Friday, April 29, 2016

Etchings of Beautiful Statues by François Perrier

François Perrier after Simon Vouet
Minerva leading Louis XIII (as Classical Hero) to the Temple of Glory
1632
etching
British Museum

The French painter and printmaker François Perrier (1590-1650) traveled back and forth throughout his career between Paris and Rome. In 1632 he was in France working with Simon Vouet when he etched Vouet's allegorical painting of the Goddess Minerva (above) carrying a globe and laurel branch, leading a noble figure in armor (Ulysses on one level of meaning, Louis XIII on another) toward the Temple of Glory in the distance, a circular domed structure with classical columns.

François Perrier
Frontispiece (with Belvedere Torso) for the book of etchings  
Segmenta nobilium signorum et statuarum
1638
etching
British Museum

In 1635 Perrier returned to Rome, and was there when the book that established his lasting fame was published in Paris. This folio volume of 1638  Selection of the most celebrated ancient artifacts and statues  was not the first such collection of plates featuring the statues of Rome, but it was "the earliest illustrated volume to be deliberately restricted to the finest antique sculpture."  In 1981 Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny published the authoritative modern description of these statues  Taste and the Antique : the Lure of Classical Sculpture, 1500- 1900. Perrier's 1638 collection, in their account, "consisted of a hundred prints of fewer than a hundred statues ... It was a great success, and a companion volume of antique reliefs appeared in 1645. The idea was imitated by other artists and publishers later in the seventeenth century ... and in the late eighteenth century ... but Perrier's books were cheap, frequently reprinted and were probably more popular than these rival and superior volumes. As late as the 1820s Flaxman was referring his students at the Royal Academy to Perrier, and the presence of a statue in his anthology was likely to establish or confirm a reputation in a way that had not been possible in the earlier, less restrictive compilations."

François Perrier
Laocoön
1638
etching
Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts
Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco

Plate 1 of Perrier's collection went to the 17th century's favorite of all antique statues, The Laocoön, "discovered on 14 January 1506 on the property of Felice de'Freddi near S. Maria Maggiore, Rome. It was bought by Pope Julius II soon afterwards, taken to the Belvedere, and by 1 June was being installed in a niche in the courtyard." The group (with a few missing body parts filled in) generated enormous respect and immense quantities of writing by generation upon generation of visitors and antiquarians and lofty literary authors. The register of the admiration began its fall after modern scholars refuted Winckelmann's conviction that the statues belonged purely to the time of Alexander the Great. The weight of opinion now places The Laocoön group several centuries later. It resulted from a reconstruction "more recent in date than the mid-first century AD" of an earlier group that included only two figures. The elder son (on the left in the etching, but on the right in the sculpture group itself) did not belong to the original depiction of the father and younger son entangled in the serpent.      

François Perrier
Venus de'Medici (view A)
1638
etching
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

"The Venus is recorded for certain in the Villa Medici in Rome in 1638 when Perrier included prints of it in his anthology of the most beautiful statues." The three prints of the Venus reproduced here (from copies at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles) represent the first documentation of the sculpture's existence. Haskell & Penny conclude that the date and place of its actual discovery cannot be determined, but that the statue may have been in Medici hands for many years, perhaps at one of their country houses, before joining the display at their Roman palazzo in the 17th century. In 1677 the Medici decided to ship this work to their home-base in Florence  along with several other important pieces they had formerly kept on semi-public display in Rome. This move aroused loud Roman protests, but the fame of the Venus de'Medici skyrocketed after it assumed its place of prominence in Florence. It soon became  and for long years remained  one of the half-dozen most admired and discussed works of art anywhere in Europe. Then in the first years of the nineteenth century scholars began seriously to suggest  that the Venus de'Medici might be a later copy of some lost original. This interpretation grew stronger and stronger, until the statue became  what it remains today  not only a copy, but an inferior copy, "among the most charmless remnants of antiquity."

François Perrier
Venus de'Medici (view B)
1638
etching
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

François Perrier
Venus de'Medici (view C)
1638
etching
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Soon after prints like these began to saturate Europe, massive programs of cast-making, copy-making and model-making began. " ... in 1769 when Herder wrote with rapture of the ApolloLaocoön, Antinous and Venus  those 'models of Beautiful Nature' (Vorbilder der schönen Natur)  he had not seen casts in Germany, let along the originals in Rome and Florence, but was responding to the marble copies at Versailles made for Louis XIV."

