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Mercury,god of speed, travellers and commerce

after Giambologna (Douai 1529 - Florence 1608)

Category

Art / Sculpture

Date

c. 1850 - 1900

Materials

Bronze

Measurements

760 mm (Height)

Place of origin

Paris

Collection

Cragside, Northumberland

NT 1228445

Summary

Bronze; Mercury, the god of travellers; after Giambologna (Giovanni Bologna, 1529-1608); c. 1850-1900. A bronze statuette of the god Mercury, depicted flying through the air, his left foot balanced on a stream of wind emerging from the mouth of a zephyr or wind god. This iconic image is Giambologna’s most famous sculpture and was copied innumerable times.

Full description

A bronze statuette of Mercury, the god of speed, commerce and travellers. Mercury is depicted naked except for his hat of a type known as a petasos, to which are attached small wings. A small wing also grows out of each of Mercury’s ankles. He flies through the air, his left foot balanced on a stream of wind emerging from the mouth of a zephyr (wind god), his right leg raised behind him, his left hand cradling his caduceus or herald’s wand, formed from a winged staff around which are entwined two serpents. His raised right hand holds a torch. A fig leaf hides Mercury’s genitals. Mounted on a circular bronze base, with moulded sides, on which is the inscription ‘Jean de Boulogne’. Giambologna’s Mercury is an iconic work of art. Even if most people today are unlikely to be aware of its origins and its author, it is nevertheless probably the only Renaissance bronze sculpture still instantly recognizable as a composition, owing to its widespread use as a symbol for communication, for example in stamps and company logos. It is Giambologna’s most famous work, the one which sealed his professional success at the Medici court in Florence. The Mercury is also the summation of Giambologna’s preoccupation as a modeller with creating sculpted figures built around a strong vertical axis. It is a masterpiece of technological achievement, the bronze figure balanced, apparently effortlessly, on a single point, making it appear as if Mercury is bursting upwards, as he hurtles through the air. Between the early 1560s and the late 1580s Giambologna made five slightly varied versions of this extraordinary figure, knowledge of which was further disseminated through the innumerable copies which continue to be made to this day. The great majority of copies, notably almost all the many that were made in nineteenth-century foundries, were based on the life-size bronze Mercury made by Giambologna around 1580 and sent from Florence to the Villa Medici in Rome, where it was part of a fountain in the gardens, remaining in Rome until its return to Florence in 1780. Today it is in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello. This is one of two examples of the Mercury at Cragside, the other (NT 1231006) paired with a figure of Fortuna, the model for which is by a different sculptor. It can well be imagined that Sir William Armstrong, whose businesses depended on technical innovation and making maximum use of the properties of metals, might have especially admired this composition and the way in which the heavy bronze figure balances perfectly on a single point. With its additions of the torch and the fig-leaf, elements that are not in the original model, this example was clearly made in the second half of the nineteenth century. Of rather poor quality, it is a mass-produced product of a French foundry. The most unusual and individual element is the treatment of the hair of the zephyr, here turned into cloud-like designs reminiscent of Oriental art, perhaps suggesting it could have been made during the craze for Japonisme in Europe, in the years around 1870. Jeremy Warren March 2022

Marks and inscriptions

On surface of base: Jean de Bologne

Makers and roles

after Giambologna (Douai 1529 - Florence 1608), sculptor

References

Avery and Radcliffe 1978: Charles Avery and Anthony Radcliffe, Giambologna, 1529-1608: sculptor to the Medici, exh.cat. venues: Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna 1978, nos. 34-35. Avery 1987: Charles Avery, Giambologna, The Complete Sculpture, Oxford 1987, pp. 21-23, cat. 34, Plates 14,15,121,124, 238.

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