Here is an English tourist called Robert Worsley, visiting Stockholm in the summer of 1688:
I went by water 3 miles to see a small house of the Queens call’d Kalber that has a pretty garden with several good walks an Orangery and a very fine Copper Statue of Hercules killing the Hydra…. I went 14 miles upon the lake to see a palace of the Queen Dowagers [Drottningholm]. …It is a new house built of brick with wings and pavillions, there is a very noble Stair Case of stone adorn’d with 11 Statues of white marble workt in Flanders [the sculptures by Millich]…. The garden is not quite finished in the middle fountain is a brass Statue 8 foot high of Hercules killing the Dragon it was taken at Prague by Gustavus Adolphus thô it formerly came from Athens and is reckoned one of the best in Europe round this fountain are 4 good brass Statues that were taken from the King of Denmark there are several other very good brass Statues taken at Prague and amongst them one admirable one of a Serpent that by twisting of his tail holds 3 Men [Laocoon], and over the door going out of the house are 2 excellent Marble statues of Hercules and Apollo brought also from Prague.
What the tourist does not know is just as significant as what he knows. His calling one statue copper and others brass (they would all have been bronze) is probably a misunderstanding of different kinds of artificial patina, long since obscured by the effects of weather. His assertion that the eight-foot Hercules came originally from Athens reminds us that few English tourists of the day could have had a clear conception (let alone a correct idea) of what Greek bronzes looked like. His belief that Gustavus Adolphus would have taken the booty is probably evidence of a Swedish reluctance to pay tribute to the monarch responsible, for it was under Queen Christina, in 1648, that the Swedish troops entered Prague. (No doubt after her abdication and conversion to Catholicism there were many such acts of oblivion.)
But the chief thing the tourist does not know is the name of the sculptor whose bronze works so obviously impress him. It is Adriaen de Vries (1556-1626), in his day as successor to Giambologna the most highly regarded sculptor in Europe. He was court sculptor to Rudolph II in Prague. He made a series of bronzes for the palace garden of the famous Duke Albrecht von Waldstein or Wallenstein (Schiller’s Wallenstein), sometime commander of the Imperial troops in the Thirty Years’ War. The fountain de Vries made for King Christian IV of Denmark at Frederiksborg Castle, with its commanding figure of Neptune, its tritons blowing conches, its naiads and allegorical figures (originally twenty bronzes in all), was designed to commemorate a Danish victory over the Swedes. It showed Christian IV as a god commanding the seas. “The whole thing,” says Görel Cavalli-Björkman in the Getty catalog, “was clearly a provocation which the Swedes could not tolerate.” In 1659, under the command of their king, Charles X, they captured the fountain and carried it off. According to Cavalli-Björkman, “The symbolic act which this looting amounted to resulted in the demolished base of the fountain being left standing for a long time as a painful memento of Denmark’s irretrievably lost position as a Baltic power.”
A similar symbolism had inspired the Swedish troops in 1648, when, at the very end of the Thirty Years’ War, with peace already being negotiated, they made their surprise attack on Prague’s Mala Strana (“Small Side”) and spent two days looting churches, monasteries, and palaces. While soldiers, monks, and students stood shoulder to shoulder on the Charles Bridge, to prevent the Swedes from crossing into the right-bank parts of the city, the looters were packing up the Kunstkammer of the late Rudoph II, and all his paintings and statues, his library, his mathematical instruments. Queen Christina wrote to a cousin, “I pray you also to remember to commandeer and dispatch on my behalf the library and the rarities to be found in Prague. You know that these are the only things which I truly esteem.”
The soldiers were working against the clock, because, when the Treaty of Osnabrück came into effect, all booty which had not yet been removed would have to be returned to its owner. They made it with only a couple of days to spare, loading five ships full of valuables and sending them down the Elbe. Next spring, Rudolph’s treasures and Wallenstein’s garden bronzes arrived in Stockholm. Wallenstein’s bronzes! Had not Gustavus Adolphus died on the battlefield facing Wallenstein’s troops? A live lion from the Prague zoo accompanied the treasure.
