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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These rare and unpublished metal sculptures were made by riveting together several foils of embossed iron, polychromed with red on the inner side and then fully gilded.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.

Embossed, polychromed and gilded iron
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.


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:

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.


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


Tefaf Online 2021


Featuring nearly 700 exceptional artworks from over 250 world-renowned exhibitors, this edition of TEFAF Online celebrates the many connections that can be made across the history of human creativity.

Alessandro Cesati Gallery will participate to this second edition of the digital Tefaf Fair, presenting a terracotta sculpture and an ironwork, both showing amazing quality, rarity and uncommon visual impact.

The first work is a gorgeous terracotta male bust, attributed to Giusto Le Court, a well-known baroque sculptor who was born in Ypres, Flanders (now Belgium) and move to Venice around 1655 after being trained also by his father, Jean – a sculptor, too-, Cornelis Van Mildert and spending some time in Amsterdam.

Since his arrival to Venice, he was asked to complete a large number of monumental marble sculptures that he achieved with an unmistakable style, featuring a intense rendering of movement, volumes and shadows. The energy hailing from Le Court’s sculptures is very well represented by this bust: a particularly rare proof in terracotta of his talent. Scholars think that the bust may represent Vulcan, since in Venetian Villas at that time it was very common to find representations of Ancient Greek Gods or Philosophers: the wet turban and the astonishing neck and shoulders muscles may be a clue.

The second work of art presented by Alessandro Cesati gallery is an important example of our traditional keen attention to metal works of art: this Iron Sculpture belongs to a category which has always fascinated us and continues to offer a thrilling source of inspiration for research and study, driven by our almost empathetic predilection for these intriguing artifacts, linked to distant family tales, memories and experiences.

We are showing a surprising Processional Cross, which is to be considered an outstanding example of Spanish ironwork. It shows a superb embossing and sculpting work, particularly appreciable not only in the two central disks of the Cross, representing the Heavenly Jerusalem on the front and the Veronica on the back, but also in the amazingly dynamic heads decorating the Cross finials.

Iron sculptures, undoubtedly less known and celebrated, are perhaps even more interesting and rare because they are absolute uniqueness; they’re masterworks worthy of their place in any ancient or modern Wunderkammer.


Sep 8: invitation only preview
Sep 9–13: general admission

Discover more about the fair and the program on TEFAF website.

A Graceful Virgin of the Annunciation

The present sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary while receiving the words of Archangel Gabriel, with her hands in prayer and kneeling in front of an elegant pulpit with molded profiles. While reading the sacred text, she turns her gaze downwards with an elegant bowing of her head in sign of subdued acceptance of the miracle. The figure stands out against a canopy surrounding the bed.
A remarkable feature of this piece is the mild and elegant woman’s face, showing particularly fine traits and framed by thick, curly hair.

The kind of wood and the size of the sculpture confirm doubtless that this high relief originally belonged to a carved altarpiece, dedicated to the Stories of the Virgin: this kind of reliefs, typical of the northern European culture, represent in very limited spaces a number of biblical episodes with a lively narrative spirit.
Next to the Virgin, on the right side, there must have been a similar sculpture depicting the Announcing Archangel.

Here, the monumental treatment of the drapery and the detail of the Virgin’s hair, loose and long, falling on her chest in two curly locks, are typical elements of a fully Renaissance artistic language, as confirmed by the shape of the lectern and the gown: both can be found, very similarly, in paintings and engravings of Flemish Mannerism.
In fact, this sculpture was certainly made in the Flemish area, perhaps in the southern part of Flanders, which was influenced from the Mediterranean culture, as demonstrated by the large but clear volumes and the natural pose of the Virgin. Further confirmation is provided by Mary’s calm expression, free from that emphasis on details, typical of Flemish art, sometimes exaggerated to the point of caricature. Moreover, the classical style, of Roman inspiration, of the canopy – acting as a cloth of honor – can be found in many images around the second half of the 16th century, supporting the proposed chronology.

Hieronymus Wierix (1563 – before 1619), Anunciation (detail). Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum.

The Annunciation theme, widespread in the Christian world, describes the moment when the Archangel Gabriel foretells the birth of the Christ Child.
The iconography of the Virgin kneeling, reading and praying, surprised in a domestic setting by the arrival of the Archangel Gabriel, has been attested throughout Europe since the Middle Ages.
The version in which the Archangel arrives behind Mary’s back, and her subsequent sudden turning, shows a narrative device further emphasizing the Archangel’s immaterial essence and the young woman’s complete innocence and devotion.

The iconographic fortune of the Virgin Annunciate in northern Europe is also well attested by the renowned and widespread alabaster reliefs produced in Malines during the 16th century, such as those belonging to many public and private Flemish collections, contemporary to the sculpture examined here.

