Description & Technical information

Born to an aristocratic cavalry captain from Tuscany, Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi became one of the finest bronze casters in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Europe and, along with his contemporary Giovanni Battista Foggini, is considered the most significant proponent of the Florentine late Baroque style in sculpture. He first trained in Florence under the painter Volterrano, who encouraged him to attend the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, and subsequently enrolled at the Medicean Academy in Rome in 1678. There he studied under the medallist Pietro Travani, the painter and sculptor Ciro Ferri, who had been a pupil of Pietro da Cortona, and the sculptor Ercole Ferrata, who had trained under both Alessandro Algardi and Gian Lorenzo Bernini.Soldani-Benzi excelled in the field of medal- and coin-making and soon received commissions from Pope Innocent XI, Queen Christina of Sweden and prominent members of the papal court. Whilst perfecting his art in Paris, Soldani-Benzi attracted the attention of King Louis XIV and his entourage, but, at the behest of Cosimo III de’ Medici, he returned to Florence in 1682 and was named Director of the Grand-Ducal Mint. Two years later he was appointed Professor at the Accademia del Disegno where he had once studied. His workshop was located in the heart of Florence, on the ground floor of the Galleria degli Uffizi. In his capacity as Director of the Mint, he oversaw the process of striking coins, but more importantly concentrated on the casting of large bronze medals, in which his skill gained him substantial recognition. Towards the end of the 1690s, Soldani-Benzi also began to dedicate himself to the production of reduced-scale bronzes, such as the present work. Statuettes after the ancient and modern masters represent an important part of his production, one that he cultivated steadily from the turn of the eighteenth century until his death in 1740, and upon which his international renown rests to this day. By the end of his career, his patrons had included, in addition to those already mentioned, Gran Principe Ferdinando de’ Medici, Prince Johann Adam of Liechtenstein, the Elector Palatine, the Duke of Marlborough and the Earl of Burlington. Especially during the artist’s maturity, the British “milordi” formed a substantial part of Soldani-Benzi’s patrons, as confirmed by the discovery of four hundred folios of correspondence between him and the intermediary Giovanni Giacomo Zamboni in London. Unfortunately, Zamboni’s replies have been lost at the Florentine end, though a few of his draft letters from the 1720s do survive in the Bodleian Library.  The correspondence begins on 15 October 1716, just after the visit to Florence of the twenty-year-old Earl of Burlington, and covers the latter half of Soldani’s career. 
The present composition is drawn from an ancient Roman marble group, of near life-size proportions, now in the Prado Museum in Madrid (inv. no. E000028). The statue – probably excavated on the site of the ancient Gardens of Sallust in Rome – was first recorded in a 1623 inventory of the Ludovisi collection, in whose palace on the Pincian Hill it resided until it was acquired by Cardinal Massimi (1620-1677). Upon the Massimi’s death, the painter Carlo Maratta entreated Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689), who had by then settled in Rome after having abdicated in 1654, to acquire the marble, hoping that the prized antiquity would thus remain in Rome. She heeded Maratta’s advice, but, as a result of a series of hereditary successions, this did not save the Castor and Polluxfrom being sold, in 1724, to King Philip V of Spain. The monarch chose to display it in his country palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, where it remained until 1839, when it was moved to the Prado (for a detailed account see Haskell and Penny 1981, p. 173).
In 1638 the French painter François Perrier included the Castor and Pollux in his anthology of the most admired statues in Rome (Segmenta nobilium signorum et statuarum[…], Rome, pl. XXXVII). He captioned the illustration “Decii sese pro patria devoventes”, believing the statue to represent the Roman Consul Publius Decius and his son, who swore an oath to protect Rome and sacrificed their lives in battle against the enemy, as recounted by the Augustan historian Livy. A 1633 inventory, however, describes the marble as depicting Castor and Pollux, the identification that has traditionally remained the most widely accepted. The two were the twin sons of Leda from different fathers: Tyndareus, King of Sparta and Zeus, King of Olympus. Together, they came to be known as the Dioscuri. Later in the eighteenth century, because the two figures are portrayed in the act of sacrificing at an altar with a libation dish, the archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann understood them to be Orestes and Pylades at the tomb of the former’s father Agamemnon (Haskell and Penny 1981, p. 174). Several proposals have been made for the identity of the two figures, which remains the subject of debate, complicated by the fact that the head of the youth holding the libation dish is actually from a statue of Antinoüs, the deified lover of Emperor Hadrian, and was attached to the group sometime before 1638. 
Soldani-Benzi arrived in Rome in 1678, the same year the ancient marble group was acquired by his soon-to-be patron Christina of Sweden, for whose portrait medallion he cut the dies in 1681. It is therefore highly likely that the young artist saw the statue and was aware of its fame. Only one other cast of this subject by Soldani-Benzi is known, now preserved in the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada, and formerly owned by the heirs of the 1stDuke of Marlborough, an important patron of the sculptor (52.5 cm high; inv. no. 82/66). It is interesting to note that both the latter and the present bronze are larger than the format usually adopted by Soldani-Benzi for his models after the Antique (traditionally around 30cm high), likely a decision dictated by the patrons. 
The fine workmanship of our bronze’s surface, together with its characteristically Florentine, translucent, reddish-brown patina distinguish it as an autograph work by Soldani-Benzi. The definition of details such as the toe and finger-nails, the different tooling used for the altar’s surface, the expert modelling of the youths’ anatomies and the accurately drawn curls of their hair further point in the direction of the Florentine master bronzier, whose finesse of technique was seldom matched.  

Date:  First quarter of 18th century
Period:  1600-1750, 18th century
Medium: Bronze
Dimensions: 50 x 32 x 18 cm (19³/₄ x 12⁵/₈ x 7¹/₈ inches)
Provenance: Private collection, United States of America

Literature: F. Haskell and N. Penny, Taste and the Antique: the Lure of Classical Sculpture 1500-1900, New Haven and London, 1981 
C. Avery, ‘Soldani’s mythological bronzes and his British clientèle’, Sculpture Journal, XIV, 2005, pp. 8-29

Categories: Sculpture