This explains the curious fact that Sweden today still possesses some thirty bronzes by de Vries, a large proportion of his surviving output. And it explains why the de Vries exhibition, which began in Amsterdam, proceeded to Drottningholm, the royal palace outside Stockholm, before crossing the Atlantic. Presenting all his known drawings and a generous selection of his surviving bronzes, it opened at the Getty Museum on October 12, the first monographic show to be devoted to the artist. Frits Scholten edited the catalog, whose English version is undoubtedly the best account of the sculptor in the language—one could argue, the best in any language, since, although it does not describe the whole oeuvre, it incorporates much new evidence that was not available to Lars Olof Larsson when he published the standard monograph in 1967.1
De Vries was proud of his origins: he signed his works ADRIANUS FRIES HAGIENSIS BATAVUS—asserting thereby that he was Dutch and from The Hague. There have been many distinguished Dutch and Flemish sculptors, but they tend to be less well known than the northern painters, partly because they did not contribute to a national school so much as to a European movement. They worked in Italy, in Bohemia, in Germany, in England. They sometimes became known under translated versions of their names: Pietro Francavilla was born Pierre de Francqueville in Cambrai. Giambologna, the greatest of the group, was born Jehan de Boulogne in Douai. Both of these towns were then in Flanders. The assertive Dutchness of de Vries’s signature, and his frequent signing of his works, taken together with material emerging from the archives, contribute to an impression of an artist with a strong sense of his own worth.
He may have trained first as a goldsmith, but he became a courtier and, for the last years of his life, a man of property. Although he did not always succeed in extracting from his patrons the money due to him, he had a clear notion of the fair price for his work. When the secretary of a certain Count Ernest von Holstein-Schaumburg complains that de Vries’s bronze version of The Farnese Bull (a complex antique marble group, then in Rome) is not well cast, de Vries not only comes back at him with glowing opinions from various virtuosi; he also asserts that his bronze version is worth as much as the marble original, and that if the count does not like it he can send it back to Prague, where he, de Vries, has just bought a house. The squashing tone of this retort is the more remarkable when one realizes that, at the time de Vries wrote the letter, The Farnese Bull was one of the most admired sculptures from antiquity. Not only does the sculptor consider himself the equal of the ancients. He also feels entitled to stipulate in what kind of setting his bronze should be shown: it should be displayed, he writes, in a hall or chamber without tapestries, placed on a pedestal with a rotatable top.
Perhaps one should not expect de Vries, in his old age, to take any lip from minor German aristocrats. He had begun his career in the service of the Medici in Florence, had worked for the Spanish monarchy in Milan, and for the Duke of Savoy in Turin, before being lured away to the court of Rudolph II. The Emperor was noted for his habit of mingling with the artists in his employment, and was even said to have tried his hand at painting. A courtier of de Vries’s stature would have had the kind of access to Rudolph that might be construed as intimacy. And he knew well that sculptors of his caliber were highly prized and rare—not only in Bohemia but also throughout Europe. He knew this well because it explains the story of his life.
He was born into what Frits Scholten calls a respectable, patrician family. His father was an apothecary, his mother the daughter of a lawyer at the court of Holland. Assuming the estimated birth date of 1556 to be correct, de Vries would probably have left home around 1570, to be apprenticed either to a goldsmith or, as the tempting theory has it, to work for the sculptor Willem van Tetrode, on the latter’s return from Italy in 1568. (Van Tetrode had worked in the studio of Benvenuto Cellini.) At all events, the skill for which he was known throughout his life was that of modeling rather than carving, metalwork rather than work in wood or stone. And the first mention of him in the Florentine archives is as an “orefice fiammingo,” a Netherlandish goldsmith, receiving silver in 1581 on behalf of his master Giambologna, with which to make two silver crucifixes to be sent to Spain.
