Professor Andrew Ciechanowiecki on the rediscovery of the Blenheim Soldanis

What led to your interest in Florentine Baroque sculpture?

I was interested in metalwork and above all silver. Shortly after I came to Britain in the early sixties, I joined the newly-formed firm of Mallett at Bourdon House as a partner. I remember the Chairman, Francis Egerton, and I were discussing the profile of the merchandise we would handle and he said: ‘and obviously bronzes, because you are such a specialist in bronzes’. I didn’t know how to reply because I felt that I knew very little in those days…so, I had to learn. I didn’t feel confident enough to start with expensive pieces, so I decided to start with bronzes I could find in the Marché aux Puces (The Flea Market) in Paris. I held an exhibition introducing animalier bronzes (which was my first). It was a great success and I followed it with an exhibition of Aimé-Jules Dalou (also a rediscovery) and bought a number works by Carrier-Belleuse for a particular client as well.

So given this impulse, I gradually expanded my horizons. I found two wax reliefs by Soldani, models for the lost bronzes in the Sansedoni chapel, aux puces and sold them from Bourdon House to the V&A. I then discovered two large marbles, Apollo flaying Marsyas (fig.3) and Zephyr and Flora by Antonio Corradini which also went to the V&A and there were other discoveries, like the splendid signed and dated Caffieri bronze group, which after a tortuous life, was finally sold to the Toledo Museum of Art.

At that time the leading sculpture dealer in London was Alfred Spero, who had a gallery in the Knightsbridge Arcade, with the young Cyril Humphris working for him. The dealer, however, who had only few pieces, but of wonderful quality was Julius Goldschmidt. He worked from two rooms in the basement with a flat above. I did some business with him and discovered several very good pieces such as the two bronze groups, Andromeda and the Monsterand Leda and the Swan by Soldani, which ultimately reached the J. Paul Getty Museum (fig.4). Goldschmidt also had a very good library and when he died suddenly in 1964, I purchased it.

There were two fundamental books on sculpture which appeared around this time; Europäische Bronzestattuetten, 15-18 Jahrhundert by Hans Weihrauch (1967) and Florentinische Barockplastik by Klaus Lankheit (1962) and I became friendly with both authors. Over the years Lankheit and I in particular became great friends; my interest in Florentine baroque sculpture blossomed and I continued to discover a number of lost and unknown pieces not just by Soldani and Foggini, but by lesser known sculptors too such as Piamontini, Montauti and Cornacchini. By 1969, I was heavily involved in the organization of The Twilight of the Medici, an international exhibition of late baroque art in Florence which took place in Detroit and Florence in 1974.

Why did you originally become interested in locating the four missing Soldani bronzes at Blenheim? 

Some time before I started preparation for an article for Lankheit’s Festschrift in 1962, I had discovered a full-size bronze Medici Venus by Soldani which I subsequently sold to Mr and Mrs E. F. Pierson, who then presented it to the W.R. Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas. Researching the Kansas Medici Venus, had drawn my attention to the four Soldani bronzes at Blenheim, one of which, of course, was also a Medici Venus (fig. 5). In his 1962 book Lankheit had published the Blenheim Soldanis as ‘heute…nicht mehr nachzuweisen’ (today location untraced). And so when I came to write an article dedicated to Lankheit, I decided it would be appropriate to return to this issue and try to resolve it.

How were the bronzes re-discovered?

I knew from guidebooks to Blenheim Palace that the Medici Venus(fig.5)and the Dancing Faun (fig.6) had originally been located in the Hall of the Palace, and in 1803 the Wrestlers(fig.7) and the Knife Sharpener (fig.8) were recorded in the gardens. Just over ten years later, all four had been brought back into the Hall and I believe remained there until the early twentieth century when, under the 9th Duke of Marlborough, there had been some major changes at Blenheim, the gardens were newly laid out by Achille Duchêne and the four bronzes moved outside to be displayed in a similar way to the gardens at Versailles . After this, they were no longer recorded or mentioned in the guidebooks, but I couldn’t believe that they had just disappeared, so I sent my assistant, Gay Seagrim, to Blenheim and told her that she must get into the private garden to hunt for them as logically they had to be there. Later in the day, she telephoned me with great excitement to say that she had indeed found them in the garden and that they were each signed on the base in capitals MAXIMILIANUS SOLDANI BENZI FLORENTIAE and dated 1711.

And when you were researching the Blenheim bronzes, the record of a further set of lost Soldani casts also surfaced?

Yes, indeed, there is convincing evidence that a series of bronze casts were also made for the Grand-Duke of Florence, probably Cosimo III, and that they too have disappeared. This set of casts is not recorded in Soldani’s autobiography of 1718, but certainly would have been, had he already made them. The first mention I found of them was in the catalogue of the Ducal Gallery in Florence which was published in 1759 by the keeper of the collections, Giuseppe Bianchi, who would have known Soldani personally, and this describes all four bronzes; The Medici VenusThe Dancing FaunThe Wrestlersand The Knife Grinder. They are mentioned again as Soldani’s work in a guidebook of 1803 and are located in the Gabinetto dei Bronzi Moderni and are recorded there until 1856, but are then not mentioned again and have completely disappeared from the Palazzo Pitti and the Uffizi. Their location remains unknown.

Do you have any theories about what happened to these Grand Ducal bronzes?

Yes, as I suggested in the Lankheit’s Festschrift article, I think it possible that when Tuscany was taken over by the House of Savoy in 1859, they may have been removed and either sold amongst many lesser works of art from Florentine Public collections which were de-accessioned at the time or relocated to one of the various residences of the new ruling dynasty. The timing of the disappearance of these bronzes strongly points towards this theory. So this set of Grand Ducal bronzes disappeared and has never resurfaced. They may linger in some ex-Savoy garden in a forgotten villa in Piedmont, Liguria or elsewhere, waiting to be rediscovered.

How important a sculptor is Soldani in your opinion?

Soldani produced wonderful invenzione, elaborate masterful compositions, particularly in his smaller sculptural groups and reliefs. In my opinion Foggini was a better monumental sculptor, but technically Soldani was a great master, I think his chiselling is unsurpassed. One only has to look at some of the bronzes which have passed through my hands such as Andromeda and the Monster and Leda and the Swan (fig.4) and the Venus plucking the Wings of Cupid in Ottawa, National Gallery. Soldani was the last of the great bronze sculptors in the Florentine workshop following on from Giambologna, Susini and Foggini. Soldani only died in 1740, he was literally perfecting the whole. That is why I started looking for eighteenth century Florentine bronzes because they were a continuation of that tradition which had started with Ghiberti.

What is your reaction to the fact that one pair of the bronzes you rediscovered at Blenheim has been sold and will now leave the country?

The export of these bronzes is to my mind a great loss. They are very important bronzes for Britain. They are fully documented with an unbroken provenance. The commission is also interesting because Soldani completed it extremely quickly instead of letting the work drag on for years like the three figures he cast for the Prince of Liechtenstein. In any case, it is a great loss, because people still don’t fully understand the importance of Soldani and his oeuvre. And, I think that given their aesthetic quality and great importance to the history of British collecting and patronage, they were incredibly cheap.

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Aurora Corio