The massive physique and lion skin immediately identify these three bronzes as depicting the mythological hero Hercules, a subject that appears in several documents relating to Antico. A bronze “Hercules with a club” is recorded in the 1496 inventory of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga. In 1499, two letters from bishop-elect Ludovico Gonzaga requested a cast of the Hercules from Antico. The exquisite bronze from New York may be identified with one of these two early examples. In 1519, Antico wrote to Isabella d’Este offering to produce statuettes from various models he had cast previously for Ludovico. Although Hercules was not mentioned, the provenance history and technical characteristics of the Vienna statuette suggest it was made after that date.
Four casts of this subject are extant. These derive from a single original model by Antico, replicated in bronze using the technique of indirect lost-wax casting, which the artist introduced. Examination of the two statuettes in the exhibition reveals differences that may reflect changes in the aesthetic of Antico and his patrons over time. On the New York Hercules, the lion’s fur is depicted as fine swirls that emphasize the figure’s musculature. Fire-gilding, which also enhances the hair and beard, heightens this effect. The decoration of the Hercules from Vienna is more restrained, without the indication of fur or the addition of gilding and only the subtle accent of silvered eyes, which is also present on the New York bronze. A separately cast club originally accompanied both bronzes but is now preserved only with the Vienna cast.
Although ancient small bronzes have long been recognized as a general inspiration for Antico’s statuettes, no work of this kind has been identified as a specific source until now. Recent examination by art historians, conservators, and scientists at the National Gallery of Art and the Musée du Louvre suggests that the Paris Hercules is an antiquity, rather than a lesser Renaissance variant of Antico’s work. The condition of the ancient Hercules indicates it was discovered in pieces with damage from burial and was extensively restored. The strong resemblance in its refurbished state to Antico’s design supports the argument that the artist—a skilled restorer of antiquities—repaired the ancient bronze and used it as a source for his own statuette.
References: Hermann 1909/1910, 266–267, fig. 44; Allison 1993/1994, 151–158, 160–161, cats. 19A, 19B, 19D; Trevisani and Gasparotto 2008, 194–195, 128–239, cats. IV.4, VI.12 (entries by Caitlin Ford Henningsen and Claudia Kryza-Gersch).
Gianfrancesco Gonzaga (1446–1496)
was Antico’s first patron. A younger son of the Marchese of Mantua, Ludovico Gonzaga, he inherited lands to the west and south of Mantua on his father’s death in 1478 and set up a small but elegant court at Bozzolo. The 1496 inventory produced at Gianfrancesco’s death is a key documentary source for Antico’s life and art.
Gianfrancesco Gonzaga di Ròdigo, c. 1486-1490, bronze, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Widener Collection
Ludovico Gonzaga (1460–1511)
became Antico’s second patron after Ludovico’s brother Gianfrancesco died in 1496. Ludovico became bishop-elect of Mantua in 1484 but was never consecrated to that office. He lived instead in his territories outside Mantua, later moving to Antonia del Balzo’s castle at Gazzuolo. His correspondence provides much information on Antico’s work.
Letter of Ludovico Gonzaga (signature), 8 September 1503, Archivio di Stato, Mantua
Isabella d’Este (1474–1539)
became Antico’s principal patron after the death of her husband’s uncle, the bishop Ludovico Gonzaga, in 1511. The daughter of the Duke of Ferrara, Ercole d’Este, Isabella married the Marchese of Mantua, Francesco Gonzaga, in 1490. She became famous in her own time for her dynamic personality and cultural sophistication and was one of the few women to create a studiolo. Antico made bronzes that were preserved on cornices in her studiolo. After her husband’s death in 1519 Isabella became regent of Mantua for her son Federico Gonzaga.
Giancristoforo Romano, Isabella d’Este, after 1498, bronze, National Gallery of Art, Samuel H. Kress Collection
Indirect Lost-wax Casting
A casting method that produces multiple bronzes from a single model. A wax model was prepared in the form of the desired bronze figure (A). A plaster piece mold would be prepared around the model, then disassembled and the model removed (B). The mold was reassembled, tightly bound, and used to cast a wax copy in several parts. For solid parts, the mold was filled with hot wax (C). For hollow parts, the wax was swirled inside the mold and the excess poured out (D). The remaining wax shell was filled with a mixture of plaster and sand, forming a core, and the wax with its core was then removed from the mold (E). The wax parts were joined and finished, and fine iron wires were inserted to secure the core (F). Channels were added to the wax model to allow the molten bronze to be poured in and gases to escape (G). This assembly was then encased in a plaster mixture (H). The plaster mold was heated and dried. The wax was melted out, leaving a void in the shape of the model, and the plaster core suspended inside by the iron wires (I). Molten bronze was poured in, surrounding the core and filling every part of the mold (J). The channels and core pins were removed from the cast and the surface was cleaned, chased, and polished (K).
model created by 1496, cast possibly by 1496
bronze with gilding and silvering
The Frick Collection, New York, Gift of Miss Helen Clay Frick
A technique using gold combined with mercury to form a paste, or amalgam, that is selectively applied to the bronze surface. The entire object is heated to vaporize the mercury and deposit a thin layer of gold. The gold is carefully burnished to create a compact, highly reflective surface.
Seated Nymph (detail), probably 1503, bronze with gilding and silvering, Robert H. and Clarice Smith
A technique for applying a thin layer of silver to the surface of a bronze. Certain silvering techniques parallel those described for fire-gilding and oil-gilding. Silver can also be plated onto the surface of a bronze by using chemical solutions.
Venus Felix (detail), model possibly by 1496, cast c. 1510, bronze with gilding and silvering, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Kunstkammer