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An Appealing Spanish Lock


This intriguing ironwork belongs to the so-called à moraillon kind of locks, designed for closing chests and coffers, and quite common in the Gothic and Late Gothic periods, especially in the French and Spanish areas.
The present one shows a typical quadrangular shape and a warm brown patina; moreover, it has a rather unusual and rare decorative layout.

The upper part is marked by three embossed and engraved vertical elements, imitating three knobby trunks wrapped in helical bands: the first and third elements are the staples anchoring the lock to the chest, while the second and tilting one is the keyhole cover; a small winged dragon with knotted tail, carved in full relief, appears between the first and the second element, with the aim to adorn the moraillon below and also to enable the grip of it when the coffer has to be opened.

The lower part is a band decorated with two carved grotesque masks, separated by a rectangular plate with an orbe-voie tracery. This type of ornament consists of an overlapping of several pierced plates, each one with a different design, thus obtaining a precious effect imitating a goldsmith’s work.

Ironworking in Spain had already reached significant levels during the early Middle Ages, due to the Arabic presence, introducing new and sophisticated techniques; above all, Spanish blacksmiths drew from the Islamic aesthetic the taste for the minute and refined metalworking.
At the same time, the iconographic theme of the dragon enliving this rich lock is omnipresent in the Christian world: used at least since the Romanesque period in the context of a vitalistic conception of ornamentation, it is undoubtedly among the protagonists of the Gothic drôlerie.
Moreover, dragons are recurrent elements in the typical decorative lexicon on locks and doorknockers: as well as heads and monstrous masks, they are elements decorating crossing points – not by chance – and often with an apotropaic meaning.


Chest with ‘moraillon’ lock, Spain, circa 1500. Madrid, National Archaeological Museum

This fertile crossroad of cultures is therefore at the origin of an unparalleled Spanish flair in the art of iron, long-lasting over the centuries, of which this lock is a significant example. A really appealing work, not only for its compositional invention, but also because it shows the simultaneous application of all the major metalworking techniques: embossing, piercing, engraving and full-relief carving.


Wrought, embossed, carved and pierced iron
Circa 1500
Cm 20,5 x 22,5 h

References: Henri René d’Allemagne, Decorative Antique Ironwork, Dover Publ., 1968, Pl. 39; Catherine Vaudour, Clefs et Serrures, des origines au commencement de la Renaissance, Catalogue du Musée Le Secq des Tournelles, Fascicule II, Rouen Offset Fernandez, Rouen 1980, p. 72-75.

An Outstanding Jewelry Casket

This small and precious rectangular brass casket -completely gilded both outside and inside- shows a stepped base, a domed lid and a front enriched by two reverse-painted oval rock crystals, set into bezels: the left one depicts the Annunciation and the right one depicts the Nativity.
The entire outer surface of the casket is finely engraved with interwoven ribbons, twirls and plant festoons, following a stylistic repertoire very common in the German area.
On the front, between the two ovals and surrounded by a rich decoration, the keyhole houses a delightful miniature key that moves a tiny spring lock, still working. The trilobed key handle follows a typical Southern German model, just like the miniature doorknockers decorating the short sides of the casket: a pair of beautiful leonine masks with a ring in their jaws.
The lid, equipped with a beautiful baluster-shaped handle, is richly engraved: on the lateral lunettes there are two cupids hidden in the vegetation, while centrally there’s a lady in profile within a laurel wreath. The lady is richly dressed according to the Habsburg fashion dating from between late 16th and early 17th century: a high collar, a narrow gorget, the hair gathered in a net and the head crowned by a small hat.


Right: J. Pantoja de la Cruz, Queen Elizabeth of Valois, c. 1605 (det.). Madrid, Prado

The presence of a female portrait, as well as the iconographic choice of both crystals, related to the theme of motherhood, allow us to understand that the small jewelry box represents a special example of those wedding caskets, widespread in all European regions since the Middle Ages and especially in the German region (where they are known as Minnekästchen, from the German word “Minne” meaning ‘courtly love’): a gift between lovers or newlyweds, used to store jewelry and other personal objects.


Right: Tableclock with alarm. Southern Germany, 1530-1540.

Similarly, the sophisticated decoration of our refined piece finds significant comparisons within the best German goldsmith production, typical of Augsburg and Nuremberg, like, for example, some gorgeous watch cases crafted in that area from the mid-16th century onwards.
Finally, the quality of the two painted crystals is particularly evident in the fine pictorial details, which can be found in similar artefacts, once again from the German area.


