (Kunsthistorischesmuseum, inv. KK 7491).
Leonardo’s silverpoint drawing of an old man with a very severe expression seen in left profile and known as the Condottière was soon mentioned as a memento or copy of the lost portrait of Darius (London, British Museum). In 1921, Eric Maclagan made the comparison with a terracotta by Della Robbia which was very similar to the Leonardo (formerly in Berlin, Kaiser Friedrich Museum, lost). Next, a superb marble definitely by the hand of Verrocchio was discovered which was quite different from the others. The relief was much deeper, the lines more graceful, and the bust turned in a three-quarter view (Washington, National Gallery of Art, inv. 1956.2.1). In the end, the veracity of Vasari’s comments was even called into question and it was supposed that Lorenzo the Magnificent had given Mathias two marbles and not bronzes. Finally, the name of Francesco di Simone Ferrucci (1437-1493) was suggested as the possible sculptor of Eugene Piot’s Bust of Scipio which entered the Louvre’s collections in 1903.
In the late 19th century, this marble which the collector willingly showed to scholars and artists was still being discussed in terms of Verrocchio and Leonardo. Thus, this Renaissance Scipio inspired a Parisian sculptor to create a bronze bust which may be of Perseus or Alexander the Great. Even so, he produced neither a servile copy nor a replica which more or less resembled the original. Instead, he did a very personal reinterpretation which was full of meaning entirely in keeping with the taste of the Symbolists. Unfortunately, our bronze has neither signature nor stamp nor founder’s mark which would help in the attribution. Moreover, the inset attached to the lower crossbar of the frame disappeared without our knowing what it said. Even so, a much less finished replica in polished bronze was sold in London in 2003 which had an inscription on the base, “E. TASSEL edr.[editeur]” (ill. 6) This was in fact the signature of Etienne (?) Tassel, a Parisian founder who worked for Emile Peynot, Friedrich Beer, and especially César Ceribelli, an Italian sculptor born in Rome and established in Paris.
A student of Rodolini and Chelli at the Academy of France in Rome, Ceribelli was naturalized as French in 1866. A member of the Society of French Artists, he exhibited in the Salons until 1907. From the beginning of his participation, Ceribelli specialized in historical allegories of marble busts of imaginary characters from the past which were often then reproduced in bronze. His most famous oeuvre was Bianca Capello, 1881, of which the original marble and several bronze casts exist (Beauvais, Musée Départemental de l’Oise, inv. 002.6.2). The young woman with a very idealized face is clothed in an improbable dress swarming with details which have nothing to do with Italian Renaissance fashions. She wears a strange lace bonnet topped with a panther. Similar elaborate far-fetched costumes appear in the Bust of Dea Victrix (Minerve), Woman with a Hat, and, to a lesser degree, Young Woman .
This same detached type of invention without any attention to historical resemblance can be found in our bust, which is at once very close and quite distant from its Renaissance prototype. Certainly, the dimensions are comparable to the Scipio, as are body placement, the smooth face, helmet with a shell design and raised vizier, scale spaulders, leather straps curling off the helmet and breastplate fasteners to rest at the base of the sculpture. However, in reality, each detail is different. The youth’s profile is less classic and more virile, with a slightly aquiline nose which bears some resemblance to that of Ceribelli’s Bianca Capello. His cheeks are more pronounced, as are the arches of his eyebrows and his hair which is not curly, but rather straight and fluffed out. His helmet, with its uneven, almost incoherent contours (thus the scroll curve over the temple and the oversized opening around the ear) is not topped by a dragon, but instead is scope for the wings of a monster and other details borrowed directly from Leonardo’s drawing. The gorget harpy is transformed into a bearded male figure, and his calmer expression emphasizes the determination of the youth, as do the open jaws and threatening poses of the three dragons which embellish the shoulder and the helmet vizier.
These dragons lead one to believe that the figure could be Perseus who fought one to free Andromeda. The painting by Edward Burne-Jones comes to mind for example, in which Perseus wears a helmet decorated with a scroll and armor with fish-scale style spaulders (Stuttgart, Staatsgalerie). The artist, however, may also have intended to depict Alexander the Great in order to resuscitate in some way Verrocchio’s overlooked bronze mentioned by Vasari.
The number of examples cast of the bust is unknown. Our version is the only one to have been so carefully finished, and especially the only one in which the profile and all of the contours have been reworked with chisels. It would seem, as often is the case, that the initial model was reused by the founder, first as it was, and then cut in such a way as to reduce the weight of the sculpture. Attempts have also been made to identify a pendant, but the figure of Perseus with Pegasus on the helmet and Medusa on the gorget which is only known through later casts, proves to be too awkward, too easily legible, and too effeminate to imagine that a version similar to our bronze may also have been similarly re-utilized.
If the identity of the subject continues to elude us, it is because Symbolism does not seek proof, but works through illusion, allusion and expression. Imagination is the key word; the heritage from Antiquity or the Renassance is only there to act as inspiration and not as the incarnation of perfection. Mythology with its heros and demi-gods such as Perseus, and ancient History in which reality and legends mingle, constituted an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the Symbolist artists particularly fecund in potential meanings and interpretations. Our bust establishes a dialogue with its ancient prototype, a creative answer to the questions posed by scholars about the Scipio in the Louvre.
• Private collection, polished bronze (Sale Christie’s, London, May 22, 2003, lot 147).
• Private Collection, chiseled bronze with patina (Sale Brunk Auctions, March 10, 2012, lot 148, H. 19-7/8 x 13-3/8 in.
• Emile Bertaux, "Le secret de Scipion : essai sur les effigies de profil dans la sculpture italienne de la renaissance",Mélanges offerts à M. Henry Lemonnier, Paris, Champion, 1913, pp. 71-92.
• Eric Maclagan, "A stucco after Verrocchio," Burlington Magazine, vol. XXXIX, 1921, pp. 131-137.
• Leo Planiscig, "Andrea del Verrocchios Alexander Relief," Jahrbuch der Kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien, VII, 1933, pp. 89-96.
• Francesco Caglioti, "Andrea del Verrocchio e i profile di condottieri antichi per Mattia Corvino," Péter Farbaky, Louis A. Waldman (dir.), Italy & Hungary. Humanism and Art in the Early Renaissance, Symposium Acts, Villa I Tatti, Florence, 2011, pp. 505-551.
• Daniel Pócs, "White marble sculptures from the Buda Castle: Reconsidering some facts about an antique statue and a fountain by Verrocchio," ibidem, pp. 553-608..