Bronze on a rouge griotte marble - gilt bronze base
French, Empire-period, early 19th Century
Model by Giovanni da Bologna /Giambologna (1529 – 1608)
This bronze statuette represents a completely naked Mercury, the messenger of the gods, in flight, gliding on the breath of Zephyrus. His right arm is raised vertically and the index finger points upward. This impressive upward gesture alludes to the higher power by whom he is sent. Each ankle is winged on the outside and on his head is the winged petasus. Giambologna most probably got his inspiration for this composition from literary sources such as the Odyssey (V, 45-46) and the Aeneid (fourth book) as well as the Annunciations by Leonardo da Vinci and Garofalo. It may also have been inspired by the reverse of a medal of Maximilian II by Leone Leoni, which displays a flying Mercury.
The first mention of a flying Mercury by Giambologna was made by Antonio Vasari. He expressly states that it was sent to Maximillian II as a diplomatic gift. It is likely that the figure was conceived specially for this purpose and did not merely constitute a copy of an earlier work by the artist. However, over the course of his life Giambologna did produce at least four versions of the Mercury and there remains a lot of discussion concerning the exact and relative dating of these statues as well as concerning the question which version was sent to the Emperor. The large-scale version now in the Bargello, on which this bronze was based, was completed in May 1580 and delivered to Cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici in Rome in June 1580. There it was part of the fountain in front of the loggia of the Villa Medici until 1780 when it returned to Florence where it eventually was put in the Bargello.
By choosing the motive of a figure in flight, which had previously been reserved to two-dimensional media, Giambologna broke away from the static laws that had governed sculpture and opened up entirely new prospects. Since the Flying Mercury was effective from all angles of vision, it ranked as a mannerist figure par excellence and influenced the sculpture into the Baroque period and beyond.
This brilliant and daring composition has become Giambologna's most famous one. Already during the artist's lifetime several versions in widely varying sizes and poses were produced, apart from the ones made by Giambologna himself. Over the course of subsequent centuries its popularity remained unwaning, resulting in innumerous reproductions and variations. At present it is still a well-known symbol of speedy communication, as such it is, for instance, portrayed on the badge of the British Royal Corps of Signals and has figured on airmail stamps of different countries.
Giambologna was born as Jean de Boulogne in Douai, Flanders, in 1529. After a training as an apprentice to Jacques Dubroeucq, he travelled to Italy in 1550 to study the masterpieces of Classical and Renaissance sculpture. On his way home, he visited Florence (c.1552) and was persuaded to settle there under the patronage of the Medici Dukes and eventually became their court sculptor.
He grafted an understanding of the formal aspect of Michelangelo's statuary on to a thorough reappraisal of Greco-Roman sculpture, as it was being daily revealed in new excavations at the time. Particularly influential were the ambitious representations of figures and groups in violent movement and the technical finesse of late Hellenistic work, most of which had not been available to earlier generations (e.g. Farnese Bull, excavated in 1546).
For over half a century Giambologna dominated Florentine sculpture, carving an ever more impressive series of statue groups in marble: Samson Slaying a Philistine (1560-62), Florence Triumphant over Pisa, the Rape of a Sabine, Hercules Slaying a Centaur. In addition, Giambologna produced numerous extraordinary bronze statues, such as Bacchus, Mercury, and Neptune, culminating in his equestrian monument to Cosimo I, Grand Duke of Tuscany. The last was copied shortly afterwards for the kings of France and Spain.
By c. 1570 Giambologna had become the most influential sculptor in Europe. Apart from the fame that his monumental statues in Florence inevitably brought, his style was disseminated in the form of small bronze reproductions of his masterworks, or statuettes, which he composed independently as elegant ornaments for the interior. These were used by the Medici as diplomatic gifts for friendly heads of state and were also eagerly purchased by European collectors as examples of sophisticated Florentine design. They were especially favoured in Germany and the Low Countries and were prominently illustrated in paintings of fashionable gallery interiors there.
Another way in which Giambologna's reputation and style spread was through the movement of his pupils and assistants. Many of them, like himself were of the Low Countries. Travelling to Italy they worked for a while in his studio in Florence (which became something of an international entrepôt) and then returned homewards, sometimes with a recommendation from him to a particular patron in the north of Europe.
For compositional subtlety, sensuous tactile values and sheer technical virtuosity, Giambologna's work is virtually unequalled in any period or country.
High-quality small replicas of this and other famous statues and busts from antiquity were produced in bronze, terracotta and porcelain, in Paris, Rome and elsewhere.
C. Avery, Florentine Renaissance Sculpture, (London and New York – 1970).
C. Avery, Giambologna: The Complete Sculpture, (Oxford – 1987).
C. Avery, Studies in European Sculpture, I, (London – 1981).
C. Avery, Studies in European Sculpture, II, (London – 1987).
E. Dhanens, Jean Boulogne, Giovanni Bologna Fiammingo, Brussel 1956).
'Giambologna' in The Dictionary of Art (Grove), ed. Jane Turner, XII, pp. 568 ff.
J. Pope-Hennessy, Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture (London – 1963).
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