Right: Pendant with the Nativity (painted rock crystal), Nuremberg c. 1550. Coll. Ryser

The reverse paintings on glass or rock-crystal, a pre-Roman technique, required a high degree of virtuosity, not only because of the small size of the work surface, but also due to the difficulty of conceiving the painting in the opposite way, i.e. starting from the details and ending with the background. These works were manufactured, in the Renaissance, especially in the Italian and German areas, by artists who achieved expressions of such an excellence that they fed an international trade.

Outstanding-Jewelry-Casket-side-viewJEWELRY CASKET
Engraved and gilded brass; gilded and painted rock-crystals
Southern Germany (Augsburg or Nuremberg)
Late 16th century
cm. 8,5 x 3,5 x 6,5 h

An Intense Ivory Christ

This exquisite sculpture is a vivid baroque interpretation of the Christus triumphans: still alive, with open eyes and raised head, recommending his spirit to God the Father.
The refined ivory artifact offers the viewer remarkable anatomy and quality, both on the front and on the back. As usual, the arms are carved separately and then joined at shoulder height.
The image of the living Christ and the presence of four nails fastening the body to the cross recall a precise iconography, retrieved from early medieval models. This precious sculpture witnesses the European fortune of this representation during the Baroque period, partially anticipated by Michelangelo in his famous drawing for Vittoria Colonna (1545, London, British Museum).
In fact, by capturing the most significant and dramatic moment of the story, this representation perfectly meets the intense religious sentiment typical of the 17th century.


In the present Christ, the physiognomy, the posture, the end of the loincloth raised by the wind, the rope stretched against the right thigh and the use of two separate nails in the feet, derive from an invention by Alessandro Algardi (Bologna 1598-Rome 1654), the great sculptor active in Rome in the first half of the 17th century.
The comparison with his bronze Crucifix in Palazzo Pallavicini Rospigliosi, clarifies the direct derivation from the most popular model of the Baroque era, which is also known in an ivory version now in the National Museum of Mileto.


Left: A. Algardi, Crucifix (1646 c.). Rome, Pallavicini Rospigliosi Palace.

Around 1647 Algardi made a silver Crucifix for Pope Innocent X, about 60 cm high. That first and very important model, now lost, was immediately replicated by great artists for some important patrons. For example one can mention two ivory crucifixes  kept in Palazzo Pitti: one sculpted by Balthasar Permoser around 1686 for Vittoria della Rovere, and a larger one made in 1670 for Cardinal Flavio Chigi, attributed to Lorenz Rues, inherited by Cosimo III de’ Medici in 1692; between 1723 and 1726, Bernardo Holzmann made a silver Crucifix, designed by Giovan Battista Foggini, that today is in the Museum of the Treasure of San Lorenzo.

The lightness and elegant dynamism of the cloth, which echoes the powerful expression of Christ (an explicit reference to the Laocoonte),, and the refined rendering of certain details, such as the fingers of the hands and of thorns, make this precious crucifix a particularly intense example of Baroque ivory sculpture.


Alessandro Algardi (1598-1654), after a model by
Second half 17th century
Cm 28 x 6 x 38,5 h
Study by Dr. Charles Avery

An Important Shaffron


This wonderful shaffron (from the French chamfrain) – the part of a horse’s armour protecting its head – perfectly documents the Turkish 16th century armour, made up of several metal plates connected one another by iron mails; a light and flexible defence derived from that used by the Islamic heavy cavalry.
The piece here presented consists of four elements: a central plate, two lateral ones and a small plate over the central one, all of them joined together by a thick mail of forged and individually riveted rings according to the medieval “barley grain” technique (grain d’orge).


All the plates are perforated along the edges to fix a fabric lining inside, for the comfort of the horse head. The main plate which is shaped -as well as the two lateral ones- to allow the horse to see, has a small visor in the upper section. Under the visor it is clearly visible the Arsenal of St. Irene Hallmark – that is the one of the famous Costantinople armoury, located in a courtyard of the Topkapi Palace.


This rare mark, well-known to scholars, appears only on the arms and armours entering that armoury at the time of Sultan Selim (1512-1520), the father of Suleyman the Magnificent. The arsenal consisted of equipment for the great Ottoman army and booties from Egypt, Persia or Hungary (Grancsay 1986, p. 447).
The Byzantine church of St. Irene, was the first one commissioned by Constantine in the 4th century; after 1453 it became an arsenal, during the 18th century a Museum of Antiquities and from 1946 to 1978 a Museum of Arms.


Sultan Suleyman during the Siege of Rhodes (1522, det. of a miniature from the Suleymanname). Istanbul, Topkapi Museum

A shaffron very similar to the present one is nowadays preserved in the Topkapi Museum of Arms, another one belongs to the collections of the Metropolitan Museum in New York (inv. 36.25.506) and a third one is preserved in the Stibbert Museum in Florence (inv. 3514-3517), all three with the same hallmark.
Unlike most of the shaffrons known where only the central plate has been preserved, our example has all its original elements and this completeness undoubtedly makes the present piece a particularly rare one.


