Once upon a time, antiquity was new. All of a sudden, in the decades around 1500, the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere and other now-celebrated monuments of the ancients began to come forth from the ground, dug up in the fields about Rome. To the artists, patrons, and humanists who beheld them for the first time, these sculptures were breathtaking: timeless yet fresh, canonical yet startling. As in few other moments in the history of art, the shock of the new and the shock of the old were one.
Among the first artists to respond to this surprising treasure trove was a goldsmith from northern Italy called Pier Jacopo Alari de Bonacolsi (c.1455-1528), better known as “Antico,” for his uncompromising passion for Pagan antiquity. Working for Isabella d’Este and her Gonzaga relatives in Mantua, he made as bronze statuettes some of the earliest copies of these and other masterworks of antiquity, including the Spinario, the Venus Felix, and the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. Today the imitation of classical models may seem like a stale and routine business, but five hundred years ago, it was an exciting and revelatory enterprise. The copies Antico made are surprising in many ways, so much so that although long cherished by collectors as possibly the most sumptuous statuettes in the history of art, the essence of their character still seems to elude full understanding.