The Wallace Collection

Venus after her bath, Giovanni Bologna
S114, Nessus carrying off Deianira, by Giambologna, on display in the Great Gallery.
S114, Nessus carrying off Deianira, by Giambologna, on display in the Great Gallery.
Treasure of the Month - May 2006

Venus after her bath, Giovanni Bologna

Giovanni Bologna (1529-1608), generally known as Giambologna, has ever since his lifetime been regarded as one of the greatest sculptors of Renaissance Italy.

He was not however a native Italian and was in fact born in Douai in Flanders. Like many young Northern artists, he made a journey to Rome, around 1550, in order to study Classical and modern sculpture. On his return he visited Florence, to see the sculpture of the early Renaissance and Michelangelo. Having found a local patron through whom he was introduced to the Medici, he decided to settle in Florence, where he was to spend the rest of his life. Giambologna became one of the Medici’s favourite court artists, celebrated not only for grand monumental sculptures such as Samson and the Philistine (V&A Museum) or the colossal Rape of the Sabines, but also for smaller figures in bronze. Giambologna ran a large and highly efficient workshop, which became specialized in the production of bronzes in large numbers and to very high technical and artistic standards. These bronzes were sought after throughout Europe and used by the Medici Grand Dukes as diplomatic gifts. Knowledge of Giambologna’s work thus spread throughout Europe, even to England where, in 1612, Charles I’s elder brother Prince Henry received a gift of 15 bronze figures after models by Giambologna.

Giambologna’s work remained popular throughout succeeding centuries, with copies of his models being made not only in Florence but also in France, the Netherlands and Germany. His elegant polished figures were especially popular with collectors in Regency England, including the Third Marquess of Hertford, who acquired much of the superb collection of bronzes by and after Giambologna now in the Wallace Collection (but probably not this Venus).

While in Rome Giambologna went to visit his hero Michelangelo, presenting him with a wax model. The elderly Michelangelo is said to have crushed the painstakingly finished wax in his hand, creating out of the mess of wax an entirely new model with his fingers. Michelangelo then warned the young sculptor not to over-finish models but to use them as tools to work out all the elements of a composition. Giambologna never forgot this lesson and all his compositions were developed with the help of numerous wax and terracotta models.

This exquisite figure, showing the goddess Venus drying herself after bathing, may well be a cast in bronze of one of the small wax models Giambologna is said to have made in Florence between 1555 and 1561, before he had begun to receive major commissions. Although the pose and proportions of the figure have been carefully worked out, the surface has not been worked up to the high finish characteristic of Giambologna’s completed bronzes – compare for example the figure of Mercury in this case. With her cool gaze, the exaggerated positions of her limbs and the serpentine movement of her body around a vertical axis, this figure illustrates to perfection Giambologna’s elegant mannerist style, which not only revitalized contemporary Florentine sculpture but had long-lasting influence on sculpture throughout Europe.

Further Reading

  • J.G. Mann, Wallace Collection Catalogues: Sculpture,
  • London 1931 (2nd edition 1981)Charles Avery and Anthony Radcliffe, Giambologna 1529-1608. Sculptor to the Medici, Exhibition Catalogue,
    London 1978
  • Charles Avery, Giambologna. The Complete Sculpture, Oxford 1987