Bronze at the Royal Academy

Olympians and Paralympians may go for gold, but sculptors prefer bronze. Hard, beautiful and possible to cast in the finest detail, this greyish copper alloy has been one of the most popular sculptural materials for centuries, as the Royal Academy’s major forthcoming exhibition, Bronze, reminds us. It promises to be the greatest array of works in this material seen in any one place since the fall of the Roman Empire.

The show gathers together great masterpieces from many cultures, separated by both place and time: Java; Nigeria; the ancient Middle East; Etruria; Egypt; prehistoric Denmark and Austria; as well as Greece, Rome, Renaissance Italy and Hellenistic Bulgaria. There will be works by Picasso, Matisse and Rodin, Henry Moore and Louise Bourgeois, Donatello, Ghiberti and Giambologna.

As Professor David Ekserdjian, the exhibition’s co–curator, puts it, “bronze has always been considered a noble material”. It was the sculptural material of choice in Ancient Greece and Rome. “Bronze working,” noted Pliny the Elder, “came generally to be associated with statues of gods.” It was popular too for equestrian sculptures of emperors – of which the great mounted monument to Marcus Aurelius survives in Rome – and naked athletes. Most of the celebrated masterpieces of Greek sculpture were bronzes. The fact that we know them all only by marble copies illustrates the great weaknesses of bronze: it’s both valuable and easy to melt down.

As Ekserdjian notes, the paradox is that all the Ancient Greek sculptures that remained on display in Athens or were successfully exported to Rome have disappeared: “The few that survive tend to be those that sank in ships or were buried.” Among those, however, are some astonishing objects. One of the most sensational pieces in the exhibition is the Chimera of Arezzo, an Etruscan bronze from around the fifth century BC that was dug up in the Tuscan city in 1553.

Taking the form of a lion with a goat’s head bursting out of its back and a serpent’s tail, the Chimera has fascinated Ekserdjian since he saw it on the cover of a book in his father’s study when he was five or six years old. Lent by the Archaeological Museum in Florence, it is only one of a series of remarkable loans on show. From Copenhagen will come the sun chariot of Trundholm, another haunting and mysterious ancient object – a horse–drawn vehicle carrying a solar disc – discovered in a bog in 1902, and as Ekserdjian notes, just about the greatest Danish national treasure.

Austrian law had to be changed to allow the loan of the Cult Wagon of Strettweg from Graz. Legislation had previously been passed preventing it ever leaving the country but, says Ekserdjian, “in the event they went to the Styrian parliament to overturn the ruling”.

Bronze is, of course, not the only material that can claim a worldwide reach. Stone carving is also pretty universal, as are ceramics. But, Ekserdjian argues, bronze sculpture from around the world makes for a much more coherent display than other media would. “Virtually all cultures produce some form of ceramic, but if you did an exhibition with Italian majolica, red figure vases from ancient Greece, Chinese blue and white [porcelain] it would look bizarre and awful, whereas the bronzes are friendly with one another.”

The exhibition will be arranged not chronologically or geographically, but in themes: figures, reliefs and so on. Objects from widely diverse cultures will be grouped together. Thus, among the heads on show are: a calmly beautiful product of the Nigerian Ife civilisation from the 14th or 15th century, and also a portrait of Seuthes III, a king of Thrace from the time of Alexander the Great. The latter, only discovered in 2004, and barely seen since, is one of the surprises of the exhibition.

That bronzes with such various origins have so many qualities in common can perhaps be attributed to the fact that the challenges of casting have always been the same. Among them is the problem of scale. In classical antiquity extraordinary expertise was developed to create large–scale metal sculptures – the Horses of San Marco in Venice are surviving examples.

Those ancient casting skills were subsequently half–forgotten in Europe during the Middle Ages, and rediscovered with difficulty. The Florentine artist Lorenzo Ghiberti was credited with being the first Renaissance master to cast life–size statues. One of the three he made for niches in the Orsanmichele church in Florence will be included in the exhibition.

One of Ghiberti’s successors, Benvenuto Cellini, describes in his autobiography how near the casting of his renowned bronze of Perseus came to catastrophe. In order to save the day, he ended up throwing all his household pewter plates (essentially made of tin) into the furnace to make the metal flow better. Leonardo and Michelangelo both attempted large–scale bronzes, though the huge horse Leonardo designed was never cast and of Michelangelo’s two bronzes, one, a David, was lost in the French Revolution and the second, a nine–anda–half feet high statue of Julius II, was melted down by the Pope’s enemies and turned into a cannon.

The exhibition will have, if not an actual Leonardo sculpture, the next best thing: three pieces by Giovan Francesco Rustici (1474–1554) from the Florentine Baptistery. The Renaissance art historian Vasari wrote that, while Rustici was working on these sculptures, his friend and mentor Leonardo never left his side. Indeed, as Ekserdjian observes, “Some believe, but without knowing more than this, that Leonardo worked at them with his own hand, or at least assisted Giovan Francesco with his advice and good judgment.” If you want to imagine what Leonardo’s sculpture might have been like, he adds, “This is unquestionably as close as you are going to get.”

The precise recipe for sculptural bronze has varied enormously over the years: zinc, lead and – in early days – arsenic being added to the mix. Indeed, some sculptures long presumed to be bronzes – for example those by Ghiberti – have been revealed by modern analysis to be made of brass (which is copper plus zinc). Consequently, contemporary sculpture scholars tend to avoid the term “bronze” and refer more cautiously to “copper alloy”. However, as Ekserdjian puts it, “we didn’t think ‘Copper Alloy’ would be a very funky title for an exhibition”.

The poses of the three Rustici statues of St John the Baptist bring out one of the great advantages of bronze; its tensile strength means that you can do things with it that would never work – or soon break off – in marble or terracotta. Rustici’s St John holds up one slender finger extended, in a gesture not unlike that of a sixth–century Indian Buddha.

Louise Bourgeois’s Spider, created centuries later, stands on its filigree legs, and that Etruscan Chimera, half crouched, seems ready to spring. “In terms of compositional adventurousness,” says Ekserdjian, bronze sculpture is incredible.” That’s one reason why it has lasted, as a medium, from the 37th century BC to the 21st century AD.

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