Antico’s radiant bronze was freely adapted from a renowned ancient marble in Rome of an elegant, partially draped female nude identified by an inscription as “Venus Felix.” In the reduced design for his statuette, the sculptor altered the drapery to wrap around the goddess in the opposite direction and to dip more dramatically below her waist. He also removed the accompanying figure of Cupid and changed Venus’ hairstyle to more closely resemble that of the Apollo Belvedere.
Antico’s addition of a wreath of oak leaves to the Venus Felix may indicate that the Gonzaga commissioned this bronze to win favor with Giuliano della Rovere, Pope Julius II (papacy 1503–1513). “Rovere” means oak in Italian, and an oak tree is featured on the Della Rovere arms. Furthermore, Pope Julius II was responsible for placing the antique original in the Belvedere Court in 1509 and probably owned it before that time. The subject may have also had a special significance for the pope, whose illegitimate daughter Felice was married with great pomp in 1506.
To accentuate his elegant design, Antico included polychromatic effects emulating those of ancient bronzes. Gold highlights Venus’ hair and drapery, an effect achieved by fire-gilding. Her eyes are silvered, a characteristic of many of Antico’s bronzes. On the Venus Felix and a handful of Antico’s bronzes, the silver was applied over fire-gilding, a layered technique that improves the bond between silver and bronze. This silvering method has not been widely observed in Renaissance sculpture and provides further evidence of Antico’s special expertise.
X-ray fluorescence analysis reveals that Venus Felix and most of Antico’s sculptures are made of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. From Roman authors such as Pliny the Elder (AD 23–79), Antico was aware that antique sculptures were cast from this type of metal, and his choice (and that of his patrons) is probably based on the historical associations of bronze as much as on its physical properties.
References: Hermann 1909/1910, 247–251; Leithe-Jasper 1986, 72–75, cat. 8; Allison 1993/1994, 223–227, cat. 29A; Trevisani and Gasparotto 2008, 214–215, cat. V.9 (entry by Claudia Kryza-Gersch)
Venus Felix, c. AD 180–200
Museo Pio-Clementino, Musei Vaticani, Vatican City
Apollo Belvedere (detail)
model created and cast c. 1490–1496
bronze with gilding and silvering
Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main
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
X-ray fluorescence spectrometry
A nondestructive technique used to analyze the metallic alloy, gilding and silvering, and the patina of a bronze sculpture. An X-ray beam is directed at a small area, causing the chemical elements present to react in a characteristic manner that can be precisely measured.
bronze, Galleria Estense, Modena