Turkey (Istanbul)
Early 16th century
Cm 44 x 44h

References: H. R. Robinson, Il Museo Stibbert, Milano 1967, vol I, tav. 1-6, spec. Tav. 2; L’Armeria Reale di Torino, ed. by F. Mazzini, Varese 1983 pl. 363, p. 402-403; S. Grancsay, Arms and Armor: essays by Stephen V. Grancsay from the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, 1920-1964, New York 1986; H. Ricketts and Ph. Missillier, Splendeur des armes orientales, Paris 1988; T. Güçkıran, Askeri Müze At Zırhları Koleksiyonu, Istanbul 2009.

A Special Romanesque Spanish Capital

This intriguing and rare limestone capital, rectangular in shape, certainly surmounted a twin column in an important medieval cloistered complex. The external surface of the sculpture, rhythmed along the upper edge by vertical buttresses, is almost entirely occupied by the low relief figures of two opposing pairs of animals with cynocephalic features, which represent the true peculiarity of this work.


These canids, belonging to the fervent symbolic bestiary of Romanesque art, are interpreted with an elegant and ornamental design: their tails join together thus creating a sort of allegorical heart, a clear reference to the concept of loyalty, to which the dog has been associated since ancient times. Moreover, on the short sides, the four canids raise and cross one front leg, as a sign of obedience.


At the same time, this iconography is alluding to the role of guardians, typical of canids, that they share with lions, dragons and griffins, much more common for this kind of sculpture. Moreover, the delicate surface of the fur on our canids- which bears surprising traces of the original polychromy – reminds the typical geometric way of rendering lion manes in the Middle Ages.


In the rich panorama of Spanish Romanesque sculpture from the second half of the 12th century, many similarities can be found with this beautiful capital, especially in the stone carvings directly linked to the most important sites such as Girona, Sant Pere de Rodes and Sant Cugat del Vallès. In particular, the capitals of the cloisters of some smaller monasteries like Sant Pau del Camp in Barcelona and, further north, of Santa Maria de Lluçà (built after 1168) can be an interesting comparison: from a figurative, technical and material point of view, these capitals are so similar to the present one, as to suggest that the latter was made by the same workers active in that region between about 1180 and the beginning of the 13th century.


Cloister of S. Maria de Lluçà Monastery

Double Capital
Spain (Catalonia)
Circa 1180 -1200
Cm 30 x 45 x 26
Study by prof. Luca Mor

A Rare Jar from Montelupo


This important jar with spout and rich dragon-shaped handles, is entirely decorated with refined and airy “raffaellesche”. On the front there is a shield with the figure of St. Dominic in prayer, over a big cartouche with a large inscription: SV° DI FM° STERNO S (meaning fumoterra syrup or sauce, a plant with purifying properties nowadays known as fumitory or earth smoke).


The large-size container was certainly made on commission in Montelupo, one of the main Renaissance majolica centers in Italy, as demonstrated by both the shape and the decorative repertoire. Jars like this were made for pharmacies of large convents or hospitals and the present one, because of the presence of St. Dominic depicted on the front, may have belonged to the pharmacy of an important institution such as the Dominican convent of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, where several jars with an identical formal layout but different decoration are still preserved.


Two other jars are known, probably belonging to the same group of furnishings as our piece, with almost identical grotesque motifs and, of course, inscriptions identifying other preparations: one from the Pasquali collection (Conti, 1973) and another from an anonymous private collection (Berti, 1999).

Big double-handled Jar, Santa Maria Novella, “C2” Series (1613?)

Since the mid-16th century, the Raphaelesque motifs became part of the decorative repertoire of ceramics and majolica throughout central Italy as well as other decorative areas, from furniture ornamentation to wall decorations. In this regard, an interesting Tuscan reference can be found on the Uffizi Gallery corridors ceilings, painted by Antonio Tempesta and Alessandro Allori at the end of the 16th century, outstanding both for the great importance dedicated to the white background and the particularly rarefied and lively composition.

A. Tempesta, A. Allori and workshop, Uffizi Gallery Ceiling (detail), 1581

Montelupo (Firenze)
Late 16th – early 17th century
H. cm. 42

References: G. Conti, L’arte della maiolica in Italia, Bramante, Milano 1973; F. Berti,
La maiolica di Montelupo. Secoli XIV- XVIII, Milano 1986, p. 144-148, ill. 92, 93a-b,
96a-b; F. Berti, Storia della ceramica di Montelupo, Montelupo 1999, vol. 3, p. 333;
idem, La farmacia storica fiorentina. I “fornimenti” in maiolica di Montelupo (secc. XVXVIII),
Firenze, 2010


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