François Perrier
Farnese Hercules (view A)
1638
etching
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The larger-than-life Farnese Hercules was, according to reports and inferences, discovered in pieces on the site of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome during the 1540s. By the 1550s it was on display at the Palazzo Farnese. Michelangelo and his associate Guglielmo della Porta were often credited with the elaborate restoration, which included new legs. The supposed association with Michelangelo greatly enhanced the statue's prestige, even though there were "other versions in circulation" according to Haskell & Penny, who remark that Perrier's collection granted this version the high and unusual honor (like the Venus de'Medici) of three separate plates. They quote Joseph Addison, among countless 18th-century admirers, writing of the work as, "one of the Four finest Figures perhaps that are now Extant."  That quotation is juxtaposed with one from a modern scholar calling the same statue, "a huge repulsive bag of swollen muscles."  It is now believed that the surviving antique portion of the Farnese Hercules was copied by the Romans in this enlarged version as an architectural ornament during the 3rd century AD, following an earlier standardized type.

François Perrier
Farnese Hercules (view B)
1638
etching
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

François Perrier
Farnese Hercules (view C)
1638
etching
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

François Perrier
Belvedere Cleopatra
1638
etching
Rijksmuseum

The so-called Cleopatra (above) was acquired from a Roman family by Pope Julius II in 1512. His minions placed it on top of a sarcophagus in the Belevedere courtyard and fitted it up as a fountain. Two hundred years later Pope Clement XI publicly deplored "the damage being caused to the statue by the water which flowed from it."  At some point during the 18th century the water was shut off, though the fountain fittings remained in place. All the while, public esteem for the Belvedere Cleopatra was beyond question. Numerous full-scale copies were made for princely gardens  even Thomas Jefferson owned one, in remote Virginia. Long Latin poems were composed in the statue's honor by distinguished humanists. The pose was imitated in innumerable paintings. George Eliot set a scene at the Vatican in Middlemarch, focusing on this statue. Yet only a short time later the association with Cleopatra was discredited beyond redemption. With that identity gone, little remained behind. People soon began to admit that the head was not ancient and that even the famous horizontal pose had been largely contrived by Renaissance restorers.

François Perrier
Dying Seneca
1638
etching
Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The Borghese Collection grew and flourished under the hand of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the celebrated papal nephew of the early 17th century. Haskell & Penny claim that "few previous owners had been at once so ruthless and so imaginative in the 'restoration' which they had meted out to their antique sculptures, so that a colorless and battered fragment in some previous collection may well have been changed out of all recognition by the time that it was displayed in the Villa Borghese. ... The Seneca (above), in black marble, is not recorded for certain until it belonged to the Borghese, but the original head and torso were known though not much regarded. It was the addition of emaciated limbs, a basin and porphyry to represent the blood of the Stoic philosopher that really made the statue famous." Under orders from Nero, the historical Seneca had committed suicide in a warm bath by cutting his veins. The Borghese fashioned their Dying Seneca from a fragmentary Roman copy of a Hellenistic statue of a fisherman. It is now displayed at the Louvre, but without the basin full of porphyry blood.

The etchings below represent slightly earlier experiments by François Perrier, with the same goal of recording the major Roman statues of interest to scholars and artist and visitors. The inglorious fates of two of these statues are also described in Taste and the Antique 

François Perrier
Farnese Flora
1633
etching
British Museum

The Farnese Flora (above) enters the historical record in the 1530s as a colossal draped female torso (headless) displayed in a courtyard of Palazzo Farnese in Rome. By 1561 it had been 'restored' and was on display in the same space, transformed into a complete figure. In the earliest descriptions this was called a Muse, but after the restoration it became the goddess Flora (carrying a newly-carved wreath of flowers suspended from a newly-carved hand and arm). She was from then on consistently paired with the equally colossal Farnese Hercules. Until the middle of the 19th century the Farnese Flora was generally believed to be a specific historical statue of Flora, carved by Praxiteles and described by Pliny. Once ruthless modern methods of dating and classification arrived, the statue lost even its name. It became a fragmentary Roman copy of an earlier representation of Aphrodite.

François Perrier
Commodus as Hercules
1633
etching
British Museum

A surviving letter describes the discovery of the Commodus as Hercules"It was found on 15 May 1507 in the garden of a house in the Campo dei Fiori. 'One day it was found,' observed Giorgius, 'the next our Lordship [the Pope, Julius II] had it taken to his Palace rewarding the finder, so it is said, with a benefice worth 130 ducats a year.' It was placed in a niche in the Belvedere Courtyard, where it was recorded  in 1536."  The earliest scholars who saw the statue thought they recognized the features of the Emperor Commodus, who reputedly posed as Hercules, "but it is strange to see so ferocious a figure holding a little boy on his arm." Scholarly and popular debate continued for the next three hundred years over possible identities for the child. Dozens of theories are recorded and were passionately argued. Then in the early 19th century scholars conclusively proved that the association with Commodus was fictitious. The statue immediately lost its place of prestige at the Vatican. Since then it has been displayed in a mixed gallery and is labelled as a Roman copy of a type of Herakles derived from an earlier Greek original. The child is declared to be the contribution of the Roman copyist, added for decorative purposes, and certainly not present in Greek models.

François Perrier
Capitoline Urania
1633
etching
British Museum