Beauty and Power: The Peter Marino Collection, Wallace Collection, London
This tiny exhibition may lack the Renaissance A-listers, but it spans the short, unsteady step to the Baroque with convincing panache
Sunday 02 May 2010
So focused is the Wallace Collection's small new show of late Renaissance and Baroque bronzes that I can point to the exact place in it where you should start your visit, perhaps four inches square and notably empty.
This is the space framed by the interlocked arms of the protagonists of Samson and the Philistine, carved in wax and cast in bronze, probably by a Florentine sculptor called Baccio Bandinelli in the 1550s.
Bandinelli is in many ways a sad figure, doomed to posterity by his ungrateful ex-pupil, Vasari, as a Michelangelo wannabe. Thwarted in his ambition, Baccio is held responsible for destroying Michelangelo's cartoon for the Battle of Cascina, sneaking into the Palazzo Vecchio during yet another Medici restoration to hack it to bits. He is otherwise best known for the lumpish statue of Hercules and Cacus that still stands outside the Palazzo, a desperate and failed attempt to rival the greatness of his nemesis. (Benvenuto Cellini, eyeing the pumped-up musculature of this work, compared it to a sack of melons.) Still, Bandinelli's small-scale sculpture is his best, and the foot-and-a-half-high bronze we're looking at in the Wallace has the kind of tension and dynamism lacking in his colossi.
By far its most striking feature, oddly, is not the ass's jawbone in Samson's right hand, about to smite the rash Philistine who has mocked a Biblical strongman. It is the gap at the centre of the composition that draws the eye, a pretty well perfect rhombus. By the 1550s, the High Renaissance was over and Mannerism was in full swing. Poise and restraint were out, drama and distortion were in. The space in Bandinelli's little bronze mimes the shifting fortunes of sculpture's central story, the tension between solid and void. But Samson and the Philistine has other battles to fight as well.
Hercules was one of several figures from Classical mythology with whom the Medicis, ever modest, liked to identify themselves. (Thus the preponderance of stone biceps in Florentine piazze.) Samson, though, is not a Classical figure but a Biblical one, pointing to another of the paradoxes of the Renaissance in Bandinelli's mini-colossus: the tension between a pagan past and a Christian present, sacred and profane.
Perhaps the most important battle being fought in Samson and the Philistine, though, is that between history and modernity. In its stolid take on Greek contrapposto, that moment of idealised balance beloved of Renaissance sculptors, Hercules and Cacus sucked up to tradition. Samson and the Philistine, made maybe a decade later, couldn't care less about balance; it rejects it, in fact, for instability. From here, it is a short stagger to the Baroque, the name you might usefully apply to most of the other two dozen or so works in this show – the hunting bronzes of Tacca and Cappelli, and then over the French border to Ceres by Michel Anguier and Robert Le Lorrain's Andromeda.
Which is to say that the Wallace's exhibition punches above its tiny weight. Both the show and the works in it are small, and the latter are mostly not by A-listers, but they evoke a strain in the histories of art and taste even so. All but a handful of the bronzes we see here belong to Peter Marino, an American architect whose first client was Andy Warhol. There is a photograph of Marino in the catalogue wearing trademark black leather biker gear, a costume that could encourage speculation as to the nature of his interest. That, though, is hardly the point. Small bronze sculptures were made to be decorative, to be clever and to be collected. In placing them in his New York flat, as he apparently does, alongside abstract paintings by Willem de Kooning and Robert Ryman, Marino is a thoroughly modern Medici.
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