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  The artists’ passion for the antique—Brunelleschi, Donatello and their followers—Florence, the School of Padua, Venice—Imitation, plagiarism and faking—The plaquettes and their curious transformations of some Greek and Roman originals—The character of the imitations and that of the intended victims.

There is no occasion here to lose oneself in arguments as to whether the artist was the primal cause of the awakening of the taste for the antique, or whether it was a mere synthetic translation of a sentiment already awakened through complex causes, the main one being, perhaps, classic literature. Classicism, lately developed into an entirely pagan æsthetic sentiment, a combination of Philhellenic and Latin tendencies, may as well have influenced art as life in general—a sentiment that at the moment of its maturity aroused anathematic protest from Savonarola and a momentary reaction of pietism. However, the preaching of the friar and his colossal bonfire of art treasures in Piazza della Signoria were mere incidents in the course of Florentine tendencies of art. The Piagnoni in Florence may have converted Botticelli and a few other artists, but the pagan sentiment was not dispelled. For the artist of the last part of the XVth century San Giorgio and Perseus were, if not identical, to be treated with the same artistic sentiment.

The real evolution, in our opinion, begins with Brunelleschi and Donatello. In the year 1404 these two artists undertook a journey to Rome. For the progress of art this is a memorable date. The real influence of Greek and Roman art on84 the artistic movement immediately preceding the Renaissance begins at that date. It is undeniable that even before this time mythological subjects had become familiar to both painters and sculptors, artists preceding Donatello and Brunelleschi, such as Piero di Giovanni Tedesco, Nicolo di Piero Lamberti (called il Pela) and even Nanni and Antonio di Banco, show slight traces of Roman art at times—even to the way of working the marble, as in the ornaments of the north door of the Duomo in Florence, by Giovanni Tedesco—but they are faint and uncertain traits, leaving one undecided whether they be attributable to Roman influence or a mere inheritance from the Romanesque blunt-edged way of working marble.

The years spent in Rome by Donatello and Brunelleschi seem to have moulded the style of these two artists entirely anew, particularly that of the former. The citizens of Rome were more or less surprised at the persistency with which the two artists endeavoured to unearth fragments of old statues, and supposing them to be animated by a mere mercenary hope, that of finding some treasure, they called the two students quelli del tesoro (treasure-seekers). It is undeniably true that however profitable their search for old coins and marble relics, their copies and study of ancient art were in their sum total more valuable than the solid gold they brought back with them to Florence. The results are plainly visible in Brunelleschi’s architecture and Donatello’s sculpture, and the influence that their art exercised over their contemporaries and followers.

As we have said, after his sojourn in Rome, Donatello, particularly, seems to have immersed his art in a bath of past paganism. His art is no fakery, nor is it sheer plagiarism of the antique, but it is all permeated with Greek and Roman reminiscences, and comes at times so close to the Græco-Roman art that it misleads connoisseurs. Speaking of Donatello’s art Louis Courajod, a well-known connoisseur, observes: “He entered so deeply into the spirit of antiquity, that some of his restorations of statues are very puzzling,85 and it is difficult to distinguish his handiwork from that of the original.”

In fact the famous horse’s head of the Naples Museum was catalogued as a Greek bronze before it was recently attributed to Donatello or his school. No one can fail to draw a comparison between Donatello’s puttino and the “Infant with the Goose,” a typical example of Græco-Roman art.

One of the first to be affected by the new sentiment in art was Lorenzo Ghiberti. As a matter of fact Ghiberti not only became enamoured of the antique, but was seized by the passion of collecting the best antiques in marble and bronze. You may be sure that collectors of this calibre, unlike the Roman samples, talked very little of patina and a great deal of form, that their enthusiasm was of a higher alloy even than that of present-day collectors, who are rarely artists or even real lovers of art. Polycletus and Lysippus were Ghiberti’s idols, and Greek art his worship; for the era of Imperial Rome he had no enthusiasm. His cult for the Greek went so far as to induce him to reckon time by the Olympiads in his chronology. Instead of telling us that a certain artist died when Martin V was pope, or in the year so and so, Ghiberti states amazingly that the event took place in the 438th Olympiad! It is not surprising that an artist like Ghiberti, and such a lover of Greek art as he was, should be able to classify Greek art at sight, to discriminate it from dubious Roman products and all the art that so closely resembles certain Greek periods.

That the worship of pagan art was practised by artists with no risk to themselves may be explained by the circumstance that the time of religious intolerance had passed. Intolerance, comprehensible perhaps in the early times of Constantine, when it was a crime for an artist to go to the forms of the past, had gradually sunk into tradition by the dawn of the new era which paved the way to the Renaissance in art and to humanistic tendencies, the most tolerant and unprejudiced period of past civilization.

86 Lovers of art in this period appear to possess a certain refinement of feeling that the Romans did not have, they stand more as friends to the artist, esteem him more, and thus their pursuit has a wider scope. Even Ghiberti, with all the restrictions placed on his taste by his infatuation for the antique, was, according to Vasari who describes his collection, no narrow specialist in the so much praised modern meaning of the word, namely, a collector who may be useful to the history of art and to knowledge at large, but who does not as a rule possess a spark of love for art or artistic feeling.

