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A Refined Goldsmith Scale

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This rare and extraordinarily elegant measuring instrument stands out for its the exclusive fineness: a precision scale with moulded steel shears, steel equal arms beam with swan neck finials; circular embossed silver plate pans are hung to the beam through stirrup shaped silver threads; an elegant cover plate to the shears in finely pierced, engraved and gilded brass, showing a typical and elegant rococo design, encloses a circular quadrant highlighting a very subtitle steel needle-shaped pointer.

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Precision scale (or grain-scale; Ger: Probierwaage) considered the forerunner of the analytical balance scale, is a specific and particularly sensitive kind of instrument used to assay small quantities of silver and gold, through a complex method called ‘cupellation’. This method is based on two consecutive and correlated weighings: the reliability of the result depends on the accuracy of the weighings and thereby, ultimately on the accuracy of the scale.

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Left: Wenzel Jamnitzer, Goldsmith Scale, 16th century, Stuttgart, Landesmuseum Württemberg. Right: J. W. Meil “Die Waagen: Probierwaage, Goldwaage, gemeine Waage und Schnellwaage”, engraving from “Spectaculum Naturae et Artium” (1761).

The oldest example of equal arms balance known to us has been found in the Naqada site, in Southern Egypt and dates to the Neolithic period, around 7000 years ago. The need to assay precious metals originated with the use of currency, to fight the phenomenon of counterfeiting. The first corporative laws regulating the quality of the metal and the practice of assaying and hallmarking appeared in the Middle Ages. Precision balances similar to ours have been used to perform this operation, on jewelry or other silver or gold objects, since the first half of the 16th century. These instruments became more and more refined over the centuries, together with scientific and technological progress, until the invention, by J. Hyacinth de Magellan around 1780, of a new type of precision balance with more sophisticated technical and formal features.

Precision balances for goldsmiths and those for money changers were already distinct and specialized in the 18th century: our example certainly belongs to the first category. Given the high sensitivity to stress of these instruments (even dust particles on the weighing plates can make a difference), weighing plates were suspended by means of metal thread, as in our case, or even with horsehair or platinum wires, so as to prevent dirt from adhering to the suspensions. Rarely have these elements been preserved over time: most museum-level goldsmith’s scales feature cotton, linen, or wool thread strings. Moreover, in order to guarantee the precision of the operation, the weighing took place inside small showcases, to prevent possible drafts or variations in humidity and temperature from affecting the result.

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From a stylistic point of view, our example can be dated to the second quarter of the 18th century, as confirmed by the refined asymmetrical design of the plate, recalling the peaks of European decoration from the time of Louis XV.
The remarkable refinement of engravings and fretwork of the gilded brass plate, leads us to believe that it may have been made by a very fine court goldsmith: the style and the elements of the decoration are fully comparable with the highest achievements of goldworking, cabinetmaking, bronzing and quadratura of the time.

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Precision Scale, Freiberg 1725-1750, Leipzig, Stadtgeschichtliches Museum (with detail).

From a technical as well as formal point of view, our scale finds direct correspondences with other scales manufactured in the Saxon area between Dresden, Leipzig or Freiberg; this last city is well known for an intense activity of silver extraction documented over the centuries. A very similar scale to the one presented here, but less articulated in the plate, is preserved at the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum in Leipzig; another example belongs to the collections of the Landesmuseum Württemberg, in Stuttgart.

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Precision Goldsmith Scale
Pierced, engraved and gilded brass; drawn and embossed silver.
Saxony (Germany)
1740-1750
Cm 21,5 x 37h.

An Important Italian Renaissance Chest

EXCEPTIONAL-RENAISSANCE-CHEST

This exceptional chest, made by assembling thick walnut boards with meticulous dovetail joints, represents the perfect combination of security and elegance. Its external surface is richly adorned on the front with a set of five chased thin ironwork decorative handles – bolted through lozenge shaped, pierced and engraved backplates – ; at the center top, the chest features an elegant moraillon lock with four quadrangular pierced ironwork rosettes stepping from its corners; the pierced and engraved iron lock is opened by a first key, releasing the proper moraillon and thus revealing the access to another internal lock operated by a second key. Both keys show typical Venetian rosette handles.
The chest sides are fitted with two large wrought and engraved iron carrying handles, equipped with the same kind of pierced and engraved backplates.

