David Ekserdjian savours a study of bronze casting in Venice that has the potential to ignite scholarship in several disciplines
Sunday, 1st July 2012
Vulcan’s Forge in Venus’ City: The Story of Bronze in Venice 1350–1650
Oxford University Press/British Academy, £125 ISBN 9780197264966
This absolutely remarkable study is the fruit of a long-standing engagement with sculpture in Venice. Victoria Avery completed her doctoral thesis on ‘The Early Works of Alessandro Vittoria (c. 1540–c. 1570)’ at Cambridge in 1996, and has since published a number of important articles on Venetian sculpture, especially in bronze. The present magnum opus, however, reveals these to have been little more than the tip of the iceberg of her scholarship.
In a sense, what Avery offers is more a trilogy than a single book, comprising 169 pages of densely packed yet clearly argued double-column text followed by a magnificent anthology of 320 illustrations, and finally a further 127 pages given over to a collection of 319 documents, many of them hitherto unpublished and all of them, where possible, retranscribed from the originals. All three sections have the potential to transform our understanding of the subject, not just because of the material and interpretations, but also, equally importantly, because of the ways in which they are bound to inspire future scholarship. In her note prefacing the Corpus of Documents, Avery modestly expresses the hope that ‘such an assemblage may prove useful for economic, social, cultural, and military historians, as well as art historians and musicologists (especially campanologists)’, and there can be no doubt that all of the above will be in her debt.
The fact that the title of this book mentions ‘bronze’ but omits ‘sculpture’ is highly significant, since no serious consideration of bronze as a material can ignore its uses beyond the conventionally acknowledged realm of the decorative arts. A bronze cannon or bell may well possess aesthetic appeal in itself, but the more important point is that – especially in Venice – the founders in charge of its manufacture were often also responsible for the production side of bronze sculptures.
The titles of the 10 chapters of text (‘The Significance of Bronze’; ‘State Control of the Bronze Industry’; ‘The State Bronze Foundries’; ‘The Independent Bronze Foundries’; ‘The Employment of State Gun-Founders’; ‘The Employment of Independent Founders’; ‘Bells’; ‘Large Functional Bronzes’; ‘Large Bronze Sculpture’; ‘Small Bronze Sculpture’ and ‘Artefacts’) make it apparent how fully and even-handedly both the practical and aesthetic aspects of bronze are explored. Different readers will find some sections more gripping than others; nevertheless it would be a grave error to skip any of them, for what emerges from the book as a whole is a sense of the interconnectedness of the worlds it explores.
That said, we are all entitled to pick our favourites. One of mine is the introductory chapter, an exemplary and far from merely synoptic presentation both of the general historical significance of bronze in ancient and Christian societies and of its particular importance for Venice, which stretches back beyond the ostensible start date of this volume. As a result of the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, the Venetians were in a position to seize various treasures from the capital of eastern Christendom, among the most extraordinary of them being the bronze lion that still tops a column in the Piazzetta di San Marco and the four gilt-bronze horses now kept within the nearby basilica. It is tempting to think that the presence of these stupendous antiquities must have been a double-edged sword – part inspiration, part intimidation – for subsequent sculptors. Arguably only the Florentine incomer Andrea del Verrocchio (c. 1435–88), with his equestrian statue of the condottiere Bartolomeo Colleoni in the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, fully met the challenge (Fig. 2). Verrocchio died before the massive task was completed, but as Avery compellingly argues, that is probably not the sole reason for the finished product only being signed by Alessandro Leopardi, who was responsible for its casting. Included are magnificent close-up photographs of this colossal work during restoration, one of which shows the rider in the process of being reunited with his mount.
The Colleoni statue is pretty unmissable, but in Venice most outdoor sculptures in bronze tend to be either overlooked or under- loved, both because of where they happen to be and because of what surrounds them. The Due Mori on top of the Torre dell’Orologio, like the lion of San Marco, are dots against the skyline, while the three flagstaff bases in the Piazza di San Marco itself (Fig. 3) – not to mention the four gods by Jacopo Sansovino (1486–1570; Fig. 1) for the Loggetta at the foot of the Campanile – are almost always surrounded by hordes of tourists. Conversely, the two monumental well-heads in the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace, which receive exemplary consider-ation in Chapter VIII, are routinely shunned.
Turning to their indoor counterparts, the situation is not much better. The Zen Chapel in San Marco is not open to the public, while such grandiose masterpieces as Andrea Bresciano’s candelabrum at Santa Maria della Salute are often too remote for detailed scrutiny and plunged in darkness. Even with binoculars and torches – essential adjuncts for all serious visitors – the experience can prove frustrating.
It does not seem appropriate, however, to end on a complaining note. On the contrary, the most powerful urge I felt when reading this mighty tome was to find some excuse to hurry back to Venice as soon as possible, in order not only to see old friends in a fresh light, but to seek out a whole host of new ones.
David Ekserdjian is Professor of History of Art and Film at the University of Leicester.
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