Frustratingly enough, although de Vries earned his reputation while working in Giambologna’s studio, we have no certain knowledge of how it was he made his mark, whether it was for such small-scale works as the crucifixes, or whether he was involved in large projects. The major work on which the studio was then engaged was the celebrated marble group of The Rape of a Sabine (Florence, Loggia dei Lanzi), with which Giambologna demonstrated virtuoso skill in designing a stable group composed of three figures expressing defeat, triumphant capture, and desperate struggle. The execution of this group, according to Charles Avery, went to the above- mentioned Pietro Francavilla. Where de Vries’s skill with metal might have been employed was in the bronze relief which was to be set into the pediment. At the very least, de Vries would have observed Giambologna struggling with complex groups of humans and horses engaged in violent action, and using as inspiration for one of the groups in this relief the pyramidal composition of The Farnese Bull. It is here, rather than on his subsequent visit to Rome, that he would have first encountered the famous antique group. He would have seen it in the form of a model made by Giambologna to propose a method for its restoration.2
Giambologna had taken on more work than he could possibly execute single-handed, and he seems to have solved the problem by concentrating on the design of new figures and reliefs, and delegating more and more of their execution to his assistants. The more he was obliged to delegate, the more he had to share his intellectual property. This property would have included such valuable studio secrets as the methods for various kinds of artificial patination of bronze, for which Giambologna’s workshop was famous; wax designs for small figures or groups (which were highly esteemed collectible items); drawings; technical expertise in casting large figures; and ideas in one form or another for projects not yet executed. And all the while, as he shared these secrets, there was the possibility of his pupils’ making off with them. As Giambologna wrote to the grand duke’s secretary in 1585 (in the course of a request for money), he found it humiliating to see
so many of my servants and pupils having left me to become very rich and honoured with what they have learned from me, and with my models. And it seems to me that they are laughing at me, because due to my desire to be in the service of His Serene Highness I have refused very generous offers both in Spain with the king and in Germany with the emperor.
The year after Giambologna wrote these words, de Vries left his studio, and went to work first (indirectly) for the King of Spain, and later, in Prague, for the Emperor.
The man who had lured de Vries to work for him in Milan was Pompeo Leoni, son of Leone Leoni, both of them sculptors of high repute who had done much work for the Spanish royal family and aristocracy. Father and son had collaborated, in the 1550s, on a bronze group called Charles V and Fury, in which the Emperor is depicted in triumph over a chained monster. The group was cast in sections. The chained figure of Fury reclines on the base. You may then, if you please, insert the figure of Charles V, nude but for his sword and a pair of very fetching boots. On the other hand, if the nudity of the Emperor seems inappropriate, you may add two thinly cast shells which provide the monarch with a suit of armor. A spear completes the ensemble. Vasari says correctly of this group that it is “wrought with such grace, that whoever sees the statue when covered does not notice it and can scarcely believe that it is nude below, and when it is nude no one would believe without difficulty that it could ever be so well clad in armor.”
This group is one of the treasures of the Prado, but not all of the Leoni’s work is of such virtuosity. It can be repetitive and summary in its detail, more impressive for its finish than for the liveliness of its modeling. But one can see why, at its best, it was so desirable. The Leoni reintroduced to portrait sculpture a late Roman invention whereby the bust, instead of sitting on a plain socle, integral or otherwise, was supported by miniature figures and allegorical devices. These figures, and the sumptuous detailing of relief work on the armor, gave the Leoni opportunities to add both invention and meaning to their portraiture. Their bust of Charles V is supported by an eagle and by two nudes representing either Hercules and Minerva or Mars and Bellona. Rudolph II knew this bust (he had been brought up in Spain), and went to the trouble of acquiring a replica of it which he placed in his Kunstkammer. When he eventually lured de Vries into his service he commissioned a matching bust of himself (see illustration on page 53) with a similar socle and splendid armor referring to his fame, his triumphs and the extent of his dominions, his strength, his swiftness, his immortality, and such pleasing considerations as the relationship of his imperium to that of Augustus.
For the moment, though, de Vries was in Milan, working on a scheme which Rudolph would have known all about, for one of his great interests was in gathering information about Spanish architectural projects, especially the Escorial. Pompeo Leoni had been commissioned to execute fifteen full-size gilt bronze figures for the Basilica of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Crippled with gout and unable, during the winter, to work without sitting down, he had fallen behind schedule. He needed de Vries as his chief assistant. Pompeo, in accordance with the studio practice of the time, would make a small-scale model. De Vries would translate this into a full-scale clay figure, which he would then cover evenly with a layer of wax (the wax would be replaced by bronze when the cast was made), and bring the wax surface to the de-gree of finish required. To this finished figure was then attached a system of wax rods or “sprues” before the whole thing was further encased in clay. The purpose of the sprues was twofold: to provide the port of entry for the molten bronze, and to provide a series of vents so that all air would escape from the mold and the bronze would be properly distributed throughout. The last job of the chief assistant was to heat the clay casing so that all the wax could be poured out. Then he would hand over the mold to the master sculptor, who would supervise the pouring of the bronze.
