- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 26, 2008

Real estate tycoon and philanthropist Robert H. Smith, who spearheaded the bland, boxy development of Crystal City, turns out to have a keen eye for exquisite art. His collection of Renaissance statuettes goes on view tomorrow at the National Gallery of Art, where it was last seen in 2002 to mark the debut of the museum’s sculpture galleries. Since that showing, Mr. Smith has continued to expand his holdings, and the new exhibition of 57 bronze, ivory and wooden sculptures includes 26 works not previously displayed in a public venue.

The small but potent “Bronze and Boxwood” is organized by senior sculpture curator Nicholas Penny, who assumes his new job as the director of the National Gallery in London on Feb. 4. The exhibit succeeds in revealing the merits of this superb collection and, more significantly, the expressive potential of the most diminutive Renaissance sculpture. These sensuous, muscular representations of Roman gods and heroes — some just a few inches high — mark a departure from the religious statuary of the epoch, not only in their size and subject matter, but in their finely detailed surfaces and intended domestic use.

Meant as luxury collectibles, they graced tabletops, curio cabinets and fireplace andirons in royal palaces and merchants’ mansions. In two West Building galleries, several of the sculptures are installed on classical pedestals, wall brackets and Renaissance-era wooden tables to capture a sense of how they might have been displayed originally.

Inspiration for the figurines came from antiquity, reflecting the widespread interest in the classical world during the 16th and 17th centuries. A large stone statue of Hercules unearthed in 1546 from Rome’s Baths of Caracalla was just one of the artifacts widely copied by Renaissance artists. In the exhibit, Giovanni Francesco Susini’s 1-foot-high version of the mythic hero recaptures his weary pose, though the exhibit offers no images of antique statuary by which to compare the Renaissance imitations.

Restoration of excavated Roman treasures by 16th-century artists familiarized them with classical imagery, which they borrowed as well as reinterpreted. One of these restorers, Mantuan sculptor Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi, earned the nickname “Antico” for his skillful translations of the antique into refined figurines. His “Seated Nymph,” one of Mr. Smith’s most significant acquisitions, is among the smallest and most delicate creations in the show. It isn’t a direct copy of a Roman sculpture, but a Renaissance translation of classical beauty. Gleaming gold drapery and wavy hair stand out from the dark, polished figure, which sits on a textured tree stump and integral round base.

Renaissance interest in classicism also led to the revival of bronze casting methods from antiquity so the original wax models of sculptures could be saved and used as references for later reproductions. Once a work was completed, artists further simulated the look of antique bronzes by applying a black patina through acids or oils to the surfaces of their statuettes. This darkened appearance also extended to sculptures made of hardwoods. Leonhard Kern, a 17th-century German sculptor, replicated the appearance of polished bronze in his “Bowler,” carved from a single piece of boxwood, by coating it in a dusky varnish.

Technical and stylistic hallmarks of the sculptures are explained in the show’s excellent brochure, written by research curator Karen Serres and conservator Dylan Smith. As Mr. Smith point outs, X-ray analysis of some of the sculptures presumed to be bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, show them to be brass, a mixture of copper and zinc, while others are cast from a combination of copper, tin, zinc and lead.

The malleable alloys, cast into solid and hollow shapes, allowed for a greater expression of movement than could be realized in heavier, less tensile stone. The intertwined figures of Susini’s “Venus and Adonis” and “David With the Head of Goliath” are just two examples of the theatricality made possible by the metals. Their outstretched limbs and twisting torsos, meant to be viewed in the round, create visual interest from every angle. In contrast, bronze preparatory studies for larger marble statues in the show, including Baccio Bandenelli’s “Neptune,” are far less dynamic, anticipating their translation into stone.

Though small, the exhibit features works by nearly two dozen artists, calling attention to little-known talents from Italy and Northern Europe. They include the Flemish-born Jean Boulogne, who became “Giovanni Bologna” once he settled in Florence. His lively “Birdcatcher,” one of the few genre subjects in the show, depicts the fowler in the act of capturing his prey. Bologna was only one of many foreigners who trained in Florentine workshops, some of whom returned to their native lands to combine Italian innovations with Dutch and German conventions.

Some of the most intriguing works are by Kern, who traveled to Italy around 1610. His smoothly finished, allegorical figures in wood and ivory convey a down-to-earth quality at odds with the exaggerated poses favored by his Italian colleagues.

In addition to statuettes and reliefs, “Bronze and Boxwood” offers a selection of desk accessories — inkwells, oil lamps, candlesticks — fashioned into fanciful satyrs, sphinxes and other mythological beasts. As a collector of such intricately shaped pieces, Mr. Smith fits into the tradition of wealthy merchants and modern-day industrialists who acquired these works. They include five-and-dime-store magnate Samuel Kress, whose bronzes account for most of the 166 small Renaissance sculptures that are part of the National Gallery’s holdings. Mr. Smith’s sculptures aren’t yet promised to the museum, according to a spokesman, but this exhibit certainly shows that they would be an asset to its collection.

WHAT: “Bronze and Boxwood: Renaissance Masterpieces From the Robert H. Smith Collection”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, West Building, Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through May 4.


PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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