Rare pair of sitting mastiff dogs
Venice, end of 15th century - first half of the 16th century
H 88 cm, natural size
- Important private collection of an architect and scenographer from Orvieto (Umbria), Italy
The representation of the dog dates back to ancient times, when dogs were considered weapons of war and used to attack the enemy or stand guard to protect strategic locations. At the entrance to the Pompei’s villa, the presence of a "cave canem" inscription was enough to discourage potential thieves.
During the Renaissance, the figure of the dog took on new meanings.
Loyalty was only one of the many virtues attributed to the mastiffs: benignity, strength and persuasiveness made the dog the symbol of the prince's virtues.
Head of the herds, the dog also symbolized the Christian Faith and made allegorical reference to the role of the Prince as a Good Shepherd.
The noble animal (the trilogy horse - dog - hunting bird) is one of the identifying elements of medieval or modern aristocracy. The noble animal is essential for a certain aristocratic ostentation. The dog is assimilated to the man who sports it and of which it becomes an extension. He is then invested with a function of representation: through his symbolic and pecuniary value as well as his appearance and character, he embodies the qualities of his master and in return he projects onto his owner those that the collective imagination attributes to him.
However, the dog was not only considered as a companion, or part of man’s environment, but as an individual having its own nobility, its own identity.
From this perspective, the dog is seen as "absolute otherness" with which man develops and maintains relationships of reciprocity and interdependence. This Other, offers man his own reflection. Sometimes a distorting mirror, sometimes an exemplary representation, the animal world is subject to the same hierarchy that characterizes human society.
These two dogs with theirs nervous musculature and theirs thin skin showing theirs sides are represented seated, in an austere and frontal position which alludes to their role of faithful guardians.
The heads are large, the eyes set well apart, the limbs long and robust; theirs thick and pointed necklaces reaffirm their strength.
No other Cinquecento ideal could merge the concepts of beauty, elegance and renunciation of earthly goods better than the mastiff. The dog therefore had to represent the ideal animal, a harmonious synthesis of honor, fidelity, tenacity: essential characteristics to be the ideal servant of the good prince.
Made of Istrian stone, this pair of mastiffs were probably enthroned at the entrance of an aristocratic villa around Venice to allude to the virtues of strength and determination of the Lord of the castle.
During the XV – XVI century, Venice was becoming more aristocratic and less republican. Noble families wanted to display their wealth and dog where a sign of high social status which explains why images of dogs became much more common in sculptures and paintings. Their status as objects of favor and prestige among the European ruling families and their owners’ desire for conspicuous display, particularly among the Italian ducal families, resulted in a demand for portraits of individual dogs. Most memorably in Mantegna’s Camera Picta (1465-1474) where the Marquis of Mantua’s favorite dog Rubino sit under his chair.
The dogs evidence a changing society and their new popularity mirroring an increasingly aristocratic Venice.
Even the Granduke Cosimo II commissioned from the most important animal sculptor of his century, Matteo Ferrucci del Tadda, a set of 48 animals, including 11 stone mastiff dogs ("cani grossi europei") which were intended for the new Amphitheater of Palazzo Pitti, conceived between 1611 and 1637. In 1661 the sculptures were moved to the Boboli Gardens to complete the allegorical cycle celebrating the virtues of the family and the prince.
- E. P. Bowron, « An artist’s best friend : The dog in Renaissance and Baroque Painting and Sculpture », in Best in show : The dog in Art from the Renaissance to Today, Yale University Press Association with the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Bruce Museum of Art and Science
- G. Capecchi, I Cani in pietra bigia di Romolo Ferrucci del Tadda, simbolismo e capriccio nel giardino di Boboli, Firenze 1998
- J. Derrida, L’animal que donc je suis, Paris, Galilée, 2006
- « Noblesse de l’animal, noblesse par l’animal dans la péninsule Iberique et l’Amerique Latine (Moyen Age, siècle d’or) », Bordeaux, Université Bordeaux Montaigne, 18-19 mars 2021