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The big flat lid features on both ends a pair of solid security cleats carved at their forward end with a lion head; the internal surface of the lid is adorned with a rich wooden inlaid banding in a pattern of geometrical knots with an oriental taste, matching the contemporary textile motifs, well documented in the paintings of the same period; the lid is joined to the chest body through large strap hinges, with fine pierced, engraved and embossed decoration.

The external and internal iron mounts are set over contrast coloured textile, following a hispano-moresque tradition documented on Venetian furniture already around mid-15th century.

The inside is equipped on three sides with three chests of drawers with lifting lid. On the left the lid hides a compartment with a false drawers side, secured by a lock operated by a further key with Venetian rosette handle; to the long and the right side are two banks of 8 and 4 drawers with wooden inlay and small lathed bone studs.

These kind of Cassoni are among the spearheads in the history of late Gothic North Italian furniture and they are well documented in Lombardy and Veneto area: 16th century inventories describe them as Casse alla veneziana. Built by craftsmen active between the mid-15th and the beginning of the 16th century, these chests typically show refined and very specific ironwork details, very probably made in the Northern Veneto area; the most prestigious examples are furthermore enriched on their internal surfaces by a particularly accurate ‘alla certosina’ inlay, making them emblematic witnesses of the most refined cabinet-making of the time.

This sophisticated and successful model of Cassone has been made in various different sizes: from small containers a few dozens of centimeters wide to the monumental chests like the one presented here, standing out for the particular richness of the inlaid decoration, the numerous and refined iron mounts as well as for its very good state of conservation.

Left: Chest (London, Victoria and Albert Museum); Right, Chest (Milano, Castello Sforzesco).

This kind of elaborated chests were luxury furniture showpieces denoting the prestige of important and wealthy families, who generally commissionied them for the display in the main room of their dwelling. Various examples belong today to Museum collections (Milan, Castello Sforzesco; Palazzo Madama in Turin; Castello di Moneslice – Cini Collection; Padua, Palazzo di Ezzelino; London, Victoria and Albert Museum), while other chests are still preserved and bequeathed by Italian noble families.

CHEST
Walnut wood with inlay in various woods; wrought, pierced, embossed and engraved iron.
Northern Italy
Early 16th century
cm 148 x 64 x 65 h
Provenance: Italy, noble family

References: C. Alberici, Il mobile lombardo, Milano, 1969, p. 34; E. Colle, Museo d’Arti Applicate. Mobili e intagli lignei, Milano 1996, pp. 155-157 n. 212; AA.VV., Oltre la Porta. Serrature, chiavi e forzieri dalla preistoria all’età moderna nelle Alpi orientali, exh. catalogue Trento, 1996, p. 192, n. 99 .

A rediscovered Lombard ‘bronzetto’

This unpublished bronze statuette is a small-scale reproduction of one of the best-known masterpieces of late 16th-century Lombard sculpture: the marble Madonna Assunta by Annibale Fontana (1540-1587), made for the façade of the Milanese church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli presso San Celso. Achieved in 1583-1584 and installed in 1590, just thirty years later the statue was recovered in the church – in order to protect it from the bad weather – and replaced with a copy made by Gerolamo Prevosti.

The sculpture became immediately so important that it was taken as a model – together with other works by the same author – by many artists along the 17th century. After all, many of Annibale’s wax and terracotta sketches had found their way into the collections of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, founded by Cardinal Federico Borromeo in 1607, where they were widely studied and copied. The re-use of Fontana’s inventions after his death was not uncommon even in the context  of the Milanese goldsmiths’ workshops.

A remarkable example is that of a precious silver reliquary –  formerly belonging to the Treasury of the same Milanese St Celso church – probably made a few years later (but certainly before 1611, when its donor, Delia Spinola, passed away). In the reliquary, the central figure recalled the Madonna Assunta by Fontana, while the silver statuettes of the angels with trumpets on either side reproduced the marble ones (also made in 1587 by Fontana) still on the crowning of the façade, flanking the copy of the Madonna.

