The Ashtray

Nicholas Penny

  • The Study and Criticism of Italian Sculpture by John Pope-Hennessy
    Princeton, 270 pp, £25.10, March 1981, ISBN 0 691 03967 4

‘Late one evening, leaving a dinner party at the American Embassy, I ran into David Carritt, who told me he had come across a circular bronze relief of the Virgin and Child in use as an ashtray.’ The narrator is Sir John Pope-Hennessy and his nocturnal encounter was with one of the most hawk-eyed art-dealers in Europe. ‘ “Was it double-sided?” I asked him. “Yes,” he replied, he thought it was. Next day it was brought to my office …’ And there Pope-Hennessy turned in his hands a bronze relief of the Virgin, her head bent tenderly towards that of the diminutive Saviour, surrounded by four still smaller, highly excited angels. From the crimped and crinkled surfaces, the nervous linearity, the extraordinary variety of the finish, it must have been immediately clear to him that he was holding an original masterpiece by one of the greatest of all European sculptors, Donatello. Furthermore, he was already familiar with the design.

The reverse of the relief, into which cigarettes and cigars had been crushed by who knows how many highly cultivated people, had been devised to serve as a mould from which casts identical in design to the relief in front could be made. Some were, it seems, made in the Renaissance, and one at least, in plaster, in the late 18th century, when the bronze was in the possession of an English nobleman. The 18th-century cast was presented to Sir John Soane (together with a cast of an antique repoussé bronze mirror-case from Paramythia, now in the British Museum, which displays some interesting affinities in style to Donatello) by the painter Henry Howard. Thus Pope-Hennessy recognised the design. But he also knew when the bronze was made, or at least when it was given to its first owner.

This was because of research carried out on a different sculpture of the same period: the impressive marble portrait, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, of a Florentine doctor, Giovanni Chellini, carved by Rossellino, and inscribed with the date 1456, which is one of the first portrait busts made since antiquity. Ronald Lightbown, in the course of trying to discover more about the sitter for the catalogue of the museum’s collection which he was working on with Pope-Hennessy, discovered a manuscript autobiography by Chellini which revealed that he had been a friend and the doctor of Donatello, who had presented him with a bronze relief in 1456, the same year Rossellino signed the bust, in gratitude for successful treatment. The description of the relief, which Pope-Hennessy seems to have immediately thought of when he heard of the ashtray, matched the object itself perfectly. It was ‘saved for the nation’ and has joined the bust of its former owner in the V & A.

The Case of the Donatello Ashtray is the best story in this anthology of articles and lectures by Pope-Hennessy. But there are many other examples of his Holmesian flair (and rather too much gloating over what are supposed to be the blunders of his rivals). On the whole, his detective work does not involve reference to documents. Indeed we are warned about attending too much to these and neglecting to look at the work of art. In particular, we are warned of this in the opening lecture on connoisseurship, which consists of some crisp reflections on the methods of Pope-Hennessy’s spiritual ancestors – Cavalcaselle, Morelli, Berenson, Longhi, Offner. (A fuller account of the achievements of these writers on Italian painting would be welcome, but it should not neglect the great German investigators of Greek sculpture, such as Furtwängler or indeed Winckelmann, who in fact pioneered what Pope-Hennessy, with uncharacteristic inelegance, terms ‘style-analytical techniques’.)

This opening lecture is a little defensive. But it is true that the keen visual discrimination exercised by Pope-Hennessy is now undervalued in university Departments of Art History. Colour slides, like frozen vegetables, have proved themselves more attractive than the real thing. There is little understanding of the artist’s techniques and the scrutiny of the surface of paintings and sculpture is not much encouraged. So it is exhilarating to be shown how, underneath the repainting, the Madonna of the Humility in Washington really looks as if it is by Masaccio, or to compare the drapery folds in the bust of Francesco Sassetti with those favoured by Verrocchio. Then there is that powerful little bronze figure in the Bargello, known as the ‘Pugilist’ (although it imitates the action of one of the antique ‘Horse-Tamers’ on the Quirinal in Rome), which has been attributed to half a dozen different sculptors: does it not, Pope-Hennessy asks, in fact exhibit the tense poise, bold modelling, hammered surface, and even the facial type, associated with Donatello?

Many of the received ideas which Pope-Hennessy is concerned to challenge will only have been ‘received’ by specialists, who will in any case already be familiar with most of the contents of this book. Nevertheless the book can be recommended to any non-specialist who enjoys Florentine Quattrocento sculpture – which is what most of it is about, despite its title. And a great many people fall into this category. Indeed, if you meet an Anglo-Saxon with a real taste for the visual arts – I mean someone who not only queues to see the big shows but pops into the permanent collection in the lunch-hour – you can expect them to have visited Florence at an impressionable age and to have fallen in love with Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise, the Pazzi Chapel, the Botticellis in the Uffizi, Donatello’s David and Desiderio’s St John in the Bargello, the frescoes by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel and those by Benozzo Gozzoli in the Medici Palace. With the exception of Michelangelo, the great masters of the Cinquecento make much less impression.