De Vries collaborated with Pompeo on three of the fifteen figures, thereby helping to bring the whole project to completion. And whatever you think of Pompeo Leoni as a sculptor, there is no doubt that the high altar of the Escorial church, together with Pompeo’s subsequent funeral groups of the royal family, constitutes the most somberly impressive ensemble of the period. De Vries’s intervention, of which the details have only recently come to light, was a success, and was seen as such. In 1588 he was able to move from Pompeo’s workshop to his first top job. He was court sculptor to the Duke of Savoy in Turin. Nothing is known of his activities over the next eighteen months, although it is thought that there might have been an intention to use the sculptor’s services to put up an equestrian statue to the duke’s father. If so, it was Rudolph who frustrated the plan, by somehow persuading the duke to lend him the promising young sculptor, who had yet to produce a full-scale work of his own.
He was on loan for a year, but stayed for five, producing early on, as we have seen, a portrait bust of the Emperor in the manner of the Leoni, although in a much improved, livelier version of that manner. But his first two full-scale masterpieces are in quite another manner. If Giambologna had seen them he would have struck his forehead in despair and said: “There, you see? Is it not as I have told you? My servants and pupils earn money and honor with what they have learned from me, and with my models.” For the two Psyche groups are not just indebted to Giambologna: they use his style and his typology with a proprietorial flair. They are indeed appropriations of his art.
And here for the first time we can see what de Vries had learned in his five years in Florence. Whereas in the rather more prosaic world of the Leoni a work in marble was distinguished from one in bronze mainly in the manner of its finish (the form of the piece being largely identical in both media), in Giambologna’s art the medium dictated the expressive use of form. What interested de Vries was to know, precisely, how molten metal would behave. If he asked it to do this, would it comply? The aim was to achieve in a single gesture—that is to say, a single pour of molten bronze—an effect of weightless elegance. Giambologna demonstrated with his Flying Mercury that, given the correct balance, a metal figure had no need of a thick base: Mercury can stand on tiptoe on his socle; he needs no adventitious tree to hold him up. In de Vries’s Psyche borne aloft by putti, as in his Mercury and Psyche (see illustration on page 52), all that is required is that Psyche’s mantle should fall from her. Mercury can hold Psyche aloft and still stand on tiptoe. As long as the armature is correctly designed, the wax evenly applied to the core, the sprues all carefully set.
These statues make perfect sense as the product of conversations with an alchemist, that is, with Rudolph the emperor-alchemist who is fascinated by the nature of matter and the transformations it may undergo. And they make perfect sense as the works of a young man who understands that he has been lured to Prague to play the role of Leone Leoni, to stand in for Giambologna, the unattainable master. They are the works of a man who has the patience to wait a while before becoming himself. For he knows that, however rare in Europe the skills are that he has attained, it is just as rare, or rarer still, to find patron, foundry, and a supply of bronze to satisfy his ambitions.
Maybe it is true, as a report has it, that de Vries was at first unhappy in Prague. It is true that, if he were largely working for Rudolph’s Kunstkammer, he would be making objects for the Emperor’s private delectation, only to be seen by the occasional privileged visitor. Breaking away for a while, he went to Rome, but what he did there, other than study the sculptures, is unknown. The Emperor was trying to keep tabs on him, but he did not meekly go back to Prague. Instead he accepted commissions from the city of Augsburg to produce two fountains, works which, by their civic nature, redounded greatly to the credit both of the city and of the sculptor. And then Rudolph offered him the post of Kammerbildhauer, sculptor of the chamber, an exalted position which gave him status, access, salary, and accommodation in the castle.
What develops in his style is an increasing attention to the expressive surface, not of the bronze so much as the wax in which he models the epidermis of the figure. He seems to renounce the path taken by Giambologna’s studio, the perfectionism of Giambologna’s assistants Antonio Susini or Pietro Tacca, the delight in a perfectly controlled finish. He prefers a vigorous sketchiness, a sketchiness not just of finish but eventually of the modeling itself. In the catalog of the current exhibition, Frits Scholten interprets this as a pursuit of the quality of sprezzatura, a kind of nonchalance. It is strange, but its strangeness makes sense in the context of Rudolphine mannerism, although mannerism is a term Scholten prefers to avoid, for he sees de Vries rather as a master of the early Baroque.
I saw the exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, where it had been admirably mounted and, what is not always the case with sculpture, sensitively lit. Two of the bronzes turned up in plowed fields, no doubt where the Swedish soldiers had dropped or hidden them as they left Prague. One has the feeling that there is more to come, more to be revealed and understood, that we have not heard the last of Adriaen de Vries. And this, of course, is part of the pleasure of the experience.
November 18, 1999