An important polychrome wood statue of St. Anthony attributed to Pietro Torrigiani

Image of An important polychrome wood statue of St. Anthony attributed to Pietro Torrigiani

Saint Anthony the Great
Attributed to Pietro Torrigiani
Probably Florence, Italy or Seville, Spain; ca. 1525

Polychrome wood; 132 x 81 cm

The present sculpture constitutes a potential rare discovery from one of the Renaissance’s most talented and historically important sculptors: Pietro Torrigiani.

Torrigiani’s reception as a talented artist has traditionally been obscured due to a lack of accessibility to his collective work, a deficiency of documentary evidence concerning his life and activity and the general disdain given to his persona by Giorgio Vasari and Benvenuto Cellini in their biographical and autobiographical accounts of Torrigiani. Both men recount how Torrigiani famously broke Michelangelo’s nose in a fist-fight as they taunted one another about whose skills were greater in copying works by Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel at the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence during their youth.

In spite of his conceits, Torrigiani was recognized as a talented sculptor and Vasari praised his “bold and excellent” skill with works held in “great estimation.” Francisco de Holanda, in 1548, also cited Torrigiani as one of the ten most important sculptors of the Renaissance. Evidence for this is found in the various commissions Torrigiani received from the wealthiest patrons in Europe to include Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, Kings Henry VII and Henry VIII of England, and possibly also Emperor Charles VI and Empress Isabella of Portugal. Torrigiani’s tomb for King Henry VII and Elizabeth of York in Westminster Abbey was his most grandiose production, judged by the art historian, John Pope-Hennessey as “the finest Renaissance tomb north of the Alps.”

Torrigiani’s career as an artist, and for a period, also a soldier, entailed a great deal of travel. He remains one of the few Florentine Renaissance artists to work outside of Italy and is the first documented Italian Renaissance artist active in England. He is historically recognized as one of the first to diffuse Italian Renaissance styles into other parts of Europe.

Torrigiani’s surviving sculptures are comprised of works in bronze, terracotta and marble. Vasari noted Torrigiani’s particular skill in the medium of terracotta and also commented on the small bronzes and marbles he produced for Florentine merchants, a clientele whose sponsorship would entail his most significant commissions and whose international networks gained him his work abroad.

Particularly unique is the present sculpture, whose free-standing representation of Saint Anthony the Great, is realized in wood. By art historical standards, Torrigiani is best known for his hyper-realistic polychrome terracotta portrait busts of merchants, nobles and royalty and is not traditionally perceived as a wood sculptor. However, like other Cinquecento sculptors of Florentine origin, Torrigiani was adept in a variety of mediums inclusive of terracotta, bronze, stone and wood. His youthful instruction under the tutelage of Bertoldo de’ Giovanni in the Medici family’s San Marco Gardens, would have aptly prepared him for such a range of talent, instructed alongside other future notables like Michelangelo, Giovan Francesco Rustici, Lorenzo di Credi, Baccio da Montelupo, Andrea Sansovino, et al.

While no previously identified works in wood by Torrigiani are known, Vasari does mention Torrigiani made in England “an endless number of works in marble, bronze and wood, competing with some masters of that country, to all of whom he proved superior.”

The skill with which Torrigiani has wrought the St. Anthony belongs to what Alan Darr defines as the third stage of Torrigiani’s career: a period from 1510-28 in which Torrigiani is active as a mature master and an internationally recognized sculptor. The articulation of St. Anthony’s expressive character anticipates Torrigiani’s masterfully realized Penitent Jerome made toward the end of his life (now located at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Seville).

The St. Anthony may therefore fall into a period of unknown activity between 1520-27. If Torrigiani never returned to England after parting on ill-terms with his merchant-backed financiers to the crown, he may have remained in Italy or elsewhere until later venturing to Spain, or first to Portugal.

Torrigiani is thought to have arrived in Spain sometime between 1522-25. Various theories have been posited concerning his arrival and work there. Francisco de Holanda mentions a portrait bust of Isabel of Portugal Torrigiani made, presumably as a gift for her marriage to Charles V in March of 1526. By October 1526 he produced a terracotta figure of St. Jerome for the Royal Monastery in Guadalupe’s High Altar, still located in the Sacristy of that monastery. Torrigiani’s terracotta masterpiece of another Penitent Jerome and of a Virgin and Child, realized for the Jeronymite convent of Buena Vista outside of Seville, exemplify the peak of Torrigiani’s sculptural capacity. The works Torrigiani left in Spain at the end of his career remained a significant influence on subsequent important Spanish artists like Alonso Cano, Juan Martínez Montañés and Francisco de Zurbarán.

