One Fine Show: Early Italian Renaissance Bronze at Detroit Institute of Arts

'The Pugilist' by Andrea del Verrocchio, 'Hercules and Antaeus' by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, 'Orpheus Playing Music' by Bertoldo di Giovanni and 'Eros Pulling a Bow' by Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi are all on view now.

Welcome to One Fine Show, where Observer highlights a recently opened exhibition at a museum outside New York City—a place we know and love that already receives plenty of attention.

A bronze statue of a man playing a musical instrument
Bertoldo di Giovanni (Italian, after 1420–1491). ‘Orpheus Playing Music’, ca. 1471. Bronze. Bargello National Museum, inv.349 B

Many people have written about the great architecture from Detroit’s golden era, but what is not often said enough is how eclectic it is. It borrows from the Old World but never without putting its own spin on things. Some of the parks in Motor City have paths designed for cars, not people, and are therefore not of a human scale. This distinctive take can even be seen at the Beaux-Arts home of the Detroit Institute of Arts, completed in 1927 and designed by architect Paul Cret. The idea was to show different kinds of art in their respective milieux, so visitors to the Kresge Court will notice walls that display the influence of Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance styles.

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The design of the museum’s Tuscan Early Renaissance Gallery on the other side of that wall was heavily influenced by the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, which has loaned the DIA four important bronzes for a small show called “Masterpieces of Early Italian Renaissance Bronze Statuettes.” The four works all hail from the 15th Century and include The Pugilist by Andrea del Verrocchio, Hercules and Antaeus by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Orpheus Playing Music by Bertoldo di Giovanni and Eros Pulling a Bow by Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi (a.k.a Antico). These are shown with Judith by Pollaiuolo, from the museum’s own collection; other sculptures by Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Luca and Andrea della Robbia, Benedetto da Maiano; and paintings by Fra Angelico, Sassetta, Sandro Botticelli, Benozzo Gozzoli, Neri di Bicci and others.

But it’s the loans that steal the show. Three were made using the direct cast method that destroyed their original wax versions and are therefore one of a kind. The result is a much more intimate relationship to the sculptures, all of which have been hand-finished and are no larger than your arm. Actually, Orpheus isn’t quite finished, perhaps by design. About a quarter of his body appears to be melting because its imperfections weren’t hammered out. The result is that his lyre and bow look more like a short sword he’s sharpening on his shoulder. The backward-looking eye is vague.

This contrasts well with Verrocchio’s Pugilist, who sports a shiny patina following meticulous work with a ball peen hammer. He’s an older man but still ready and able to fight. Eros was cast using a different lost-wax technique, which means it’s not unique and the newest of the works from Italy, was made in 1496. He is of a different quality. He’s more rounded and boasts shiny metal hair and wings. The look on his face is clearer, almost in high definition, and a little forlorn. Maybe his job isn’t as cushy as it seems to be.

In sum, these works capture the spirit of the age in a way that reproductions never could. You can feel the hands that worked on these.

Masterpieces of Early Italian Renaissance Bronze Statuettes is on view at the Detroit Institute of Arts through March 3. 


One Fine Show: Early Italian Renaissance Bronze at Detroit Institute of Arts