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Members' Research Report Archive

Antique Portraits in the Dresden Sculpture Collection: Their Use and Reuse in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Frank Martin
, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften / Freie Universität Berlin
Scholar in Residence, September 1–November 9, 2012

The collection of antique sculpture now in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen in Dresden, among the most substantial of its genre in Germany, was probably the most important repository of antiquities north of the Alps when Augustus II (1670–1733), elector of Saxony and king of Poland from 1697, undertook to acquire it. The collection derives from two principal sources: the antiquities that formerly belonged to Flavio Chigi (1631–1693) and those that belonged to Frederick III (1657–1713), elector of Brandenburg and from 1701 king of Prussia.

The largest number of objects came from the estate of Chigi, nephew of Pope Alexander VII, who, upon settling in Rome at the beginning of the 1660s, began collecting antique statues for his palazzo opposite Santi Apostoli. Chigi’s collection gives a good insight into the Roman art market, from which he obtained most of his antiquities. Though primarily interested in statues, especially those resembling famous prototypes in other Roman collections, Chigi also purchased portraits. These were almost always composites, made of antique heads mounted on modern busts. Their hybrid nature in some cases contributed to the legibility of the head, providing evidence for its identity, and in others enhanced its decorative quality. The latter aspect seems to have been the more important to Chigi, whose antique portrait collection does not bespeak a program.    

During my residency at CASVA, I focused on ascertaining who, among the sculptors active in Chigi’s circle, could have been responsible for the production of the busts. This research turned out to be difficult, as only in a very few cases did the documents provide relevant detail; the description of most of the objects was too generic to distinguish them within the collection. A closer inspection of the busts themselves, however, especially from the back, in some cases revealed unmistakable common origins that will provide interesting material for future research in collections of the period.

The second group of antique busts in Dresden came from Berlin, where they had been collected by Elector Frederick III in the late seventeenth century, before they were given to Augustus II by Frederick William I of Prussia (1688–1740) sometime between 1723 and 1726. Frederick III had not only shown particular interest in busts but had also purchased the entire collection of Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1613–1696), consisting mainly of small bronze objects. The collection was prestigious because of Bellori’s fame as the author of Le vite de’ pittori, scultori e architetti moderni (1672) as well as of a number of internationally renowned publications on Roman antiquity. Parts of Bellori’s collection were published together with a number of busts in 1701 in the third volume of Lorenz Beger’s Thesaurus Brandenburgicus selectus (1701), giving the impression that all of this material could also have belonged to Bellori’s collection.

Doubts first arose with the recent publication of three lists that seem to be copies of Bellori’s earlier inventories but contain no reference to antique portraits. Moreover, the research I conducted on the Dresden busts at CASVA attested in two hitherto unknown cases to a provenance deriving from the collection of Andrea Vendramin (c. 1565–1629), sold after his death to the Reynst brothers and brought to Amsterdam. There parts of it were reproduced in prints, published in 1670 (Signorum veterum icones per D. Gerardum Reynst urbis Amstelaedami senatorem) shortly before the collection was liquidated by Gerard Reynst’s widow and sold to other collectors (among them Elector Frederick III). One illustration in Signorum veterum icones shows the portrait of a woman titled Octavia, also listed under the same name in the collection of Andrea Vendramin. It does not appear in Beger’s Thesaurus Brandenburgicus selectus, but the work is documented (without a title) in Raymond Leplat’s Recueil des marbres antiques qui se trouvent dans la galerie du roy de Pologne à Dresden. In Dresden, where my inquiries helped to retrieve the bust, it was thought to be baroque, probably because whatever antique components it contained were hardly recognizable. It cannot be baroque, however, because it must date from the period when the object was part of the Vendramin collection. Seen against this background, the style of the work in fact reveals characteristics of late sixteenth-century northern Italian sculpture. Closer inspection of the bust will provide interesting insights into the Vendramin collection, of which Octavia is among the few known remaining examples.

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