This monumental, highly modeled, circular composition dates around 1715-20, during the time of Conca’s early successes and first official academic recognitions in Rome. It is published here with new research. The subject of the drawing derives from Virgil’s Aeneid (8:370-385), which narrates that Venus asked Vulcan, god of fire, to make a set of armor for her son Aeneas. Conca focused on the moment in which Vulcan, the husband (seated at right), gestures to show his spouse, the cloud-borne Venus above, the finished shield that is held up by the buxom child Cupid below, at center. The shield held by Cupid contains a design that seems to represent the reclining she-wolf of Rome, and immediately behind her body, the twins Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, and who according to Virgil’s Aeneid descended from Aeneas. At left, three half-nude workers hammer away in the heat of Vulcan’s forge, to produce the armor intended for Aeneas. The different parts of the armor are strewn about the composition. The design of the Met’s drawing was always intended to be in the shape of a circle. Not only do the figures all fit gracefully within the space of the paper, but there are also traces of circular framing outlines in pen and ink and the perforated hole from the compass used to create the perimeter of the circle is evident at the perfect center of the sheet.
Conca arrived in Rome in 1707, and the period of 1715-20 marked a turning point in his career. He was inducted to the Congregazione dei Virtuosi al Pantheon in 1714 and the Accademia di San Luca in 1718. Although he had no direct professional ties to Venice nor did he have significant patrons in the great port city (as far as one knows), the young Conca’s work before 1720 reveals certain Venetian influences beyond the natural fusions of artistic styles from his Neapolitan roots and training in the studio of Francesco Solimena (1657-1747) and the Roman vocabulary of Carlo Maratti (1625-1713) and his school in which Conca soon found himself ensconced after 1707. Solimena received his earliest commissions from Venice between 1704 and 1708, that is, while Conca was still associated with his studio. The presence of Venetian families in Naples with commercial enterprises in both port cities had nourished the taste for Neapolitan painting in Venice from the seventeenth century onward. The appreciation for Venetian light and color had in part permeated the Neapolitan school through the paintings of Luca Giordano (1634-1705), and later Paolo De Matteis (1662-1728). Giordano spent time in Venice around 1652 in order to acquire the "bella, vaga, armoniosa maniera" that complemented his studies of Pietro da Cortona's art in Rome, and also returned to La Serenissima in 1656. Between the 1690s and 1720s non-religious painting in Rome exhibited some "international" characteristics of style and content that in part responded to the tastes and demands of patrons from elsewhere in the peninsula and from abroad. A similarly general point about the international character of taste and patronage can be made in regard to secular painting in Venice of these years. It is the non-religious Venetian pictures that were probably the strongest catalyst in Conca’s experience of Venetian color and light.
In Rome, the Accademia di San Luca and the studio of Carlo Maratti had provided crucibles in which some of the varied stylistic vocabularies of Italians and foreigners were homogenized. The sensuous, elegantly rhythmic arrangements of the mythological figures in the composition drawings of Venus at the Forge of Vulcan (another is extant at Holkham Hall) demonstrate Sebastiano Conca’s gifts as an appealing visual story-teller, and while one knows that he derived his success in Italy from painting large-scale frescoes and altarpieces, it was his smaller-scale, easel pictures of non-religious subject matter which were especially sought after by erudite collectors of his day, and especially by the British gentry on the Grand Tour. Lione Pascoli’s biography of Conca in the Vite de’ pittori, scultori, ed architetti viventi of the 1730s describes a particularly persistent (unnamed) British patron, who became the artist's close friend and whose network of acquaintances became the source of other commissions for Conca. It is almost certain that the man in question was Thomas Coke, first Earl of Leicester (1697–1759), the British collector who in his Grand Tour as a teenager met the artist in Rome in 1716, while traveling in Italy between 1712 and 1718 in the company of his tutor Thomas Hobart, and who until 1754 commissioned pictures from Conca that are still today at Holkham Hall, his fabled country-house, together with some of his drawings (including the oval Venus at the Forge of Vulcan), as well as in the Mostyn-Owen Collection in London. The Earl of Leicester acquired most of his works of art during two periods: firstly in 1714-18, and secondly in 1747-54. Bernardo De Dominici’s short life of Conca of 1742, appended to the biography of Francesco Solimena, his rigorous, prolific master, also alludes twice to Conca’s numerous pictures in British collections. Conca’s British patrons included Robert Walpole, first Earl of Orford (1676-1745), and Charles Lennox, first Duke of Richmond (1672-1723), who sought to decorate Goodwood House.
(Carmen C. Bambach; April 23, 2015)
Christie's, London, 4 July 1978, lot 62; Sotheby's, London, 4 July 2012, lot 35; Vendor: Katrin Bellinger Kunsthandel, Munich
The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Drawings and Prints: Selections from the Permanent Collection," July 15, 2014–September 29, 2014.