Incense burner

Northern Italian, probably Padua

On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 537

These two incense burners are nearly identical save for their crowning elements, both of which are later substitutions.[1] The first entered The Met in 1941, as part of the collection of George Blumenthal. The latter joined as part of the bequest of Jack and Belle Linsky in 1982, and was once in the collection of the duke of Devonshire, where it was first noted in 1930.

Both are fine examples of a well-known composition, the best version of which is in the Rijksmuseum (fig. 20a).[2] A fourth, transformed into a pricket candlestick, is in the Robert H. Smith collection, formerly in the Pannwitz collection.[3] The Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum in Braunschweig has a reduced version, topped by a Minerva figure, as well as a standalone base.[4] Each object is comprised of a triangular base with feet in the form of satyr masks joined by swags of garlands surmounted by shells. The base has bound, hunched-over satyrs at each corner, framing rectangular reliefs. The middle registers feature sphinxes alternating with volutes around a central hollow column. Above is a gadrooned onion dome with pierced windows, with the garland shell motif repeated between openings. Where the Smith object has a pricket insert that transformed its original purpose, the Rijksmuseum is crowned by a figure of Mars, the Blumenthal a drunken satyr, and the Linsky a finial, described by Anthony Radcliffe as a “flaming vase of a type frequently encountered on English early eighteenth-century clocks.”[5] The other major difference between the objects is found in the plaquettes that decorate the bases: The Met’s burners both have nearly identical reliefs of satyr masks, while those in the Rijksmuseum and the Smith collection feature scenes from the Labors of Hercules after designs by Moderno.

Perfume burners were popular domestic objects in fifteenth-century Padua, where they were used to freshen interiors and also as a putative means to ward off airborne disease.[6] Heated pastilles, or resin, would waft through the burner and out the windows of the onion-shaped dome. There are small holes on each of the bound satyrs’ heads, though the function of these openings, if any, is unclear. Related objects were attributed to Riccio by Wilhelm von Bode, though he did not publish any of the aforementioned specifically.[7] Yet further examples were placed in Riccio’s workshop by Leo Planisicig.[8]

These burners are certainly informed by the iconography and visual vocabulary of the artist’s Paschal Candelabrum, but are later interpretations of his idiom rather than direct products of his shop. While a general thematic reading can be given to them, wherein the bestial nature of the bound satyr transforms into the intellectual state of the sphinx as the smoke ascends, the likely crowning element of a copulating pair (see below) argues against such a reading; one again tends to agree with Radcliffe: “these pieces have no symbolic programme. They are incoherent assemblages of borrowed motifs.”[9]

Wendy Stedman Sheard proposed Moderno as a possible author of the reliefs, which James David Draper seconded as worthy of consideration.[10] A majority of scholars, however, have put forth Desiderio da Firenze as the author, first Leeuwenberg in 1959, followed by Pope-Hennessy, Radcliffe, and Warren. Desiderio has become an attractive attribution for objects produced with Riccio’s aesthetic but not directly emanating from the master’s shop. Still, the only securely documented work by Desiderio, his Voting Urn (p. 00, figs. 21a–b), contains a vivacity in details absent from these largely utilitarian works (one might contrast them to the cylindrical burner in the Ashmolean, which is a likely candidate for Desiderio’s authorship).[11] These incense burners should instead more safely be assigned to an unknown Paduan workshop circa 1550. Two similar burners in The Met’s Lehman Collection, cylindrical rather than pyramidal in shape, seem more likely candidates to have emerged from Desiderio’s workshop, as they have been recently catalogued.[12]

In his 1724 Supplement au livre de l’antiquité expliquée et representée en figures, Bernard de Montfaucon published an engraving of the Rijksmuseum burner, then in the collection of the earl of Oxford.[13] He described it as an antique urn and explained that he was shielding his audience from the urn’s crowning feature, a copulating satyr and satyress. It is undoubtedly for the same reason of decorum that each of the four known examples features a different, later element. As noted by Tilmann Buddenseig, a cover with such a satyr and satyress group is conserved in the Louvre, likely an extant example of this missing feature.[14]

The elements on each section of The Met burners are cast integrally, with the individual elements interlocking through the use of similar bayonet mounts. Though both are early, finely cast examples, the Linsky burner possesses an iota more of refinement in modeling.[15]

(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. I am indebted to the research of Madison Clyburn, who studied the Blumenthal incense burner in a Bard Graduate Center seminar on bronzes held at The Met in Spring 2020 and taught by Denise Allen, Elyse Nelson, and myself.
2. Leeuwenberg 1973, no. 652.
3. Radcliffe 1994, pp. 34–40, no. 5.
4. Berger and Krahn 1994, no. 18.
5. Radcliffe 1994, p. 38.
6. For the context of these objects in Renaissance Padua and the use of incense in early modern domestic spaces, see the study by Madison Clyburn, ESDA/OF.
7. Bode 1908–12, vol. 1, p. 28, fig. 49.
8. Planiscig 1927, p. 243.
9. Radcliffe 1997, p. 90.
10. Sheard 1979, cat. 124.
11. WA2004.1; see Warren 2014, no. 50.
12. MMA, 1975.1.1396, .1397; see Scholten 2011, pp. 35–43, nos. 16, 17.
13. Montfaucon 1724, vol. 1, pp. 139–40, pl. 50.
14. Buddensieg 1963, p. 150.
15. I am grateful to Linda Borsch for examining the bronzes with the participants of the Bard Graduate Center seminar, Spring 2020. Neither incense burner has been analyzed by XRF. Visual examination suggests that the onion dome as well as the finials are later replacements, perhaps added sometime after the copulating satyrs were removed. The domes and finials could be nineteenth-century additions, which would have made the incense burners much more attractive to the market.

Incense burner, Bronze, Northern Italian, probably Padua

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