4 July 2023

This summer, among London Art Week's wide range of exhibitions is a small exhibition of museum standard celebrating one of the most important Florentine sculptors, Giambologna (1529-1608).

Born in Flanders, Jean de Boulogne, moved to Rome in 1550 and became the most significant Renaissance sculptor at the end of the Renaissance period. The exhibition The Alchemist's Laboratory reflects the unique atmosphere of Florence at this time in history by telling the story and the centuries-long legacy of its greatest Mannerist sculptor and his studio.

Giambologna, Striding Mars, c. 1580, bronze, height: 39.4 cm. Courtesy Stuart Lochhead Sculpture

Under the rule of the Medici family, Florence became one of the few European cities of art in the late sixteenth century. The city became an open-air workshop for painters, architects, goldsmiths, and sculptors. It was also a site for exchange and experimentation, where artists and artisans exchanged ideas with poets, theologians, and natural philosophers.

Giambologna, Striding Mars, c. 1580, bronze, height: 39.4 cm. Courtesy Stuart Lochhead Sculpture

In 1569, the Grand Duke of Florence Francesco I de' Medici (1541-1587) asked the court painter Giorgio Vasari to work on the decoration of his studiolo in the Palazzo Vecchio - the site of Florence's government and Medici power. Under Vasari's guidance and the supervision of the erudite priest Vincenzio Borghini, the city's most celebrated artists devised a complex cycle of paintings and sculptures, including a depiction of bronze founding. Francesco himself features in the painting by the Flemish artist Johannes Stradanus, one of Vasari's close associates, which represents The Alchemist's Laboratory.

While it did not seek to create the philosopher's stone, Giambologna's forge changed the state of metals, pouring together contemporary religious sentiment and pagan mythology, and infusing artistic life into inert matter. Sculptors from all over Europe took part in this transformative process, learning from his skills, continuing to cast his models for over two centuries and thus testifying to the longevity of his creative strength.

The artist's workshop in Borgo Pinti became a crucible for the study, production, and dissemination of his original designs across Europe. Statuettes produced in Florence were gifted by the Medici dukes to other princely families, from that of Henry, Prince of Wales, who received fifteen models by the artist in the hope that Cosimo's sister, Caterina, would marry him, to the collection of the Prince of Saxony, in Dresden, to whom Giambologna personally gifted a bronze version of the Striding Mars.

Stuart Lochhead Sculpture will present a selection of five bronze models by the master. The pieces include a rare model of the 'Striding Mars'  from the collection of the Princes von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, Germany and of 'Hercules and the Centaur' as well as the 'Birdcatcher', 'Cristo Morto' and 'Lion Attacking a Horse'. The works are sold as a group, which has been assembled over two decades by an important private American collector. As such, the exhibition affords the unique opportunity to secure at once a 'complete' collection that conveys the essence of a city that defined the course of European art history.

Each of the bronzes was designed by the master. And each was cast by a close collaborator or follower of the artist: from Fra Domenico Portigiani, who helped the sculptor cast his monumental Neptune for Bologna and the extremely rare Striding Mars we are presenting here, to Antonio Susini, his skilful heir, and the Baroque sculptor Giovan Battista Foggini, whose models testify to the long-standing influence of Giambologna well into the seventeenth and eighteenth century.

Giambologna, cast by A. Susini, Cristo Morto, 1590-1600, bronze, height: 31.5 cm. Courtesy Stuart Lochhead Sculpture

These objects are not just of outstanding art-historical importance; they are also, quite simply, beautiful. The range of the bronzes' surface textures, from the smooth finish of the skin of each figure to the waxy raggedness of their draperies, and changes to the colour of the patina, from deep brown to golden tones, speak to the mastery of bronze that was kept and passed on in one Florentine workshop for over 150 years.

Giambologna, cast by G.B. Foggini, Lion Attacking a Horse, c. 1700, bronze, height: 24.5 cm. Courtesy Stuart Lochhead Sculpture

In the words of Jeremy Warren, author of the catalogue of the exhibition, 'Giambologna's Mars is one of the sculptor's most dynamic and impressive exercises in the male nude. The Roman god of war is depicted as a powerfully muscled mature figure striding purposefully forward, his body twisted as he turns to look to his left; heavily bearded, with thick brows and deep-set eyes, his hair formed from vigorous, writhing curls that rise above his forehead to form a sort of pyramid. This striking model is described in early documents both as a figure of Mars but also as a gladiator in a list of the sculptors' models drawn up in 1611.

Giambologna liked the challenge of working within the ostensibly simple formula of a single male nude figure, of producing a range of effects and expressions. The torsion of the upper body and the swinging arms make the sculpture viewable from all angles, a quality that Giambologna sought after in so many of his figures. In addition, we find a powerful sense of movement, lithe muscularity, and a brooding intensity in the figure's scowling face. The overall effect creates Striding Mars as a dynamic image of power, with more than a hint of implacable menace.

It was Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici's (1519-1574) particular veneration for Mars that doubtless prompted the creation in sixteenth century Florence of a series of figures of the god striding naked into combat, a type commonly called the Mars Gradivus, the name for the god invoked by Roman soldiers about to go into battle. To judge from the number of casts made in subsequent years, this Mars was a successful model, although other than the 1611 list of bronzes in the collection of Markus Zäch in Augsburg, it is strangely absent from early lists of the sculptor's works. A group of high-quality casts was made around 1580, cast in the Florentine foundry of Fra Domenico Portigiani. These include the present bronze and two other examples of exceptional quality, one in the Quentin collection and a second, in a private collection.  Susini was responsible for the earliest documented cast of the Mars to be made in Giambologna's workshop, first recorded in the Dresden Kunstkammer in 1587, as a personal gift of the sculptor to Elector Christian I of Saxony. This example left the Dresden collections after the First World War and was re-acquired only in 2018.'

More info at: stuartlochhead.art.

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