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Cast of gods and beasts

30 November 2012

Nicholas Cranfield visits 'Bronze' at the Royal Academy. 


On loan from Copenhagen: The Chariot of the Sun (Trundholm, Zealand, early Bronze Age, 14th century BC)

On loan from Copenhagen: The Chariot of the Sun (Trundholm, Zealand, early Bronze Age, 14th century BC)

THE advance publicity for the Royal Academy's autumn sculpture exhibition had vexed me. Hard on the heels of the Olympics, here was a show that seemed to be aiming only at third place. But much of the exhibition is pure gold.

Professor David Ekserdjian and the Royal Academy have brought together an extraordinarily diverse and rich collection of some of the world's finest bronzes, ranging from around 3700 BC to the present day. My only two reservations are about the inclusion of contemporary work that seems intrusively just to be about ticking boxes; and about the omission of the Cretan bronzes that arguably are so central to understanding how our civilisation evolved across the Mediterranean.

Galleries are arranged thematically, with rooms of figures - some famous, others unknown - animals, religious objects, and a penultimate room of the gods. There is a useful room given over to teaching us how bronze casting is done, with several documentary films of bare-footed Indian and other bronze-smiths sinking moulds into mounds of earth and then cracking the terracotta case before polishing the result-ing figures or utensils. The process harnesses all four elements, and remains difficult and dangerous today.

Little wonder that the great statue of Perseus that Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571) provided for the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence all but defied casting: it stands more than 3.2 metres tall; and we know that Cellini had to throw in dishes and plates to make up the volume. A striking copy was cast in Florence for the 2nd Duke of Sutherland in 1844, a few years before Berlioz's eponymous opera (1838) reached London.

Lorenzo Ghiberti's statue of St Stephen, one of three commissioned by the Wool Guild for the niches of the church of Orsanmichele in Florence in 1425, is in fact cast in brass and not in bronze, which may have helped the casting process. Both it and the three figures (below, right) made for the Merchants' Guild by Giovan Francesco Rustici (1506-11) for the north porch of the Baptistery in Florence show how Christian figures still dominated the emerging Renaissance mercantile and capitalist world.

Ghiberti is, of course, best-known for the two great bronze gates on the Baptistery in Florence. By way of more than compensating for their absence, there is the tomb slab of Fra Leonardo Dati (c.1360-1425). Dati, the General of the Dominicans, was buried in the Church of Santa Maria Novella; visitors there have long trampled the low relief under foot.

Other tomb sculptures include six of the two dozen "Weepers" cast in 1475/76 for the tomb of Isabella of Bourbon, who died ten years earlier (St Michael's, Antwerp). Only ten figures escaped the iconoclasm of 1566, silent witnesses to death and the outrages of inhumane and irrational violence.

Tomb sculptures and votive offerings have provided a wealth of wondrous pieces, including the national treasure of Denmark, The Trundholm Sun Chariot (above, right), a lost-wax cast of a wheeled horse pulling the sphere across the heavens. This was recovered, with no other surrounding objects, from a peat bog in West Zealand at the start of the 20th century, and has never been satisfactorily explained.

Carl Nielsen's Helios overture was composed after he had spent a year in Athens with his wife, who was a sculptress. It was first performed in October 1903, and is always said to derive its inspiration from seeing the sun over the Aegean. As Nielsen was fascinated by archaeology, I rather think he celebrates the chariot, too.

It is thought to date from 1400 BC, and the sun, which is nearly ten inches in diameter, is inlaid with gold leaf. The reverse side is bare bronze. One needs to remember that this dates from much the same period as the close of the Minoan domination of the Aegean to appreciate fully the quality of the work. Some scholars seek to date it earlier (1800-1600 BC), which would raise questions about when wheeled transport first became possible. Each wheel has four spokes.

When Tate Modern opened in the Millennium year, Cool Britannia invited Louise Bourgeois to straddle the Turbine Hall with one of her spiders. Another (Spider IV) crawls down a wall in a room given over to animals. It was cast when the sculptress was more than 95 years old. Arachnophobes may not be encouraged to learn that she saw spiders as modest animals that protect us against all manner of evils.

