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by N.F. Karlins
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Small Renaissance bronzes by Antico, famous during his lifetime (ca. 1455 - 1528) and forgotten soon after, are ready for reappraisal, thanks to a traveling exhibition titled “Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes,” May 1-July 29, 2012, now beautifully installed at the Frick Collection in Manhattan.

The name “Antico,” by which Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi is better known, says it all -- this artist epitomized the study of the antique, the key concern of the Renaissance. He restored classical marbles in Rome, most notably a pair of monumental horses of the Dioscuri now standing before the Quirinale Palace, yet Antico spent most of his working life in the employ of the Gonzaga court in Mantua. He primarily designed small bronzes based on classical subjects but infused them with a subtle naturalism and sensuality.

Antico’s Venus Felix is based on a large Roman marble statue, but his cast from ca. 1510 supplants the sedate pose of the original with a dynamic and striding figure whose flowing drapery calls attention to her sensual body, front and back. It’s one of the first female nudes in history that is idealized yet sexy. And it’s not the only one of that sort by Antico.

Seated Nymph, Antico’s smallest work, was made and cast around 1503. Here, too, the drapery emphasizes rather than hides the body, and the artist’s use of the indirect lost-wax casting permitted him to execute exacting details. Here and elsewhere, Antico elevated the bronze with his use of fire-gilding, a dangerous process no longer in use that involves mercury and results in a bright and long-lasting gold finish. The contrast between the dark patina of the bronze skin and the gold hair and drapery makes the work sparkle like a jewel. This effect would not have been lost on Antico’s patrons, the Gonzagas, who like many early Renaissance collectors preferred small, carefully crafted coins, medals, cameos, gemstones and jewelry.

The indirect casting method allowed Antico to produce multiple casts with variations, like the possibly later Seated Nymph is on view here as well. Both versions are based on a classical marble the artist found in fragments, but Antico reconstructed and refined the original in the process of producing his own sculpture, thereby helping to define the antique.

At the entrance to the Frick’s galleries is a Roman bust of a young man in marble, ca. 140-150 AD, and nearby, Antico’s Young Man in bronze with silver eyes from ca. 1520. This juxtaposition serves to illuminate Antico’s process of transformation. While he imitates the Roman head in many ways, the feeling his work projects is completely different. The smoothness of the metal is more akin to real skin, the silver eyes startlingly life-like, and the boy’s curls make you want to touch his hair -- but there’s a guard to prevent that, a necessary precaution considering these bronzes’ powerful allure.

Almost three quarters of Antico’s extant works, 39 to be exact, are on display at the Frick, ranging from small medallions based on Greek and Roman coins to exquisitely cast small bronzes and bust portraits, some of them life-sized.  

Mysteries still surround this artist, including the question of why he was so suddenly forgotten. One answer might be because he served only one set of patrons in the relatively insular city of Mantua, and those patrons had all died out in the 1600s, their collections dispersed. Another possible answer is that by 1500, collectors placed more emphasis on imagination rather than imitation. While Antico certainly injected a modern naturalism into his elegant and serene classical figures, the public’s increasing appreciation of paintings, sculpture, and architecture that were more contemporary than respectful of the past may have made his work less popular as the 16th century progressed.  A third may be that metal works are easier to melt down during hard times, and his pieces are extremely rare.

A second mystery is how the son of a butcher managed to get art training and become the confidant of the Gonzagas.  Antico must have showed some talent early on and, judging from his early production of medallions, may have started his training as a goldsmith.

The important thing is that Antico’s work is being looked at and considered again. “Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes” has already been on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Organized by the Frick and the NGA together, the exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, which is the first English language publication to explore the work of this no-longer-forgotten master.

“Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes,” May 1-July 29, 2012, Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021.

NANCY KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.