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Cocky Apollo, Sad Cleo Star in Antico Show: Lance Esplund

May 19, 2012

With his hip cocked, this polished bronze, gold and silver “Apollo Belvedere” is cool, classical, self-confident -- even sexy in a gunslinger kind of way.

The young god has just released an arrow and struck the target, so his lean body is in action yet gracefully at ease.

This is Mantuan goldsmith-sculptor Pier Jacopo Alari de Bonacolsi’s (c. 1455-1528) take on the classical, life-size marble statue.

He was known and self-proclaimed as Antico, “the antique one,” and he excelled at the creative copy. A process not simply of imitation but of exploration, investigation and transcription, copying allows artists to unearth a work’s formal power, rhythms, structure and metaphors -- the secrets of its life and genius.

Antico was the first of many artists over the centuries to translate the “Apollo Belvedere” with fresh eyes. His bronze Apollo is sensual, conscious of his own appeal and evolution -- an ancient god reborn in the image and service of modern man.

But the drama here has been turned down a notch and naturalism reigns. Antico has restored the original’s missing forearms. He has smoothed and polished the transitions and delicately relaxed and narrowed Apollo’s stance.

The Frick Collection’s “Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes” presents 39 of his exquisite works, roughly three quarters of his entire oeuvre -- portrait medals, busts, an urn, reliefs and statuettes, mostly of gods and goddesses from classical mythology.

Antico was the court sculptor for the powerful Gonzaga family, the Mantuan art patrons considered to be the most splendid of the smaller Italian Renaissance courts -- Andrea Mantegna was their court painter.

The Gonzagas displayed Antico’s prized, rare, bronze statuettes (ranging from roughly eight to 18 inches tall) next to their inspirational sculptures and antiquities, one of Renaissance Italy’s finest collections of Greco-Roman art.

Antico’s sculptures, bestowed diplomatically as treasured gifts, were precious objects rarely allowed to go into serial production.

If there is anything slightly off-putting about Antico, it is his virtuosity and the fact that he is clearly as aware of his talent as you are. “Apollo” -- no less than the artist -- appears to preen for the crowd.

In this and other inspired copies, Antico helped to establish a canonical link between the Renaissance humanist “ideal” and that of antiquity.

But he was first and foremost an innovative sculptor who was reinventing and reinvigorating the art of the past with newfound confidence and naturalism.

Winged Cupids

Antico softens the pomp-and-circumstance seriousness of the antique, so that we feel at home with his subjects -- Venuses and winged Cupids look like beings you could engage in casual conversation.

In the stout statuette “Hercules” (1496), the aged demigod, with club and lion-skin cloak, appears restless merely standing still. He has the beginnings of a middle-aged paunch. Gnarled by experience, he is strong, capable and trustworthy -- easily worth six men half his age.

Noble Queen

Antico did not base everything on antique sources. In his completely original, life-size bust “Cleopatra” (c. 1525), the noble, conquered queen is pensive, contemplating her death. Her crowned head sinks and her cloak cascades like a waterfall. Yet her lively hair, roiling, falling in ringlets, suggests not the sorrow of defeat but the beauty and dignity of her martyrdom.

This exhibition, with its fanciful, baroque flourishes, relaxed air and a streamlined drama foretelling Art Deco, will appeal to contemporary tastes familiar with the modern, economical sculptures of Aristide Maillol and Elie Nadelman.

It may also renew a hunger for antiquity, encouraging you to revisit the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s superb Greco-Roman wing, just up the street.

Far from merely antique, Antico revives the art of our present as much as that of our past.

“Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes” runs at the Frick Collection, 1 E. 70th St. through July 29. Information: +1-212-288-0700; http://www.frick.org.

(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include NYC Weekend Best and Lewis Lapham podcast.

To contact the writer on the story: Lance Esplund in New York at lesplund@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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