In 1899, the internationally renowned scholar and connoisseur Wilhelm von Bode first published the Youth, then in the Pfungst collection in London, assigning it to the school of the Paduan sculptor Andrea Riccio. Bode’s association of the statuette with the highly esteemed Renaissance master underscored the importance—seemingly outsized today—that this composition and its variants enjoyed among nineteenth- and early twentieth-century collectors of small bronzes. Bode was a major figure among the circle of curators, collectors, and dealers who were passionate about the art form. In this intense, competitive environment, expert attributions enhanced a collection’s reputation, endowing even modest bronzes like the Youth with glamorous desirability. Bode’s designation of the Youth as “School of Riccio” reveals his recognition of the sculpture’s lackluster quality relative to the finest known example, which he attributed to the master himself and acquired for the sculpture collection of the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin (fig. 15a). Yet his attributional imprimatur was more than enough to entice the American financier J. Pierpont Morgan, who purchased the Pfungst collection en bloc in 1901. The exhibition of Morgan’s vast holdings at The Met in 1914 introduced the collecting and study of Italian bronze statuettes to America. New York magnates, eager to emulate Morgan’s example, soon began to consider bronzes de rigeur elements in their collections. In 1916, Michael Friedsam, president of B. Altman & Company, purchased the Youth along with twenty-seven Morgan bronzes that he later bequeathed to The Met.
In 2003, Volker Krahn cogently analyzed the Berlin Youth’s attribution and relationship to the other eight known variants, including ours, and suggested that they all derive from a lost and perhaps incomplete figurative model by Riccio.2 The Berlin and Met Youths represent the two types. Both share the same seated crouching pose and bear vessels on their right shoulders, elements that probably echo Riccio’s lost model. However, in all the variants, the vessels are functional objects: the Berlin Youth and six others carry shell-shaped inkwells; our Youth and another in the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg, bear oil lamps in the form of snail shells. Riccio is not known to have combined figurative statuettes with functional objects, and it is likely that these are adaptations by later artists. Another later addition is the awkward Renaissance recorder clasped in the upraised hands of The Met and Hamburg Youths. The musical instrument is absent in the other variant figures, who lower their hands toward the ground.
Because the Berlin Youth is closest in style and facture to Riccio’s work, Krahn dated it to the decade after the master’s death (ca. 1530–40). The unknown sculptor was intimately familiar with Riccio’s art. The Berlin Youth has the slender wasp-waist proportions, angular, slightly awkward disposition of limbs, and dreamily expressive features of Riccio’s young male figures. As is characteristic of the master’s bronzes, the Berlin cast is thick-walled. Details are left untooled in the metal to preserve the freshness of the modeling, and the bronze surface is delicately hammered to vibrantly scatter light across the figure. The Met Youth is much further removed from Riccio’s world than the Berlin statuette. The modeling of the figure is generalized, and the almost caricatural facial features are perfunctorily tooled in the metal. Aggressive filing over the figure’s surface imparts a dull, inarticulate evenness to the flesh. The cast, however, is an accomplished one, with very thin walls and no sign of porosity. The Met Youth likely was made by a later imitator—but how much later is difficult to determine. Nothing about the work’s technique precludes a late sixteenth- to early seventeenth-century date.
The design of our bronze appears to be a composite of loose references to earlier Renaissance statuettes. The figure echoes Riccio’s poetic classical Arcadian shepherds, but instead of appropriately holding ancient reed pipes (syrinx), he grasps an anachronistic contemporary recorder. The fantastic snail-shell oil lamp lacks a wick pan and must have served a purely decorative purpose that is uncharacteristic of functional early Renaissance bronzes. Nonetheless, to collectors of the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century, this combination of figure and accoutrements may have been enough to endow the composition with the credible appearance of a Renaissance bronze, or perhaps even an ancient one. In Padua, the production of bronze statuettes was a cottage industry serving different levels of buyers. The competence with which the Youth was cast hints at mass production; its poor artistic quality suggests a work aimed at the lower end of the market. Despite such swings in quality, the Youth was among the most frequently reproduced and interpreted of Riccio’s models. Something about his invention clearly spoke over a long period to the bronze-collecting audience in Padua and its sister city, Venice.
All nine variants of the Youth carry shell-shaped containers. One might speculate that Riccio’s original lost model was designed to represent a vessel- or water-bearer. Water-bearers were unofficial civic symbols in Venice, where fresh water was precious. They appear, for example, as standing figurative stone rainspouts on the facade of the Basilica of San Marco, and as a bronze statuette above the doorway in Vittore Carpaccio’s painting of the Dream of Saint Ursula of 1495 (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice). The Venetian patrician Marcantonio Michiel recorded Riccio’s lost statuette of a striding vessel-bearer (“nuodo in bronzo che porta el vaso in spalla e camina”) in the collection of Marco Mantova Benavides in Padua. Perhaps Riccio created the Youth to represent a seated version. If so, its complex, foreshortened, crouching pose would have meaningfully recalled an esteemed Roman civic emblem, the ancient bronze seated Spinario (thorn-puller) that had become a popular subject for statuettes created by the shop of Riccio’s northern Italian contemporary Severo da Ravenna (see cats. 39, 40). And perhaps it is no coincidence that one of the most famous antiquities in the Veneto, the monumental marble fountain figure of Hercules kneeling and crouching beneath the weight of a shell-shaped sundial, was given to the city of Ravenna by Riccio’s patron Girolamo Donà in 1493. Popularly called Conchicollo (“he who bears a shell on his neck”), this civic centerpiece might also have provided an inspirational context for Riccio’s invention.
(For key to shortened references see bibliography in Allen, Italian Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022.)
1. For Michael Friedsam as collector and for a discussion of Bode’s influence on British and American collectors of bronze statuettes, see the essay by Jeffrey Fraiman in this volume and cat. 42.
2. The following two paragraphs summarize Krahn’s arguments.
3. For Riccio’s bronze-casting technique, see Stone 2008.
4. The statuette was cast in a quaternary alloy of copper, tin, zinc, and lead. The lack of porosity, visible in radiographs, may be due to the alloy’s generally superior casting qualities. The core pins have left both circular and near square holes in the bronze that were subsequently plugged, indicating that both drawn and slit wires were used, a curious combination that was never employed by Riccio or his followers. The figure shows no evidence of a typical black patina, and the gray clay core also differs from the pink clay used by Riccio and his Paduan imitators. R. Stone/TR, September 6, 2001.
5. Stone (ibid.) also points out the troublingly dissonant appearance of a Renaissance recorder and nonfunctional lamp on this bronze.
6. For bronze production in Padua, see Motture 2008.
7. Michiel 1888, p. 28.
8. For the Hercules monument, see Zorzi 1988, pp. 23–24, fig. 7; Cirelli 2008, p. 39 n. 4. Severo da Ravenna adapted the marble Hercules into bronze inkwell groups; see C. Avery 1998b, pp. 92–93, no. 32.