Andiron with figure of Mercury (one of a pair)

Attributed to Alessandro Vittoria (Alessandro Vittoria di Vigilio della Volpa) Italian

Not on view

The Paris home of Frédéric Spitzer, the Austrian collector and dealer who once owned these firedogs, was a veritable Aladdin’s cave of fin-de-siècle curiosities. For a time, the firedogs were displayed in his so-called cabinet de travail (study), described in an 1890 guide to his collection as “an eclectic room where the amateur can find specimens of all the arts . . . the vestibule of the temple where the new gods do their internship while awaiting their final classification to the chapels.” Our bronzes can be seen in a photograph next to a monumental fireplace from Arnay-le Duc on the back wall of the room.[1]

The nude figures of Mercury and Orpheus, the latter holding his lyre, each preside over two harpies bound to the base with a thin strap wound below the breasts. The harpies’s wings join above a gold-plated shield embossed with heraldic emblems. A lion’s head anchors each andiron. In the Spitzer collection catalogue, published between 1890 and 1893, the firedogs are generically asigned to sixteenth-century Venice and their artistic importance highlighted with a handsome illustration. The same identification—“travail vénitien, XVIe siècle”—accompanied their sale in the auction of Spitzer’s collection in 1893. According to Paola Cordera’s reconstruction, the andirons were acquired by Henri Julius Stettiner, an antique dealer who operated in Paris and London. From there, they passed to John Edward Taylor, translator of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales and Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone and an avid collector with a penchant for Renaissance bronzes. From Taylor’s estate sale in 1912, they were purchased by Jacques Seligmann.[2]

By this point, Wilhelm von Bode had attributed the objects to Alessandro Vittoria in his authoritative study of Italian bronze statuettes. His attribution came notwithstanding doubts regarding the pair’s authenticity that had surfaced by the end of the nineteenth century.[3] Despite this skepticism, Seligmann managed to sell the firedogs to George Blumenthal using Bode’s imprimatur to justify the exorbitant price tag of $48,000. The sale was newsworthy, making the front page of The New York Times on February 25, 1913, which explained that the bronzes would “adorn the new house” the wealthy banker was building at Park Avenue and 70th Street. The prestige associated with these pieces is also attested by their prominent display in Blumenthal’s mansion: in a photo album produced in 1928 by Mattie Edwards Hewitt showcasing the millionaire’s residence, the firedogs appear in an elegant salon—probably the first-floor drawing room—flanking a portrait by Jacopo Tintoretto (fig. 82a). Elevated on cloth-covered pedestals, they were thus deprived of their functionality.[4]

The andirons entered The Met as part of Blumenthal’s bequest in 1941, their attribution to Vittoria intact and maintained for many years.[5] Upon closer examination, however, they appear to be late nineteenth-century objects deploying a pastiche of elements intended to mimic sixteenth-century Venetian bronzework. The style, surface treatment, and overall facture clearly denote a “Neo-Renaissance” exercise, the feckless embellishment of a framework of Venetian inspiration by way of banal, albeit immediately recognizable, references to other artists, such as the Michelangelesque molding under the slim figure of Mercury, above a base decorated with a repertoire of Second Empire cartouches and grotesquerie. The approximate rendering of decorative details—for example, the imprecise grooves on the harpies’ exaggerated talons—similarly betrays a modern manufacture. The fleshiness of the support figures—the turgid, sensual breasts, the carefully inscribed nipples—is incongruous with a sixteenth-century dating. Even Mercury’s helmet, in its domesticated oddness, should be counted among the clues that point toward a nineteenth-century provenance.

It is difficult, moreover, not to see in these bronzes a deliberately fraudulent production given their direct link to Spitzer, whose commercial fabrication of forgeries employing a large network of artisans has been uncovered in recent studies.[6] This is also suggested by the pair’s derivation from works already known in the nineteenth century and only partially reinterpreted, in a sense using their familiarity among connoisseurs and patrons as a way of “proving” their bona fides. For example, our firedogs repeat the central tier of two Venetian exemplars signed by Joseph de Levis that entered the V&A in 1857 (fig. 82b). The heraldic shields inserted on the pedestals of our bronzes are deceptive as well. These are not gilded copper, but modern lead/tin pot metal casts, plated with gold.[7] The shields combine emblems of the Anguissola-Tedesco-Secco family of Milan and the Grassi family of Verona.[8] They are therefore realistic coats of arms that were meant to lend the objects an aura of authenticity.

For that matter, in terms of taste, it is interesting to note the remarks of Lucien Falize in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts on the bronzeworks displayed at the 1878 Exposition Universelle in Paris, an event for which Spitzer supplied a roomful of objects from his collection. Apropos of the contemporary “industrial” production of bronzes, Falize reported that “the bronze industry has taken over the furnishing of the fireplace, with specialists who make andirons and fireguards. . . . they lavish as much skill on these accessories as the sixteenth-century artists did, modeling the large andirons from the Soltykoff collection or those of M. Louis Fould.”[9]

(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. “une pièce mixte, rendez-vous général où l’amateur veut trouver sous la main des spécimens de tous les arts . . . le vestibule du temple où les dieux nouveaux viennent faire un stage en attendant leur classement définitif dans les chapelles.” Bonnaffé 1890, pp. 10–11.
2. A copy of the sale catalogue in the Thomas J. Watson Library (119.6 F 1912 June-July) records the price of $9,660 paid by Seligmann.
3. For instance, in a copy of the Spitzer sale catalogue that entered the Bargello with the 1899 bequest of Costantino Ressman, next to the firedogs entry is the handwritten note “douteux” (dubious). I thank Paola Cordera for pointing this out to me.
4. The Tintoretto portrait is in The Met, 41.100.12.
5. New York 1952, pp. 174, 235–36, no. 170.
6. See, for example, Cordera 2014.
7. R. Stone/TR, 2002.
8. See ESDA/OF for Rayanne Walter’s research on the heraldic emblems (1960s), and Crollalanza 1886–90, vol. 1, pp. 47, 312, 497, for the imagery.
9. “la fabrique de bronzes . . . s’est emparée . . . de la cheminée tout entière; . . . elle la meuble aussi et il est des spécialistes qui font des landiers, des chenets et des garde-feux une étude spéciale et ont . . . dépensé autant de talent qu’en mettaient à cet accessoire les artistes du XVIe siècle à modeler les grand chenets de la collection Soltykoff ou ceux que possède m. Louis Fould.” Falize 1878, p. 610.

Andiron with figure of Mercury (one of a pair), Attributed to Alessandro Vittoria (Alessandro Vittoria di Vigilio della Volpa) (Italian, 1525–1608), Bronze, possibly France

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