It remains plausible the St. Anthony could have been realized in Spain. There is a particular homogeny between the St. Anthony and Torrigiani’s two Jeromes that could suggest the same human model was employed. Vasari records how Torrigiani’s “highly prized” Jerome was modeled after a house-steward of the Botti family who were Florentine merchants in Spain. However, the Jerome’s strong countenance contrasts with the fatigued St. Anthony whose essential expression conveys struggle and hope, looking upward to the glory of God rather than ahead as the Jerome, determined for his salvation.

In particular, Torrigiani’s Guadalupe Jerome compares favorably with the St. Anthony. The turn of the head, desperate gaze, similarly agape mouth, carefully carved wrinkles and convincingly self-aware personal characteristics of the face are nearly exact. The modeling of the brows, deeply set eyes, especially cavernous where the eyes meet the bridge, strong delineation of the lacrimal caruncle, and sunken periorbital beneath the eyes suggest the true-to-life age of the sitter as observed also on his terracotta busts. Additional comparisons can be made between the St. Anthony and Torrigiani’s Jerome for the Jeronymite convent of Buena Vista.

Other features of the St. Anthony compare with Torrigiani’s confirmed or attributed works. In particular, the modeling of the hair whose thick striated tufts of serpentine forms terminate in softly blunted tips like those observed on his posthumous terracotta portrait bust of King Henry VII. The carefully carved strands and their rhythmic pattern compare also with the bronze putto situated on the corners of Henry VII’s tomb and other works by Torrigiani.

Further characteristic features include the choice manner in which the feet are modeled with knob-like knuckles, an index toe extending beyond the hallux toe and a plump outer toe. Finally, the thickly modeled drapery of the St. Anthony follows the type observed on Torrigiani’s other life-size or near-life size statuary. In particular is the distinctive folding of cloth resulting in an indented cavity between the thighs of the subject.

In sum, the sculpture of St. Anthony may help bridge the lack of knowledge concerning Torrigiani’s works in wood and may additionally promote further speculation concerning the activity of his late years or other periods of activity in which gaps remain. In all, it may help improve an appreciation of Torrigiani’s skill and talent as one of the finest and most versatile artists of the Renaissance.

Torrigiani’s work remains in various cultural institutions around-the-world, though confident works by him are scarcely known in the private art market. The present object is a unique discovery and offering.

Additional observations:

The sculpture of St. Anthony appears to have been intended to be observed in-the-round and probably placed upon a base or pedestal. It is near life-size (132 x 81 cm) and the detail given to modeling his face, gazing upwards, suggests he was to be seen at near eye-level and up-close.

The state of the wood toward the lower extremity of the sculpture appears to show signs of old water damage. It was likely exposed to dampness for an extended period judging by the excessive woodworm it has suffered. There are probably some old damages or modifications that were made prior to this exposure. This includes a section of drapery along the proper right arm which has been truncated and an exposed portion along the proper right leg where we are to assume a sculpture of a pig, an attribute of St. Anthony, may have once been joined against it. The figure may also have once held other possible attributes like a staff, book or bell. Another old loss, less conspicuous, is along the drapery of the proper left leg. There are various splits in the wood commensurate with age, in particular a large split descends behind the head and along the hood of his cloak. There is also a concave portion along the back-of-the-hood where an exposed knot was present in the wood. There is a V-shaped cut along the proper right of the saint’s forehead. It is ether due to worming or possibly a tool used on it for an unknown purpose. The legs and upper body appear to have been formed using at least two large blocks of wood, cleverly joined. The arms are separately modeled and attached. The termination of the cuffs are also separately modeled pieces, prepared to allow a deep cavern on the cuffs of the robe from which the separately modeled hands emerge. The hands are later, probably 19th or 20th century replacements, eloquently accomplished. Two of the fingers on the proper right hand have been broken at the extremity and reattached. The face of St. Anthony is presumed carved separately. If not, the detail accomplished at such depth of sculpting would require an avid, steady-hand. The mouth and nostrils are cut deep into the sculpture, commensurate with Darr’s assessment of Torrigiani’s characteristic approach to sculpting.

The polychromy appears original on St. Anthony’s cloak, prepared with a very thin coat of plaster followed by a dark brown or black (probably a carbon black from organic sources). The polychrome of the face, rubbed in areas, might not be original. There is no apparent undercoating suggesting the original paint and plaster were probably removed and a new paint applied, perhaps in conjunction with the addition of the sculpture’s hands. Traces of original polychrome for flesh tones remain present on the upper wrists where the replacement hands have been attached and along St. Anthony’s toes.