National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 24, 1974

Annual Index
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Click figure 9 here for an enlarged image

Massimiliano Soldani's
"Venus Plucking the Wings of Cupid"

by Jennifer Montagu

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We have seen that these models were in existence by 1729, yet there is no reason to assume that they must have been newly made when their owner exhibited them at the SS. Annunziata. On the other hand, it is highly probable that they were made after 1702, when Soldani sent a list of his available models to the Prince of Liechtenstein and did not include these subjects, though these mythological groups with their mildly erotic overtones were just such as might have been expected to appeal to the Prince. Placing them within this span is not easy, since Soldani's style changed little throughout his maturity. Dr. Schlegel has compared the Berlin bronze to the reliefs of the Four Seasons in Munich, (17) and particularly to the group of Flora and Pomona (fig. 9), completed in 1711, to suggest a similar date for the Cupid and Psyche. (18) Yet Soldani's tendency to construct groups on diagonals, even the point where they seem to be sliding off their bases, is apparent in works of widely different dates, and even the strange way in which a heavy architectural throne is set apparently on the bare earth is not unusual in his oeuvre. (19) As compared to the relief of Spring, the two bronze groups give a sharper, almost mannered, emphasis to the diagonal line, in a way which might well suggest a later dating, while the heads of Psyche and Venus are less soft and fully rounded than those in the relief. But the new element which must be taken into account, since the article by Dr Schlegel, is the crying face of Cupid, which has no parallels in Soldani's earlier sculpture, but corresponds very closely to that of the over-life-size weeping putto on the tomb of Marcantonio Zondadari of 1722-1725 (fig. 10). Without suggesting that our bronzes are so late as that, a dating in the second half of the second decade of the century might seem the most reasonable.

When Soldani died in 1740 his models and moulds were left in his house, and must at once have aroused the interest of Senator Carlo Ginori, for in the Ginori archives is an undated list of these moulds, and a payment of 1744 to Soldani's son for an unspecified of plaster moulds of groups and reliefs. The reason for this interest and the subsequent purchase is plain: in 1743 Ginori had set up a porcelain factory at Doccia, outside Florence, and it was his practice to acquire models from the leading sculptors of the Florentine Baroque, both living and and dead, to be reproduced in porcelain. It is indeed the sculptural quality of these groups, created by artists such as Soldani, Foggini, and Piamontini, which gives such a distinctive character to Doccia figures, so different from the shepherds and the shepherdesses which normally spring to mind when we think of eighteenth-century porcelain; stylistically, much of the production of the Doccia factory during the second half of the eighteenth-century belongs to a period about half a century earlier.

Both the bronzes with which we are concerned appear in Ginori's list: "Un Gruppo d'Amore, e Siche con una figura d'un Gladiatiore," and "Due Gruppi di Leda, e Venere, che Spenna Amore." (20) (we can be sure that the Gladiator has little to do with the group of Cupid and Psyche as the separate group of Leda with our Venus who Plucks out Cupid's Feathers). As we might expect, they must have been amongst the moulds which Ginori bought, for both the moulds and wax casts from them, which would have been used to make another set of moulds suited to the different technique of making porcelain casts, are included in the inventories of the Doccia factory: a "Gruppo di Amore, e Psiche. Del Soldani in cera con forma," and a "Gruppo di Venere, che spenna amore. Del Soldani in cera con forma." (21)

These waxes still exist in the Doccia museum at Sesto Fiorentino (fig. II), and there is also a version of the Venus and Cupid in white Doccia Forcelain in the collection of Leonardo Lapiccirella in Florence (fig. 12). The quality of the paste and the glaze, as well as the gilded moulding of the wooden base and the porcelain lions' paws on which it rests, are all typical of the best early period of the factory; but one detail is of special interest to us: the spokes of the wheels of Venus's chariot in both the wax model and the porcelain cast from it are not those of the Ottawa bronze, but correspond to the spokes in the Bucquet-Bournet de Verron version.

We have written of the earlier Baroque character of so many of the Doccia groups, yet here, as Migeon would have recognised, we have a group which spans the quarter century between the time that Soldani created it and Ginori planned his translation into porcelain. Migeon compared the bronze to Boucher, but a better comparison might have been to Falconet, his contemporary who modelled so many biscuit groups for Sèvres.

Yet however well suited the Venus and Cupid appears to be to the medium of white porcelain, it is only in the shiny dark bronze that we find the true measure of Soldani's artistry. The inevitable lack of precision in the glazed porcelain features muffles the scream of the infuriated Cupid, and the softer reflections on the more uniform surface mask the sureness of modelling and the contrasts of texture so brilliantly depicted by Soldani, the smooth flesh, the soft rising clouds, and the downy feathers of the swans he so delighted in portraying. In this group, Ottawa has acquired a masterpiece by one of the last great exponents of small bronze sculpture.

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