As is often the case to-day, the heirs of these old collectors were at times more greedy for money than a reputation for art. Many fine collections were scattered to the four winds, which was also the fate meted out to Ghiberti’s collection by his relatives and heirs. Fortunately a few pieces of this stupendous collection have been saved: a fine torso of a Satyr can now be seen in the Uffizi. There are other pieces too that have come down to us, but the finest works, those attributed to Polycletus, among them a rare ornamented vase, are now lost.

The new artistic feeling perpetuated itself in architecture from Brunelleschi to Alberti. The latter built for Malatesta what purported to be a church, but which is in fact nothing but a temple to Love, which the tyrant of Rimini erected and dedicated to the memory of his lady-love, Isotta Atti. The revolution in sculpture effected by Donatello seems to be felt in Padua and Venice. Imitations of all sorts, and probably faked antiques, date from this time. It is difficult to decide whether Donatello’s genuine pagan sentiment, his second artistic nature, was solely due to his passion or to a desire to accommodate the general taste for the antique; Italian artists are far too versatile. However that may be, he was no faker; the art of the faker flourished when imitators had lost all artistic personality, becoming mere craftsmen catering as usual to a momentary mania. Then was the time one saw Filarete indulging in most absurd medals and portraits87 of dubious, very dubious, historical correctness; Riccio in Padua fabricating and flooding the market with charming little bronzes in which the imitation is so evident that it brings up the question as to what the art of Andrea Briesco (called il Riccio) might have been, had he chanced to be born at another epoch. Vellano also alternates fine pieces of work with little bronzes that must have been in great vogue with collectors of antiques. It is to be noted that the mania is not confined to Italy, it takes that country by storm because of its tremendous artistic activity and the fact that in art it is the foremost country of the time; but others were affected too. France is the first as being the nearest tributary to Italian supremacy in art. There are many examples of what we have said, but perhaps one of the most eloquent is the decoration of the castle of Gaillon, where there are some medallions with portraits of Roman emperors of a most mystifying character. Though the work of Italians of the end of the Quattrocento they were classified as antique (antiqualles) only a few years later, at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

An evident proof that Quattrocento imitations were not always directed by artistic fancy, but rather by the love of gain by means of fraud and fakery, is given by the fact that some of the statuettes imitating the antique were cast with broken limbs.

The Ambras collection of Vienna has one of these curious specimens—a charming figure, a female nude. This piece has evidently been cast without arms, the clay model having been mutilated before the form was taken for the cast. In the Prado of Madrid there is also a bronze statue of the Renaissance, possibly a cast from the antique, the peculiarity of which is that the arms have been added afterwards, as though in restoration. The metal of the arms is of a different alloy and the modelling of these parts purports to be of a much later date than the rest of the statue.

The first pieces to show a positive character of fakery are imitations of old coins and medals. Then small bronzes88 called plaquettes, often pastiches of antique models, when not actually reproductions from old cameos.

The Renaissance has also produced many bronze statuettes that seem to have had no other purpose than to take in the amateur—to gratify his demand for antiques by launching spurious products upon the market. The artists responsible for them represent what might be styled the aristocracy of fakers; there is nothing banal about them, their work is generally good, so much so that these imitations have now acquired a value per se.

Antonio Pollaiolo, the Florentine sculptor, is one of the most charming imitators of the antique. The Flute Player of the National Museum of Florence is perhaps one of the most convincing examples of this statement. Hercules and Antæus is also a remarkable work by this artist, though the other is superior on account of its simplicity. Of the Flute Player there are copies of the same period in the Cluny Museum and at Avignon. Curiously enough this statuette tempted even the pencil of Raphael, who reproduced it in a sketch-book now kept in the Academy of Venice.

As soon as he had left the goldsmith’s shop, Andrea del Verrocchio started the early period of his activity in his new career as a sculptor, and made his way, according to Vasari, by casting small figures in bronze. We know very little of these small statuettes of Verrocchio’s, beyond attribution, but, Vasari says, Verrocchio was tempted to make them while in Rome, because he saw how appreciated were antique statuettes, so much so that even fragments fetched fancy prices. Being an excellent craftsman with the chisel, and skilled in the casting of metals, Verrocchio would seem to have been fully equipped for catering to the demand of the amateurs of his time.

Vellano, in his imitations of the antique, seems at times to have even been tempted to counterfeit Egyptian art. His art in imitating is eclectic and most versatile.

Imitations of the Antique.

By Moderno, XVIth Century.

Andrea Briesco seems to possess the brusque touch of some antique sculptors combined with the mania of Roman89 foppishness in over-draping his statuettes. They are invariably arrayed in gorgeous consular armour, elaborate togas, imperial sandals, and have, as a remarkable contrast, wild, vulgar faces in complete disharmony with the rich decoration of the costumes. However, when this artist models horses or simple nude figures he gets closer to the originals and is evidently an excellent and dangerous imitator. The bronzes of the Paduan school that may, with more or less certainty, be attributed to Riccio, are endless and in some of them the intention of faking is evident.