In this love-affair sculpture plays a very important part. That cannot be simply because the sculpture is so very good, for French 18th-century sculptors such as Bouchardon, Falconet, Pigalle and Houdon do not excite a fraction of the interest commanded by their contemporaries Boucher, Chardin, Fragonard and David, although they are surely artists of equal stature: and much the same may be said of many other periods.

Sculpture loses more in electric light and in photographic reproduction than paintings do, but long before these inventions it was observed that a real taste for it was less ‘diffused among the mass of mankind’ than a taste for pictures, which have a wider range of subject-matter and were less costly and cumbersome. The art of painting also attracts more amateurs, and hence more of an important sort of sympathy. All children paint and most adults doodle, but not many people have much experience of modelling and even the most elementary form of carving is rarely practised (the formica table having replaced the wooden desk in almost all schools).

In attempting to explain why Quattrocento Florentine sculptures are as popular as the pictures of the same period, the most obvious point to make is that many of them are unusually pictorial. In Ghiberti’s bronze reliefs we admire landscapes and architectural interiors, but no major European sculptor since has concerned himself with such subjects. Also, of course, in Quattrocento Florence there was much coloured sculpture in glazed terracotta, and low reliefs in stucco – usually of the Virgin and Child – were commonly coloured and gilt (a number of these are discussed here). The marble reliefs which these stucco reliefs always reflect, and often reproduce, were themselves sometimes coloured and were usually gilt in part: in any case, with many of them we will find that, in the words with which Pope-Hennessy concludes his analysis of one of the most beautiful of such reliefs to have survived, the Altman Madonna, by Rossellino, ‘the aspirations revealed in the smooth transitions of its shallow planes and in the illusory mobility of its forms partake of the nature of both arts.’

We must look very closely at the Altman Madonna to see how the curls of the cherubs are blown over their wings, which rise out of the ripples of the clouds, to follow the rhythm with which the Virgin’s veil falls, to trace the slightest signs of sadness on Her brow. The devotional sculpture of subsequent centuries does not usually require this sort of intimate contemplation, nor is it often so intimate in sentiment. In sculpture after 1500 the Virgin is less likely to play with the Child, as She does, for instance, in the terracotta reliefs at Rochester and Detroit probably by Ghiberti. It is worth noting, however, that in the unfinished tondo in the Royal Academy carved by Michelangelo, not long after 1500, the Virgin pinches the cheek of the young St John – an affectionate gesture still common in Italy – although this is not apparent in photographs and is surprising in a work so much more heroic and monumental in style than any earlier relief of this type. The Grand Manner of the 16th century was little suited to such intimacy. The real change, however, may be one of patronage and devotional practice: a reduction in the demand for religious sculpture for the home.

Florentine Quattrocento busts of beautiful women have much the same quiet poetry as the reliefs of the Virgin and Child – so do the busts of children, which are easily confused with busts of Christ. The appeal of the bust portraits of middle-aged or elderly and unbeautiful men such as Chellini is less easily explained. But they usually have a slight smile, which indicates an informal and domestic character. They do not turn their heads much and they are cut across the chest, which gives them an engaging directness.

The termination of the bust in this way may also have something to do with the way such portraits were originally displayed. This seems to have been high up in the room, often above the door, which is why so many of them look down – including the children, incidentally, who are usually portrayed looking up (which is, of course, how we usually see them) by sculptors in later centuries. One of the mistakes made by the 19th-century forger Bastianini in his busts of Savonarola and Marsilio Ficino (discussed in the last piece in this book) was to show them looking up. Bastianini, like the collectors and curators who were his dupes, had not thought about the original domestic display of sculpture in the Quattrocento.

In general, much more thought has been given both by archivists and by connoisseurs to discovering which artist did what, when, than has been given to thinking about the circumstances and the ways in which art was originally looked at, and indeed the purposes it originally served. Where would the Altman Madonna have been displayed? To what extent was it valued as a work of art as distinct from a devotional aid? Was that distinction made and if so in what terms? Did Donatello expect Chellini to have an edition of reproductions made from the bronze relief he gave him? Had he already made such an edition himself? What was the attitude of the art lover at that date towards reproductions? Pope-Hennessy does not ignore such questions. He opens his lecture on Italian bronze plaquettes by explaining the diversity of uses to which they were put – as cap badges, sword pommels, inkstands. However, it is not always easy to assign such uses to the works he then proceeds to discuss. He claims that Andrea della Robbia’s famous enamelled terracotta tondi of swaddled children on the Spedale degli Innocenti were put up as part of the campaign to improve conditions for the foundlings there and ‘are really posters which say to us: “Be as generous as you can and do not let this happen again.” ’ But the children look in good shape and highly contented. I cannot suppose della Robbia incapable of representing distress. Perhaps he meant to advertise the improved conditions. (Why don’t Oxfam do the same?) Questions about the purpose of Quattrocento sculpture can only be answered by the careful and imaginative interpretation of documents – and documents surely are almost as much in need of sympathetic scrutiny as are works of art.