Nessus and Deianira
Franco-Italian, Late 18th Century
Giambologna (1529 – 1608) (model by)
H 43 x W 37 x D 25 cm
H 17 x W 14 1/2 x D 10 inch
Until Giambologna conceived his bronze model of Nessus Abducting Deianira, the convention of representing this subject matter was a rare one in Renaissance art. The story was first described in Book IX of Ovid's Metamorphoses where Ovid recounts Hercules and Deianira journeying back to Tyrins and coming upon a swollen river which they had to cross. Nessus, who was already ferrying other people across it, saw them and offered to carry Deianira to the other bank. When Hercules reached the other side, however, Nessus turned around and abducted Deianira. On seeing this, Hercules drew an arrow that had previously been dipped in the Hydra's blood and shot it at Nessus. Moments before his death, and in an act of pure cunning, Nessus convinced Deianira to collect his blood and use it on Hercules as a love potion. Variations of the story describe Nessus giving her a blood-stained garment, while others describe her collecting the blood in a vile. Either way, it was Deianira who delivered the poisoned blood to Hercules that finally killed him.
In the present model, Giambologna has depicted the precise moment that Nessus abducts Deianira and the instant immediately before his death. It is a scene of great pathos and drama that is accentuated by Nessus' rearing, with drapery trailing to his sides and Deianira thrown across his back. As she struggles, she is depicted in torsion, stabilising herself with one foot on his back, her arms flailing and head thrown back in desperation. At the time of its conception it was seen as a radically complex and dynamic composition.
The arrangement of the bronze group offered here is what Avery and Radcliffe defined as a Type B cast (Giambologna, op. cit., p. 115) - the two other variations being labelled Types A and C. In an interesting anecdote noted by Baldinucci, Giambologna was said to have held in high esteem Susini's casts of this model, to the point that after the latter left his master's employ, Giambologna sent his chief assistant, Pietro Tacca, to buy a bronze of this model for 200 scudi on account of its splendidly finished surface (Baldinucci, loc. cit.). From then on, Baldinucci noted, many more versions of that bronze were subsequently sold for the same price.
This B-model, which is much rarer than Type A, is not merely a variant, but is the result of a fundamental revision of the composition in which the dramatic content of the subject is much more strongly stressed. Here Deianira does not sit on the back of Nessus with her outstretched leg lying straight along his back, but is placed across his back in a much less stable pose, supporting herself only on her left foot, while her right leg swings out down his flank. Instead of merely appealing for help, as in Type A, she seems here to be struggling to escape. Nessus, instead of looking straight ahead, turns to look at her. He grasps her firmly round the waist with his right arm and grips her right shoulder with his left hand. His tail swings upwards and splays out, and the drapery, instead of hanging rather slackly down both his flanks, swings down his left flank and up under his belly. Not only is the composition more dramatic, but it is more tight-knit and circular.
There is no evidence for the date at which this revised composition originated, but it must have been considerably later than Type A. The most important document for it is the volume of engravings made of the collection of François Girardon in 1710, where a version of this type is clearly represented from both sides and the caption reads Groupe de Bronze du Ravissement de Déjanire par le Centaure Nessus fait par J. de Boulogne réparé par A. Soucine, indicating that the bronze was moulded and cast by Antonio Susini from a model by Giambologna. Girardon’s bronze was almost certainly identical with one listed in the inventory after death of Cardinal Richelieu, 1643, which is described in similar terms, and with the same ascription. There seems to be no good reason to doubt the accuracy of this perfectly specific ascription of the model to Giambologna, since this brilliant composition appears to be absolutely in line with his thinking in the later years of the 16th century, when he was becoming increasingly dependent upon Antonio Susini for the execution of his models in bronze.
A version of the model appears on the central table in the painting by Willem van Haecht the Younger of the Gallery of Cornelis van der Geest in Antwerp (before 1620; Rubenshuis).
Cf C.Avery and A.Radcliffe, Giambologna, Sculptor to the Medici, (London - 1978).
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