Met Buys Italian Renaissance Bronze After Two Decades on the Hunt

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Nearly 20 years ago, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art led efforts to acquire an Italian Renaissance roundel that dates back to about 1500. That attempt failed when the museum was outbid during an auction in 2003.

The curator, James David Draper, was disappointed. He had described the work, a bronze relief attributed to Gian Marco Cavalli, as “the most thrilling Renaissance bronze to appear on the market in ages.”

When Draper, who had been the Met’s curator emeritus of European sculpture, died in 2019, he left what Andrea Bayer, the museum’s deputy director for collections and administration, called “a significant bequest” that was earmarked for acquisitions within his former department of European sculpture and decorative arts.

And now the Met has accomplished what it could not in 2003, using money from Draper and others to buy the roundel for $23 million from a gallery in Britain.

Museum officials see the purchase not only as fulfilling the dream of a distinguished former colleague but as adding an important work to its collection and signaling that it is once again a more active participant in the acquisition market.

In a statement, the Met’s director, Max Hollein, called the roundel “an absolute masterpiece, standing apart for its historical significance, artistic virtuosity and unique composition,” adding: “It is a truly transformational acquisition for the Met’s collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture.”

Like most cultural institutions, the Met suffered financially during the pandemic. Facing a potential shortfall of $150 million, it instituted furloughs and layoffs and began discussions about selling some artworks to help pay for care of the collection. The pace of acquisitions slowed.

But the Cavalli is the Met’s largest purchase since Hollein was appointed as director in 2018 and the second largest ever for the museum, after what was reported as a $45 million purchase in 2004 of an 8-by-11-inch painting called “Madonna and Child” by Duccio di Buoninsegna.

The roundel by Cavalli, an Italian goldsmith, sculptor, print engraver and medalist who worked for the Gonzaga court in Mantua, is embellished with gilding and silver inlay and shows figures from Roman mythology.

It depicts golden-winged Venus, goddess of love, gazing at Mars, god of war, while her husband Vulcan wields a tool to fabricate a helmet. A Latin inscription, according to a translation by the museum, states: “Venus Mars and Love rejoice. Vulcan, you labor!”

The work, which measures 17 inches in diameter, was described by museum officials as the largest and one of the most technically sophisticated known examples of a bronze roundel from the early Renaissance. Experts believe it may have been made for Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, regarded by many as the most important female patron of the Italian Renaissance.

Cavalli, who was born around 1454, collaborated for over 30 years with Andrea Mantegna, the principal painter to the Gonzaga court, and with Antico, the Gonzaga family’s principal sculptor, museum officials said, adding that attribution of works to Cavalli “remained challenging” until the discovery of the roundel in a British country house in 2003.


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