Renaissance and Baroque Bronzes from the Hill Collection

28 January – 15 June 2014.

The past few years have seen an increasing growth of interest in Renaissance and Baroque bronzes (not that they were unpopular before), a phenomenon marked by pivotal exhibitions such as, for example, those on French bronzes (2008), on Riccio (2009), on Antico (2012), and those on the Quentin Collection (2004), and on the Peter Marino collection (2010). We must add to the last two, which celebrated the formation of new private collections of incredible relevance, the exhibition currently at the Frick which focuses on the bronze treasures gathered over two decades by the passion and acumen of J. Tomilson and Janine Hill. 

With the advice of Patricia Wengraf and the collaboration of some of the most respected scholars, the Hills have created a spectacular collection of bronzes. Few are of religious subject, only one is gilt (the moving Cristo Morto by Antonio Susini), but all show their great attention to the accurate definition of the form and to the precision of the detail. This can be appreciated, for example, in Giambologna’s Astronomy, in which the idea of the figura serpentinata (snake-like figure) is expressed through a delicate balance of volumes and contra-posing curvatures, or in the superb Hercules Slaying the Centaur by Antonio Susini, where the dramatic composition is enriched by the sculptor with the painstaking rendering of all the elements, with pieces of true bravura like the tail of the centaur or his face.

In the rooms of the Frick Collection dedicated to the exhibition, the variety of tones of the language of European bronzes is on view. Animals mix with humans, deities with rulers, to represent concord (Bacchus and Ceres by Pietro Tacca), sensuality (the Sleeping Nymph by Antonio Susini), cruel passion (The Rape of a Sabine again by Susini), struggle (Piamontini’s Hercules and Iolaus Slaying the Hydra), violence (Maso Finiguerra’s Hercules and Anteus), magnificence (Cosimo III on Horseback, again by Piamontini) and grace (Venus by Hubert Le Sueur).

The sense of intensity and concentration that one can feel while looking at the bronzes is reflected in the display of the exhibition. Most statuettes are on rectangular stands of the same neutral colour as the walls. They have no base and there are no vitrines. The contact between work of art and viewer is direct, immediate: forms, volumes, lines, expressions, details, patinas, even imperfections and repairs are under the eyes of the visitor, who can look at them with complete attention.

The Hills have also collected works by Warhol, Bacon Twombly, de Kooning, Ruscha and Fontana. Some of them are now on the walls of the Frick, in order not just to recreate the atmosphere of the house, but also to show how intuition and introspection can make the make unexpected juxtapositions work. The clearest and perhaps the most striking of these juxtapositions is with Ruscha’s Seventeenth Century. The painting is the third character, with Piamontini’s Cosimo III and de Vries’ Bacchic Man, in a dialogue that is all about power, contrasts and drama.

Once the exhibition has closed, the catalogue will remain and we should be grateful to its authors. Heavy scholarly work has been devoted to this publication by all of them. There is a lot of new information, as for example the inventory of the Borri collection published by Dimitrios Zikos, and an exact reconsideration of much of the previous literature. Some catalogue entries are actually essays, with really useful additions like the list of some of the casts of Giambologna’s Pacing Horse. The catalogue also includes a report on the technical analysis of the alloys, brief and informative biographies of the sculptors, and especially numerous top quality photos.

The section of the Frick’s website devoted to the exhibition deserves to be visited too. There is a video explaining with great clarity the making of a bronze statuette, a very informative interview with the Hills by the museum’s director, Ian Wardropper (see video below), and the recordings of two lectures held in New York by David Ekserdjian and Claudia Kryza-Gersch. This idea deserves great praise, because it allows also those who were not present to enjoy the talks by these two specialists.

Main image: Installation View at The Frick Collection showing the Labours of Hercules, bronzes from the Hill Collection, (photo: Michael Bodycomb)

Aurora Corio