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

Bulletin 24, 1974

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Click figure 1 here for an enlarged image

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

by Jennifer Montagu

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  

No City in Italy has played so continuous and glorious a part as Florence in the history of the bronze statuette. From the revival of the art in the time of Donatello and Pollaiuolo, through to the middle of the eighteenth century when the commercial center shifted to Paris, Florence had nurtured a succession of sculptors who advanced the art and increased both the fame and the wealth of their city. The splendour of Florentine bronze production never burnt brighter than just before it died out in the mid-eighteenth century, and among the artists responsible for this last burst of splendour, none was more skilled than Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi, a fine example of whose work has recently been acquired by the National Gallery of Canada (fig. I). (1)

Soldam, whose dubious claim to descend from the noble family of Benzi was officially recognized in 1715 / 1716, (2) was born in Montevarchi (near Florence) on 15 July 1656. He was selected by the Grand Duke Cosimo III to be trained as a medalist, and although he was later to make full-size casts after antique statues, the bronze decorations of the high altar of S. Maria di Carignano in Genoa, and two immense tombs for Marcantonio Zondadari and Maneol de Vilhena, Grand Masters of Knights of the Order of St. John in Malta, for the Co-Cathedral in Valletta, this early bias in his training is of the utmost significance. Quite apart from the many fine medals and coins which he produced, it is to this training that he must have owed his preference for working in relief, so noticeable even in his treatment of sculpture in the round, and also no doubt his supreme ability as a bronze worker - no marbles are known from his hand.

Like all the other leading Florentine artists of his generation, he was sent by the Grand Duke to the newly-founded Florentine Academy in Rome. But, while the other sculptors were trained by Ciro Ferri and Ercole Ferrata, and remained throughout their lives indelibly marked by their influence, the young Soldani was set to work with the medalist and coin-maker Giovanni Pietro Travani, and instructed to study and copy antique reliefs; he thus retained a far more personal approach to sculpture which cannot easily be confused with that of any of his contemporaries. It is worth remarking that not only did Soldani copy reliefs, but he also copied paintings - in relief. We know that this was a part of the training received by all the young Florentine sculptors in Rome, but Soldani is one of the few to whom we can safely attribute two such copies, both now in Canada. The wax cast of a relief version of Poussin's Crucifixon (which now hangs in the Wadsworth Athenaeum at Hartford, Connecticut) was ascribed to him in the inventory of models made for the Doccia porcelain factory, (3) and it is still to be seen in the excellently reconstructed museum of this factory at Sesto Fiorentino, while his original terracotta is in the Royal Ontario Museum. (4) Another relief, this time in bronze, after Pietro da Cortona's painting of the Guardian Angel (in the Galleria Nazionale d' Arte Antica in the Palazzo Corsini in Rome), plausibly ascribed to hill on the basis of the extremely fine finish of its surface, is in a private collection in Toronto. (5)

This relief-like quality of his sculpture, designed to be seen from one side and arousing little desire in the spectator to walk round and savour its subsidiary views, and also its pictorial quality, often incorporating such landscape elements as trees and rocks, are both typical of much of Florentine late Baroque sculpture, yet none of his contemporaries could approach his perfection of finish. The best of Soldani's bronzes have a surface of silky smoothness, enriched by chiselling, filing, and punching of such delicacy and refinement that the coarse hair of a donkey, the shaggy legs of a satyr, or the rough bark of a tree, while their textures are marvellously depicted, introduce no discordant note into a world of bright and shining harmony. One might say that this refinement of the surface of his bronzes produces an effect comparable to that of the sweet colouring of a painting by Boucher: both raise the real world to a level at which the harsher aspects of nature, while still recognisable, have been smoothed into an idylic unreality.

Soldani followed his period in Rome with a visit to Paris, to study the technique of striking coins, and it was as master of the Grand Ducal mint that he returned to Florence in 1682. Although he made small, and not so small bronzes for the Gran' Principe Ferdinan do, it was his contemporary Giovanni Battista Foggini who held the title of Primo Scultore, and with it the studio in the Borgo Pinti which had originally belonged to Giovanni Bologna and had been used by his successors to cast the bronzes for the Grand Ducal commissions. None the less, Soldani established a flourishing trade in such objects, as we learn from his correspondence with Prince Johann Adam of Liechtenstein; many of his bronzes were exported to Germany and elsewhere, but others were bought by Florentine patrons, and many of these were shown at the exhibitions arranged at the SS. Annunziata by the Accademia di S. Luca to celebrate the feast of its patron saint; sometimes it was the artist himself who lent a work, but in later years these shows more often took the form of our modern loan exhibitions.

It is at one of these exhibitions that we first encounter the Venus Plucking the Wings of Cupid. In 1729, the Marchese Francesco de' Borboni del Monte (or Bourbon del Monte) lent "Un Gruppo di Bronzo, in cui si rapprensenta Venere, che spenna Amore dell' Illustris(simo) Sig. Massimiliano Soldani Benzi," which was displayed in the sixth bay; in the seventh bay was another work lent by the same owner, which we shall have to consider further, a "Gruppo di Bronzo di Psiche con Amore dell'Illustris(simo) Sig. Massimiliano Soldani Benzi" (fig. 2). (6)

There is of course no pro of that the bronze in Ottawa was the very one exhibited in 1729, since it is one of the great advantages of bronze that, after the original terracotta or wax model has been made and a mould taken from it, an almost unlimited number of bronzes can be cast from this mould. In the case of the Venus and Cupid we know of a second cast (fig. 3) which is now lost, but which was published by Gaston Migeon in 1911 when it was in the Bucquet-Bournet de Verron collection in Paris; (7) Migeon praises the very high quality of this cast and its finish, and in so far as one can judge from a poor reproduction, this would seem to be fully justified. We may note that there is also a second cast of the Cupid and Psyche (in which Psyche has lost her wings) in the collection of Mr Brinsley Ford in London. But whether or not the Ottawa bronze belonged to the Marchese Francesco Bourbon del Monte, the fact that he owned casts of this pair of subjects is of some interest, since, though nothing is known of Francesco, he must have belonged to the same family as that Cerbone Bourbon del Monte who had been one of the earliest patrons of Soldani, and in part responsible for introducing him to Cosimo III. (8)

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