Florence, Giambologna Venus case breaks out: NY Times raises doubts against Uffizi, which defends itself

Uffizi, the case of Giambologna's Venus breaks out: according to the American newspaper it is a copy, but the museum director believes it is an original.

The New York Times has raised a controversy around a work on display at the exhibition Molded by Fire. Bronze Sculpture in the Florence of the Last Medici, scheduled at the Pitti Palace from Sept. 18 to Jan. 12, 2020. The object of contention is a Venus at the Bath attributed to Giambologna (Jean de Boulogne; Douai, 1529 - Florence, 1608). According to the U.S. newspaper, which raises doubts against the Uffizi (on which Palazzo Pitti depends) and its director Eike Schmidt in an article signed by Graham Bowley, there are many obscure points around the work, which would be more simply a 17th-century copy. Thus, what had hitherto remained a debate among scholars has taken on a broader scope, mainly due to the fact that there would be attempts to sell it, and also due to the fact that several Italian press organs have clumsily branded the work as a “forgery” (the only clear thing in the affair is that it is not a case of a forgery: at most it is a question of whether the bronze was produced in Giambologna’s foundries, or whether it is a late copy, made by another artist).

The first point raised by the American newspaper concerns the owner of the Venus, antiquarian Alexander Rudigier, who has allegedly been engaged for thirty years “in a struggle to prove that his bronze discovered thirty years ago in the house of a junk dealer in Paris is a work by the great Renaissance master Giambologna.” The second point the newspaper insists on is the friendship between Schmidt (author of the catalog entry attributing the work, which has never before been on public display, to the French-born sculptor himself) and Rudigier. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Rudigier, who owns the work along with another dealer, has been trying to sell the bronze for years, and art historians say Schmidt’s judgment could affect the value of the sculpture.” Especially attacking the exhibition is German art historian Dorothea Diemer, according to whom “they try [the subject in the article is not specified, ed.] to lend credibility to their opinion by showing the work. It is for sale, and this attribution makes a difference. It’s about money, lots of money.”

The third point concerns some details: a date on the bronze, interpreted as “1697” instead of “1597,” certain details of the hair and arms that would be incompatible with Giambologna’s style (specifically, the hair would be in a state of unfinishedness unusual for the mature Giambologna), and a Latin inscription “ME FECIT GERHARDT MEYER HOLMIAE” (“Gerhardt Meyer made me in Stockholm”) that would leave doubts about the attribution, partly because of the fact that the sculpture which according to pro-Giambologna assumptions was commissioned by the Medici for King Henry IV of France, could not have had a signature other than that of the Douai sculptor especially if it was conceived as a gift for an important foreign ruler (and even assuming that the Meyer of the inscription was not the sculptor of the same name active in Sweden in the late 17th cent, but a collaborator of Giambologna’s, a certain “Flemish Gerard” mentioned in the documents, skeptics believe it would still have been inappropriate to have the statue signed by a sculptor of the circle: however, there are no records of a “Gerhardt Meyer” active in Florence at the time of Giambologna).

Among the most credentialed scholars to side against the attribution to Giambologna is Dimitrios Zikos, an expert on the artist (of whom he curated a major exhibition in 2006), who considers the sculpture “an interesting copy.” “The idea that a stranger from the Arctic Circle,” said Zikos, “assisted Giambologna, who had three foundries in his service, and that this stranger received such a prestigious commission before disappearing into thin air like a meteor, is a figment of the wildest imagination and contradicts everything we know about the patronage of Grand Duke Ferdinand de’ Medici.” Even according to the Getty Museum (where a counterpart work, in marble, is kept), which studied the bronze in 2000, it is a copy.

The Uffizi defends itself against the attacks with an official note issued yesterday. Meanwhile, they let it be known that not all Giambologna scholars oppose the attribution to the master: “in favor have come out, clearly and unequivocally, numerous and highly esteemed experts in the field,” the museum says. Those in favor include Bertrand Jestaz, one of the foremost experts on Italian Renaissance bronze; Lars-Olof Larsson, author of the monograph on Adriaen de Vries (an important pupil of Giambologna) and a profound connoisseur of Swedish art; and Charles Avery, author of the only recent monograph on Giambologna. Still on the critical discussion front, the Uffizi notes that the bronze Venus at the Bath "has already been extensively discussed and analyzed in two of the most important international scholarly journals of art history: the Bulletin Monumental in France and the Burlington Magazine in England. The exchange of available arguments was completed in the Burlington Magazine in favor of attribution to Giambologna. Like other Renaissance bronze masterpieces the Venus is only signed by its foundryman, who also dated it to the day of casting. That a bronze is signed by the smelter corresponds to a custom widespread in the Renaissance, and today no longer sufficiently known."

As for the date (1597 or 1697), the Uffizi claims that “it has been advanced that the figure ’5’ in 1597 is an incomplete 6. This hypothesis is not technically verifiable and remains entirely speculative. One can easily imagine that if it had been a ’6,’ the author would have corrected the number by cold engraving after casting the part left open of what reads as ’5,’ which evidently did not happen.” Reference is then made to the resume of the Uffizi director: “Eike Schmidt is one of the leading experts on Renaissance bronze sculpture,” the note reads. "As a specialist he believes that Giambologna’s Venus at the Bath is a masterpiece of sixteenth-century Italian art and that the work deserves inclusion in the public context of the exhibition Plasmato dal fuoco. Moreover, one of the main goals of this exhibition is to show the general public works that have never been seen before."

As for the link between Schmidt and Rudigier, the museum responds by stating that “the director of the Uffizi, precisely because he is an expert on ancient bronzes, knows and is on good terms with all the antiquarians in the sector, yet when it comes to determining which works should or should not become part of an exhibition, he strictly adheres to exhibition and academic evaluations. Which is the same criterion followed to choose whether or not to include works by private individuals: with the dutiful clarification that since Schmidt’s entry at the helm of the Uffizi in 2015, out of a total of more than 90 exhibitions organized to date, for about 10,000 works in total offered for public viewing, private lenders have been selected in just 90 cases.”

Finally, the Uffizi says that the opportunity to exhibit Venus at the Bath in this context provides everyone with the opportunity to form a judgment by comparing the work with others by Giambologna in the exhibition.

Florence, Giambologna Venus case breaks out: NY Times raises doubts against Uffizi, which defends itself
Florence, Giambologna Venus case breaks out: NY Times raises doubts against Uffizi, which defends itself

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