Three figures by Giovan Francesco Rustici: the Pharisee, St Johnthe Baptist, and the Levite, from The Sermon of St John theBaptist, 1511, Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence. Theyhave been restored with the sponsorship of the Friends ofFlorence


Less terrifying, but a mark of humanity's respect for the natural order, is the life-size Medici Riccardi horse's head, a Hellenistic Greek work from the fourth century BC, which was already in the ducal collections of the Medici before Columbus sailed to America. The contemporaneous Etruscan Chimaera (also in Florence) that was discovered in Arezzo in November 1553, half a century after the finding in Rome of the group Laocoön and his Sons, is a powerful tribute to the imagination of the sculptor.

Realism and invention are the day-to-day matter for artists; but one can only stand in awe of such portrait heads as that of the Thracian King Seuthes III (c.331-300 BC) recently found in Bulgaria at Golyama Kosmatka (2004). This Odrysian ruler was at first a tributary of Alexander the Great, but he negotiated with Macedonia to gain a degree of independence for his capital (present-day Kazanluk).

If Seuthes is a belligerent and powerful figure, the head of a woman with corkscrew curls, the so-called "Tolomeo Apione", from Herculaneum (AD c.154-196), demonstrates just how clever the Romans were as copyists. The androgynous face remains a puzzle to archae- ologists and artists alike, but is an object of sheer beauty.

Equally beguiling is the early-11th-century Ottonian "Krodo" altar from Goslar in Germany. It is the only Romanesque bronze altar to have survived, although bronze sanctuary furnishings were something of a commonplace. Its sides are pierced (in a cruciform shape on the long sides), possibly to hold transparent semi-precious stones, such as agate, to allow it to be illuminated from within.

It comes from the Collegiate Church of St Simon and St Jude in Goslar, which once served as the Imperial chapel, and was once the largest Romanesque basilica east of the Rhine. The altar's survival - the chapel was sold for demolition in the 19th century - suggests that it had a later modified use as well. It is now oddly mounted on the back of four caryatid figures that each have a hole in the back of their heads, which may have served as the mounting for a very different structure (possibly a throne). As the altar itself (for which the original mensa is still in place) stands only 70cm high, it must have been mounted in some way, but the kneeling figures would have got in the way of even the most dexterous celebrant.

Cultic objects include the early votive offering depicting a Nuragic tribal chief from Sardinia, one of several. The imposing cloaked figure stands more than a foot and a half high, and holds a rugged staff with his left hand. With his right, he holds a broad sword over his shoulder. His sharp shins show that he is wearing greaves, and a dagger is strapped to his chest over a short tunic. Is he perhaps a sentinel in death?

The figure is reckoned to date from the early half of the first millennium BC (possibly 800-600). Next to it is a later Etruscan votive figurine from ancient Velathri, present-day Volterra. This stick-like figure, called Evening Shadow by Gabriele d'Annunzio, as it recalled the long shadows of poplar trees on late summer evenings, is now an emblem of the city. It greatly inspired the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), who also features in this exhibition.

The gallery given over to gods is global indeed, but this cannot excuse the claim made on the headphone commentary for the 1607 Seated Christ (Vaduz): "From a European point of view we may not think of Christ as a god"! Adriaen de Vries (1556-1626), in this commission for a leading courtier in Prague who came from Liechtenstein, modified the Low Countries tradition of Jesus awaiting crucifixion. There is no crown of thorns, although the overall composition is said to derive from Dürer's widely circulated sequence of prints The Large Passion.

But to return to the first gallery space: the crowning delight of this whole exhibition is surely the dancing satyr, brought up from the seabed off south-western Sicily on 4 March 1998, and now housed in a former church in Mazara del Vallo. Last shown at the Louvre, where it illustrated the inheritance of Praxiteles, this is one of the world's finest achievements.

"Bronze" is at the Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, London W1, until 9 December. Phone 020 7300 8000. www.royalacademy.org.uk


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