Left: Silver Reliquiary (detail). Formerly Santa Maria presso San Celso. Right: Annibale Fontana, Virgin of the Assumption, Santa Maria presso San Celso; formerly on the façade.

This reliquary is now lost, but there is a photographic documentation from 1930. Comparison of the present bronze Assumption and the silver version, which is only possible today through that old picture, leaves no doubt that they were both cast from the same model, as confirmed by the size, the precise correspondence of the folds of the drapery and the detail of the fringe of the Virgin’s mantle, which is absent from Fontana’s marble but appears in both statuettes. The greater fineness of the silver version can be attributed to the characteristics of the different casting materials, while the 4 mm difference between the height of the bronze (23.6 cm) and that of the silver (24 cm) is small enough to think that they were both cast from the same model.

The silversmith probably got the models for casting the reliquiary statuettes, and consequently for the bronze version of the Madonna, from Gian Andrea Biffi (c. 1580-1631), one of the most renowned sculptors of the time – working for the Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano – who, as documented on several occasions at the beginning of the 17th century, provided wax models inspired by Fontana’s works for the casting of liturgical objects. Biffi’s style is also reflected in the synthetic modelling of the faces, marked by a strong patheticism recalling certain pictorial solutions by Cerano, an artist with whom Biffi often collaborated.

In conclusion, it is perhaps possible to imagine that the bronze statuette of the Assumption analysed here is to be linked in particular to the complex event of the “tabernacolo novo” for the high altar of San Celso: a work that started around 1600, involving the Brescian Camillo Cappi in collaboration with Gaspare Mola for the castings, which in the end was never realised.

Unknown lombard artist, Design for a Tabernacle (detail). Milan, Biblioteca Ambrosiana.

Among the various 17th-century drawings traditionally associated with the project for San Celso’s new tabernacle, there is an anonymous one showing a statuette in the tympanum which is evidently a reduction of Fontana’s Assunta: it cannot be excluded that, at some point, they planned to insert into the new tabernacle a cast bronze statuette, like the present one, and that the same model was reused to cast the silver version for the aforementioned reliquary.

Gian Andrea Biffi (1580 circa – 1631), after a model by
Virgin of the Assumption
Bronze
Cm 23, 6 h
Detailed essay by Dr. Susanna Zanuso (2021)

A wonderful Pair of gilded Phoenixes

These rare and unpublished metal sculptures were made by riveting together several foils of embossed iron, polychromed with red on the inner side and then fully gilded. The birds rest their talons on what looks like a rock or a drift of burning ashes, with little grassy tufts or small tongues of fire, placed over a circle of long feathers alluding to a nest, also made of embossed and gilded iron foils. These hollow sculptures stand on a lathed wooden base with a flared, polychromed and gilded profile.

The myth of the Phoenix, a long-lived bird capable of resurrecting from its own ashes after death, has its roots in oriental culture and probably derives from the ancient cult of the Sun.

It is a truly poetic picture linked to the Phoenix enchanting appearance and to its strong utopian meaning: this mythological being embodies the possibility of the constant renewal of life, a metaphor for the cycles of nature and the succession of the seasons.

The myth was absorbed into the Classical mythology: in Western culture it is for example recorded by Ovid who, in his Metamorphoses and Amores, enhanced the particular beauty and eternity of this marvelous animal.

The Phoenix strongly revives also in the Christian world, which reads the myth as a Christological metaphor of the Resurrection, thus interpreting the figure as a symbol, if not a true emblem, of Christ himself, of faith in the Almighty and of the capability of the soul to abandon the prison of the body.
In the European Renaissance culture, the Phoenix often recurs in contexts related to the themes of fire, revenge, of divine and knowledge, and is typically found in the realm of alchemical practices.

Phoenix rising from its burning ashes. Bestiary of Ann Walsh (detail), England, circa 1400-25. Copenhagen, Royal Library.