Jacopo Sansovino, the presumed author of the bronze statuette of Meleager of the Pourtales collection in Berlin, does not seem to take the trouble to disguise the origin of his plagium.

Michelangelo was too great a personality as an artist and too highly gifted to be tempted to hide his genius and waste his fine energies on imitation of the antique. Yet the story of his Sleeping Cupid, sold in Rome as an antique, is very instructive. Though well known it serves admirably to illustrate the character of the amateurs contemporary to the great sculptor. The anecdote casts a certain justified suspicion that the collectors of the Renaissance and early sixteenth century must have been duped on a larger scale than we are led to suppose from the scanty information we possess on the subject.

Vasari informs us that Michelangelo sculptured from a piece of marble a life-sized sleeping Cupid, that in this work he had imitated the antique to a surprising extent; so much so that when the work was shown to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici the latter advised the sculptor to send the work to Rome and sell it as an antique, as “by this means he could obtain a far better price.” According to Vasari, the Cupid, marvellously arranged and coloured like an old piece of sculpture, was taken to Rome, buried in a vineyard and then “discovered” and sold as an antique to Cardinal San Giorgio, who paid 200 ducats for the work (a ducat was worth about 9s.). Vasari adds that the person who had acted as go-90between in the affair tried to cheat Michelangelo by saying that the Cardinal had only paid him 30 scudi (a scudi was worth about 4s.), and he then comments on the Cardinal’s poor taste in not giving the Cupid due consideration after he had discovered that it was modern. He says: “Not recognizing the merit of the work, which consists in perfection, wherein the moderns are as good as the ancients,” the Cardinal did not know how lucky he was to own a genuine work by Michelangelo in the place of heaven knows what poor product of some modest master of antiquity.

Condivi repeats the story, which has given ample food for popular fancy and folklore, adding that the irate Cardinal caused the man to be arrested and, giving him back the Cupid, claimed and received the sum paid for it.

The fact that Michelangelo, who went to Rome in the year 1496, wrote in July, 1496, to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici that he had paid a visit to the Cardinal di San Giorgio, shows that the prelate did not bear the artist a grudge for the joke. In this letter Michelangelo tells Lorenzo Medici that he has tried in vain to get the Cupid back from Baldassarre Milanese, the dealer and go-between in the affair of the Cardinal, but seeing that the man is obstinate in his refusal to give back the statue he has been advised to use Cardinal San Giorgio’s authority.

Condivi says that in some unknown way this statue passed into the hands of Duke Valentino, and finally became the property of the Marchioness of Mantua, who owned it at the time Condivi, the historian and Michelangelo’s pupil, was writing.

After the small statuettes, Roman busts are a source of some excellent imitations. Of these works, both in marble and bronze, many museums possess good examples. The Uffizi Gallery has two or three good ones; besides these the many restored busts and statues of this same Gallery speak of the characteristic pliability and plagiarism in art of the Renaissance. A fine bust in bronze of a hypothetical Roman emperor, formerly in the collection of Baron Davillier, is91 now in the Louvre Museum. It is evidently the work of an artist of the versatile and prolific Paduan school.

This very school of Padua, strengthened by the advent of Vittore Camelio, Cavino, de Bassiano, and other capable fakers of art—we feel we need not scruple to use the word in association with these names—is chiefly responsible for those coins, medals and small bronzes that it would be naive to say were made solely for the sake of imitating.

The imitations of bas-reliefs prepared perhaps the popularity of those small bronze bas-reliefs called plaquettes which seem to have meant so much to the collector of the time. We even find the angelic Mino, the last Renaissance artist who should have attempted to paganize his sweetly ascetic art, trying his hand at these marble bas-reliefs of Roman emperors, re-edited for the benefit of amateurs. These bas-reliefs already seem to have inveigled artists into palming them off with fantastic tales, giving them what might be called a shampoo of history. In the Brunswick Museum there is a bas-relief in marble, evidently aping antique art, representing an Aristotle in an absurd pointed headgear and with the following inscription:—


A replica of this bronze belonged to Charles Timbal’s collection, and is now in the possession of Monsieur Gustave Dreyfus; a third, with an identical inscription, is kept in the Modena Museum; a fourth is in the Correr Museum of Venice; and, finally, a fifth sample of this fantastic Aristotle is in the National Museum, the Bargello of Florence.

It is certain that there was a companion-piece to this Aristotle, the portrait of Plato, which has come down to us in material other than bronze, but which must have once been the pendant of the Aristotle, as there are clay reproductions of both portraits, the Aristotle being identical to92 the ones already quoted. Of Plato there are several bas-reliefs in marble, one in the Bavarian Museum of Munich, another in the Museum of Arezzo, and another in the Prado. In the latter museum there is also an Aristotle in marble with its freakish head-covering, long hair and a long beard; of Plato there are two marble bas-re............
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