Aphrodite and the Aeneid – Two Treasures at Sotheby’s
UPDATE: These two lots did not disappoint. Bidding on lot 2, the Master of the Aeneid opened at £600,000, paused briefly at £700,000, then quickly proceeded to its hammer price of £1.3 million (£1,538,500 with the buyer’s premium of $2,636,835). The large, ancient Aphrodite, opened at £3 million and crept slowly at £100,000 increments to £4 million, then moved at £200,000 and £100,000 increments. After passing the £5 million mark, the auctioneer said to one reticent bidder: “The slower you go, the further you get. It’s like a first date.” Following much laughter, bidding continued again at (occasionally)£200,000 and (mostly) £100,000 increments. When the bidding reached £8 million the auctioneer said to the same reticent bidder who, acting on behalf of a client, would not bid more aggressively than £1000,000 increments: “Please madam, I beg you from the bottom of my heart” to allow us to conclude this so we can get to bed tonight. The hammer came down at £8.3 million (£9,738,500 with the buyer’s premium or $15,876,863) and this reticent bidder had won. Then she asked for a bidding paddle, which was met with laughter.
ORIGINAL POST:A tall (80″) Aphrodite owned by the Duke of Northumberland and located since 1773 at Syon House in England is the featured lot in Sotheby’s July 9, 2014 “Treasures” sale in London. The work is a first century AD Roman copy of a lost fifth century DC Greek original, and is similar in style to one in Munich’s Glyptothek – this typology is called the “Syon-Munich type.” One of the statue’s notable feature is its head, which has been determined to be original, following the discovery of a comparable statue in 2005. It’s too often the case that statuary found several hundred years ago was “restored” using disparate body parts not original to a work – the arms on this statue are an 18th century addition.
According to the sale notes:
The statue is first recorded with certainty in the late 16th Century, as it stood in the garden of the (no longer extant) Palazzo Cesi in Rome, on the northern slope of the Janiculum near the Basilica of Saint Peter. An engraving published by Cavalleriis in 1585 identifies it as “Agrippina, Marci Agrippae filia, ibidem” (“Agrippina, daughter of Marcus Agrippa, in the same place” [i.e., as the statues illustrated previously, “in the Cesi garden”) and demonstrates a clear attempt at rendering the highly specific coiffure of the Syon statue.
The catalogue adds:
The Cesi collection was assembled by two brothers, Cardinals Paolo Emilo Cesi (1481-1537) and Federico Cesi (1500-1565). Born into the provincial Umbrian elite, they were eager to compete with the Roman nobility for status and evidence of learning and taste. Their open-air museum became a major center of attraction for art lovers in general and Dutch artists in particular, such as Martin van Heemsckerck, who drew several views of the garden, including many of its antiquities, and Henrick van Cleef III, who painted a detailed panoramic view of the Palazzo Cesi and its garden (see M. van der Meulen, “Cardinal Cesi’s Antique Sculpture Garden: Notes on a Painting by Henrick van Cleef III,” Burlington Magazine, vol. 116, January 1974, fig. 27, and J.D. Hunt, Garden and Grove:The Italian Renaissance Garden, London, 1986, fig. 15).
Where in Rome the statue was found and when the Cesi acquired remain unknown. Textual evidence appears to point to a date of acquisition no more precise than sometime in the first half of the 16th century.
After almost 200 years, during which the Syon Aphrodite must have either remained in the Cesi Collection or sojourned in one or more of the great antiquities collections of late Renaissance and Baroque Rome, the statue resurfaced in 1773. It can be tentatively identified with a statue offered in the sale of the collection/inventory of British architects and dealers Robert and James Adam. The Christie’s auction of 25-27 February and 1-2 March 1773 was organized to help fund the brothers’ project to build the Adelphi Buildings, a row of terrace houses in neoclassical style in central London.
A month or two after Christie’s Adam Brothers sale, in the Spring of 1773, four statues, two male and two female, including Aphrodite (a.k.a. Livia) and Scipio, were set on tall pedestals in the Robert Adam-designed Great Hall at Syon House, the Duke of Northumberland’s house in Middlesex.
Also being deaccessioned from the Duke of Northumberland’s collection, this one at Alnwick Castle, is this splendid group of 16th century Limoges enamel on copper panels depicting scenes from Virgil’s Aeneid. The catalogues notes are fascinating:
Few cycles of Limoges enamels have been as often cited as the extraordinary series of plaques representing Virgil’sAeneid of which the present six are amongst the largest groups remaining in private hands. Made circa 1530, it is the earliest instance in which the technique of painting enamel on copper was used to depict secular scenes. According to the latest count by Baratte [“La Série de Plaques du Maître de L’Énéide”, A. Erlande-Brandenburg, J-M. Leniaud and X. Dectot (eds.), Études d’histoire de l’art offertes à Jacques Thirion. Des premiers temps chrétiens au XXe siècle, Paris, 2001, pp. 146-147, nos. 68, 70-72, 74 and 75] … eighty-two plaques from the series survive, making it easily the most numerous suite of Limoges enamels and the only example where a complete set of book illustrations was appropriated. In addition to the six from the collections of the Dukes of Northumberland, the most significant concentrations of enamels from the series in public collections are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (15), the Musée du Louvre (11), and the Walters Art Gallery (7). Many of these passed through the hands of the foremost private collectors of the past 150 years, including Hollingworth Magniac, Frederic Spitzer, Henry Walters, and the Kofler-Trunigers. Their pre-19th-century history and context, however, have been the subject of much speculation.
Here are each of the six panels, with additional notes afterward:
Again, from the catalogue:
Each of the Aeneid enamels is based on illustrations designed by Sebastian Brandt for an influential compilation of Virgil’s texts with commentaries published by Johann Grüninger in Strasbourg in 1502 [left]. While these woodcuts are distinctly Gothic, the enamels were painted in the courtly Renaissance style current in France at the time. The figures are idealised and rounded, and imbued with a healthy rose complexion consisting of white over purple enamel. Here and there the white enamel was applied thickly to enliven the surface and lend volume to hands, faces, horses, and the tops of waves, a process known asenlevage. The magnificent greyish-blue seas, covered in wavy black ripples are specific to the series. The translucent ochre and green hues of the landscape and purple hues of castles and clothes, lightened by the ingenious use of foil and the colour of the copper underneath, are equally characteristic. The lush gilding with which the scenes are detailed and heightened was applied after the enamelling was fired and is beautifully preserved in the Alnwick group.
The incorporation of Virgilian themes into the decorative arts became current in Quattrocento Italy and gained momentum in the 16th century. Fresco cycles include Dosso Dossi’s murals for the studio of Alfonso d’Este in Ferrara, Giulio Romano’s decoration of the Sala di Troia of the ducal palace in Mantua, and Niccolo dell’Abate’s large cycle at the castle at Scandiano.
Despite the use of images from a book published in 1502, scholars agree that the Master of the Aeneid was active circa 1530. This is chiefly due to the use of a translucentfondant, which is the enamel that covers the copper on the front and reverse in order to stabilise the object. Translucent fondants are thought to be an innovation that only gained traction after 1520.