Antonio Lombardo, An Ideal Female Head. Italy, Venice, c. 1500-05
The small bronze bust depicts a young lady, who looks to her left, her mouth open as if she has just quietly spoken. The bronze is very finely finished, with texturing of the surface differentiating the flesh parts, the tunic and the wonderfully vibrant hair. The girl wears a simple tunic in the Roman style and her hair is beautifully dressed, parted in the middle, clustering on the head in close waves and formed into a large circular bun at the back. Her hair style too is Roman in style and yet the girl herself, with her full face and fine features, does not look like the women seen depicted in Roman sculptures, nor does she seem to be a portrait of a real woman. In fact, she looks much more like the ethereally beautiful and idealised young women seen in early 16th-century paintings by the great Venetian painters Giorgione (died 1510) and his friend Titian (c. 1490-1576).
The bust was made by Antonio Lombardo (c. 1458-1516) who, with his brother Tullio, was the leading sculptor in Venice in the years around 1500. It is one of a very small group of sculptures which reflect the passionate interest among Venetian artists, lost worlds of ancient Greece and Rome. However, rather than the imperial and martial magnificence of ancient Rome, this Venetian classical revival explored a gentler, more mysterious and melancholy world, a dreamy pastoral arcadia populated by nymphs and shepherds. The Arcadian aesthetic which so entranced Venetians living around 1500 is perhaps best seen in Titian and Giorgione’s paintings, in which dreamy landscapes based on the foothills north of Venice provide a backdrop for the pastoral figures, whose actions are often enigmatic and are generally suffused with a gentle melancholy. It is more difficult in sculpture to evoke such pictures, but in fact Antonio captures very well in this small work so much of the Venetian Arcadian ideal, with the beautiful girl’s abstracted and yearning gaze.
The bust was probably made as a pair with another similar bust, now in Vienna. What is the relationship between the two girls? Are they talking, are they laughing? About what? We can only guess, although we can with some certainty suppose that the subject would have been the perils of love, and know that the two bronze busts, with their refined melancholy beauty, would have delighted their Venetian owner.
Jeremy Warren, Thursday 6 and Thursday 27 February, at 1 pm, in the Sixteenth-Century Gallery.
Alison Luchs, Tullio Lombardo and Ideal Portrait Sculpture in Renaissance Venice, 1490-1530, Cambridge 1995
Alison Luchs (ed.), Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture, National Gallery of Art, Washington 2009