Two alabaster reliefs with the Annunciation; Mechelen / Malines, 1550-1600. Left: Groot, Kasteel van Loppem | Right: Bruges, Klooster Zwartzusters Augustinessen.

However, in the northern European sculpture panorama, and more specifically, among the typical subjects of wooden altarpieces of this period, the iconography of the Virgin Annunciate is quite unusual.
Among the rare sculptures depicting this particular subject, we can mention the earlier version by Adriaen van Wesel (Utrecht, 1417- after 1490) from the Gruuthusemuseum in Bruges, dating to the late 15th century.

Adriaen Van Wesel, Virgin reading, altarpiece fragment, around 1450. Bruges, Gruuthusemuseum.

In any case, the iconography of the Virgin of the Annunciation certainly owes its success also to the diffusion of prints, such as the one illustrated just above, which is particularly eloquent in the details of the circular canopy.

Upon careful observation, our Virgin still shows some small traces of an ancient polychromy: the skin color on the hands, some blue on the robe and some red on the dress as well as some gold on the robe, on the pulpit and on the book edges.
Compared to the rare examples known through the most important photographic repertories, our sculpture certainly stands out for the quality of the carving, its carefully balanced proportions and its significantly good conservative conditions, given the integrity of the most fragile details.

Southern Flanders
16th century, second half
Cm 30 x 7,5 x 47h

A Stunning Signed and Dated Pharmacy Mortar

This monumental and refined bronze mortar, flared in shape, has a foot adorned with a twisted cord. The body, decorated at the bottom with large acanthus leaves, is embellished, about halfway up, by a double twisted cord; at the same height, in diametrical position, two beautiful heads of young boy facing downwards protrude from both sides, acting as handles to the piece. One side bears the maker’s signature and the date in capital letters: AGOSTINI PERUSINO FECIT A.D. MDCCLIX, while the other side shows a figure of a dancing putto grasping a large Thistle flower, between the letters G and S (probable patron’s initials).

The signature appearing on this beautiful mortar is that of a bronze caster, who made the decorations for the tomb of the bishops in the Perugian cathedral (1765) and the main altar of St. Francesco al Prato church: Niccolò Agostini, a proud artist from Perugia “espertissimo in lavorare di campane, che sono riuscite eccellenti per la pulizia del lavorio, per gli adornamenti e molto più pel suono armonizzante” (very expert in making bells showing excellent quality and decorations and a harmonizing sound), as we can read in the Descrizione della Basilica di San Lorenzo by Galassi (1776); moreover, in 1769 he was commissioned to repair La Lunga, a bell of that same cathedral (Siepi 1822, p. 129).

Mortars are still today a typical symbol of pharmacology, and the large-sized pharmacy mortars like this one, although almost never really used – signs of wear are very rare – were objects of great value and representation, made for the most important apothecaries who exhibited them as emblems at the entrance to their pharmacies. This kind of richly decorated and ‘monumental’ mortar is attested only from the 16th century onwards, and was almost always made in bronze: the best alloy for the apothecary because of its resistance, cohesion and for being non-porous.

The putto, grasping almost certainly a Marian Thistle flower, symbolically stands for the botanical and pharmacological knowledge of medicinal plants: the thistle has been known since ancient times for its anti-poisonous and curative properties, especially for the liver and the galbladder.

The shape of an upturned ‘bell’ mortar with figured handles was set towards the end of the 16th century and became a stable paradigm over the next two centuries, as can be seen in the collection of the Museo Storico Nazionale dell’Arte Sanitaria in Rome and, for example, in a dated mortar in Hamburg originally belonging to ‘IOSEPH DE STOCHETIS PHARMACOPOLA AD SIGNUM VITIS AUREA’.

Anton Maria de Maria, Bonze Mortar, signed and dated 1595; h 13,5 cm. Hamburg, Kunstgewerbemuseum

The decorative repertoire of the mortar presented here, with putti and acanthus leaves taken from the classical style, is typical of Central Italy. Also, while signed and dated mortars are quite common in northern Europe, they are much rarer in Italy: hence the great uniqueness and importance of the present piece, making it an artwork of particular interest.

Niccolò Agostini (documented in Perugia, second half 18th century)
Cm 43x 40h

References: Francesco M. Galassi, Descrizione della Basilica di San Lorenzo (1766); Serafino Siepi, Descrizione topologico-istorica della città di Perugia, Volume 1 (1822), pp. 92, 129; Francesco Santi, ad vocem “Agostini, Antonio”, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, I, 1960; Giorgio Lise, Antichi mortai da farmacia, 1975; Ulrich Middeldorf, Fifty Mortars, 15th-18th Centuries, 1981; E. Launert, Der Morser, 1990; Peta Motture, Bells and Mortars, 2001; D. Banzato, Bronzi del Rinascimento. Collezione Vok, 2004.

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