But perhaps the Baroque period, in particular, pays the greatest attention to the Phoenix: praised as an icon of transformation and show, change and surprise, it perfectly embodies the very themes of seventeenth-century culture; in literature, the Phoenix (associated with epithets such as divine, eternal, winged, glorious, noble, immortal) becomes thus immediately the protagonist of powerful metaphors linked to the imperial, heroic and divine world, and it is certainly in this sense that it is particularly beloved during the Rococo period. This interpretation of the myth in a celebratory meaning, for example, is well attested in the Baroque poetry of Spanish culture, not by chance the same one that made the splendid pair of Phoenixes presented here.

We can confirm the Spanish provenance of our Phoenixes because of their remarkable quality and technical features, which are fully consistent with the famous Iberian tradition. It is well known that between the 16th and 17th centuries, Spain developed an important figurative production in embossed and gilded iron, culminating in the numerous decorative panels enriching the famous monumental gates placed in some of the country’s major cathedrals (Salamanca, Sevilla, Granada), but also used to embellish window grilles, floor candlesticks and other decorative elements. As far as chronology is concerned, we can say that these two ironworks are still reminiscent of the great Renaissance tradition, but they were most probably made during the 17th century.

Until now the identification of similar iron Phoenixes has not been possible; therefore, establishing from which Spanish region they come from, is rather complex.

Bartolomé de Jaen, Gate from S. Ildefonso Chapel (detail). Granada, Royal Chapel, 1520-1530.

We can, however, recall two important examples of Phoenixes adorning famous Spanish monuments, albeit in different contexts and materials. In both cases, the Phoenix was chosen to protect places of great importance, as the ultimate image of power and knowledge.

In the Santa Cruz monastery in Valladolid, the ancient finely carved wooden doors to the library, attributed to the sculptor Alejo de Vahìa and made around 1450-1500, are still in place: there, surrounded by a vegetal candelabra wreath, with a crown around their necks, two Phoenixes hold a scroll in their beaks, with the inscription Apud Deum in one, Verbum Erat in the other, from the well known incipit of the Gospel of John.

Alejo de Vahìa, attr., Wooden doors to the Library of the Santa Cruz Monastery, Valladolid, 1450-1500 (details)

We find the Phoenix as the central image of the Casa de Castril monumental portal (Granada, now housing the Archaeological Museum), dated 1539. The Palace, located in one of the most important town centre streets and designed by the architect Sebastián de Alcántara, a disciple of Diego de Siloé, had belonged to the family of Hernando de Zafra, a man of letters and secretary to the Catholic Monarchs, Fernando II of Aragon and Isabel of Castile, and is one of the best examples of Renaissance architecture and decoration in the city.

Casa de Castril (Granada), dated 1539, Monumental Portal, detail of the Phoenix.

It will be noticed immediately how, not by chance, in both cases the bird decorates and stands over a threshold, which should be considered as an actual passage but also as a symbolic space: in the case of the Valladolid library, the doors allow those who cross them to leave the earthly world and enter the sacred one through absolute knowledge, offered by the word of God and the writings of the Doctors of the Church housed in the library, i.e. a temple of wisdom; in Granada, the Phoenix dominates the entrance to the home of an important man, wishing to convey a clear message of power, through the image of a very ancient symbol of immortality and therefore, by translation, of omnipotence.

Going back again for a moment to the doors of Valladolid, one can also observe that the Phoenixes appear as a pair in a scholarly context: a licence to the traditional version of the myth confirming the possibility that this legendary bird, although known as a single one, was ‘doubled’ in the past for iconographic and decorative needs.
Both examples, made about a century apart and placed in two quite distant places, but equally relevant to Spanish history in the Catholic era, show us how the myth has spanned centuries and regions.

Casa de Castril (Granada), dated 1539, Monumental Portal.

In addition to the symbolic interpretation, a further hypothesis should be considered for our two sculptures, namely the heraldic one: starting from the emblematic value of the mythological creature, the Phoenix was employed in coats of arms as an image of the perseverance of noble and generous souls and also of immortality. Several Spanish families bear the Phoenix on their coat of arms: the Campaners of Mallorca with the motto Fenicis instar vives, nomen campane sonavit; Francisco Boix de Berard, an important Majorcan nobleman, who used a uniform with the Phoenix in the flames with the motto non confundar in eternum; the Folquer (Catalonia) and Carnicer (Aragon) families who also had Phoenixes on their coats of arms.

