Thomaï Serdari on Fine Arts & Luxury
Antico and the Luxury arts of the Renaissance
Antico. Meleager. ca. 1496. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Antico. Meleager. ca. 1496. Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

If Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi were living today he would be the CEO and Creative Director of his own luxury brand, most aptly named “Antico.”  But Antico himself (ca. 1455-1528) was an Italian sculptor who worked during the peak of the Renaissance and produced immaculate neo-Classical bronze statuettes of ancient heroes and gods for his very wealthy patrons. And what would make Antico a luxury brand, one may ask.  Well, several factors determine whether a product is a luxury good. Here is how one may view Antico’s production.

Born in Mantua, Antico was trained as a goldsmith, the most revered profession amongst Renaissance artists, more than painting or sculpture. This is because someone who knew how to work with gold and other precious metals and how to innovate in terms of design already was ahead of any painter or sculptor. The latter usually worked in larger scale, without holding anything hot in their hands.  In addition, goldsmiths were known to employ other artists in their studio, which was a type of laboratory where ideas were exchanged and results showed progress daily. The goldsmith was the captain of the “creatives,” so to speak.

Antico, entered the service of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, son of the Marchese of Mantua, early on in his career. For him, and for members of Gonzaga’s court, Antico produced his largely admired bronzes in limited numbers. Not only did he cater to a very noble clientele of the local aristocracy but he also limited the supply of his works, which intensified desire amongst his very few and lucky clients.

Additionally, Antico had worked as a restorer of antiquities, a position that allowed him to become well-versed in the vocabulary, style, and technique of antique marble and bronze sculpture and to really understand how the forms derived from the specific materials used. With that knowledge he went on copying the most charming and famous Roman sculptures that he had studied while he stayed in Rome as a restorer.  As Ken Johnson noted in his review of the current Frick Collection exhibit “Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes,” “copying back then was not a crime.” As it shouldn’t be—copying is not easy. It can be a very creative process, as was the case with Antico’s work, one that relied on the study of the original and was enriched with the sculptor’s fascination with Roman literary and visual culture. Well-steeped into the production of his own contemporaries who were practicing classicizing painting while developing a new painterly vocabulary, Antico was able to copy because he was a master of innovation. He became famous for his ability to combine all the cultural components of artists past and present in his own small-scale bronzes. While no written sources of Antico’s inspiration or intentions have survived (contrary to other Renaissance artists who left written testaments to their artistic direction and aspirations), his sculptural work is “impervious to memory or identity,” as Stephen J. Campbell marks in the exhibition catalog.

By avoiding self-aggrandizing that would have been inevitable in his writings, Antico honored the quality of each piece rather than his own genius. He thus preserved the reputation of his name as a powerhouse in the production of quality multiples, very similar to the mission of a luxury brand today. He also allowed his pieces to emit a much more personal, intimate, and familiar image that was appealing. He made them “aethereal,” as any perfect work of art should be in order to achieve that unique connection to its owner.

In the three rooms that house Antico’s work at the Frick Collection one realizes that the artist produced at least one of each, with 39 works surviving today. But who can really tell whether these are the numbers of his actual production and not just the works that survived? And what can one think of the fact that some of the copies were cast after the artist’s death? After all, Antico’s works were cast in bronze and were relatively easy to reproduce. Would the ones reproduced without the master’s supervision have the same impact on their prospective owners? It depends on how well trained the craftsmen who worked with him were. Having maintained such a flawless reputation in his own brand, chances are that Antico managed his studio well, much better than any of the brand names that come to mind today.

For those who worship the uniqueness and grandeur of art as opposed to the vulgarity of luxury, a visit to the Frick will be illuminating. Under one condition: our modern aesthetic of what is and what is not proper in art must be left at the door.

© Thomaï Serdari