It is therefore possible to assume that the works examined here held an important position in a representative room of a palace or in an aristocratic chapel, perhaps guarding a threshold, alluding both to the moral qualities and rank of the commissioning family, and maybe also directly to its coat of arms.

PAIR OF PHOENIXES
Embossed, polychromed and gilded iron
Spain
Late 17th century
Cm 51 h.

References: Ovid, Metamorphoses, XV, 392-410; Amores, II, 6, 5; The Faith in God, tapestry by Jan Van Brussel, post 1528, Paris, Musée national du Moyen Age – Thermes de Cluny; El mito del Ave Fénix en la poesía barroca novohispana: influencias y relaciones comparadas, Jorge García-Ramos Merlo, in El largo viaje de los mitos Mitos clásicos y mitos prehispánicos en las literaturas latinoamericanas, ed by S. Tedeschi, 2020.

An Exceptional Masterpiece Strongbox

On the occasion of MOG | Milan Open Galleries (25-29 October 2021, in coincidence with AMART Milano Art Fair) the Alessandro Cesati Gallery will present an exceptional masterpiece strongbox: a peak in the history of European ironworking, generated by the magical and fantastic combination of the unbeatable German technique with the unsurpassable French elegance.

During the three centuries between the late Renaissance and Neoclassicism, European supremacy in the production of iron objects for civilian use undoubtedly belonged to France and Germany, and unfolded into a multitude of specific productions – from large-scale works such as gates or window grilles to small objects for personal use such as seals, snuff boxes, tinders and so on. However, the highest and most sophisticated skill in this field is certainly expressed in what is defined in French as serrurerie and that is mainly the art of producing keys, padlocks, locks, safes and strongboxes.

The serrurier is – if we may say so – the prince of blacksmiths since his job, more than others, requires not only considerable and specific manual skills but also a precise knowledge and ability to design.

The Strongbox on show is an emblematic example of the genre of Masterpieces, made in Strasbourg around the middle of the 18th century: unique and unrepeatable pieces thanks to which the serruruier can demonstrate all his skills in ironworking – from forging to sculpting, from embossing to piercing and engraving – thus obtaining the qualification of the city guild to exercise the profession on his own.

Any detailed description or comparison will never be sufficient to return the emotion and the amazement that arise from the direct vision: if you want to fully understand the quality and importance of the artifact, the invitation is to look at the work and appreciate it with your own eyes.

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An Exceptional Masterpiece Strongbox
October 26 – December 23
from Tuesday to Saturday, h 10-13/15-19
Preview: Monday, October 25 from 18 to 20

The initiative is part of MOG – Milano Open Galleries, the new event for the city of Milan that will be held from October 25 to 29, 2021 in conjunction with the antiques fair AMART. The more than forty galleries participating in the initiative, which include several internationally renowned antique dealers and gallerists, will host for the week of October 25 to 29 a series of exclusive events, meetings and presentations spread throughout the city, as well as extended opening nights of the exhibition spaces.
For more information on MOG: https://mogmilano.art/

Alessandro Cesati at AMART Milan 2021

The Alessandro Cesati Gallery will be exhibiting at the AMART exhibition, organized by the Milanese Antique Dealers Association: after the successful editions held in 2018 and 2019, this year’s new show will be hosted once again at the Palazzo della Permanente, from October 27 to 31, 2021.

The Gallery will present to the public of friends and collectors a new selection of Sculptures and Works of art ranging from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century.

There will be a huge Central Italian wooden Wardrobe from the 17th century, with depictions of grapes and vines; a pair of examples of flemish limestone sculpture, reliefs and sculptures in various materials such as wax, walnut, marble, bronze and alabaster; in conclusion, a signed and dated italian bronze mortar, some very rare bronze and iron doorknockers.

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Two medium-size bronze sculptures from the italian Novecento will be presented as well, one by Angelo Righetti and another by Italo Griselli.

We look forward to seeing you at booth 38!

 

October 27 to 31, 2021
Museo della Permanente
Via Filippo Turati, 34 – Milano

Fair will be open:
October 27 to 31: 11 am – 9 pm
Otober 31: 11 am – 7.30 pm
www.amart-milano.com

 

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