Exhibitions/ Art Object
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Sprite

Artist:
Sculptor close to Donatello (Italian, Florence ca. 1386–1466 Florence)
Date:
ca. 1432
Culture:
Italian, Florence
Medium:
Gilt bronze
Dimensions:
Overall (confirmed): H. 24 1/4 x W. 8 1/8 x D. 11 3/4 in., 30 lb. (61.6 x 20.6 x 29.8 cm, 13.6079kg)
Classification:
Sculpture-Bronze
Credit Line:
Purchase, Mrs. Samuel Reed Gift, Rogers Fund, by exchange, and Louis V. Bell Fund, 1983
Accession Number:
1983.356
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 500
This brilliant bronze figure of a boy contains clues to its original placement and function. The right leg is raised, and the weight is shifted to the left foot, which is arched to conform to a now-missing curved shape. The lad’s puffed cheeks and the remnants of interior piping indicate that water once flowed up through the left leg and the torso to spout out of the open mouth. The left arm is akimbo, but the right one rises just above the level of the mouth. The fingers of that hand curl to grasp an object that must have been positioned in the path of the jet of water. Clearly this was a fountain figure; moreover, its resemblance to some well-known Florentine Renaissance bronzes helps to explain its pose. Most relevant is Giovanni Francesco Rustici’s Mercury Taking Flight, originally atop a fountain in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. It stood on a ball and, as we know from the account of Giorgio Vasari, held a whirligig that spun as the water propelled its four blades.[1] Judging from the posture of the Museum’s boy, he, too, balanced on a sphere and spat water at a spinning device; thus, he may have been the model for Rustici’s Mercury.

These details have led several authors to connect the Metropolitan’s boy with a fountain constructed in the garden of the Casa Vecchia, a Medici edifice that preceded the Palazzo Vecchio on the via Larga. In a forthcoming book, James Draper reviews documents that indicate this fountain was topped by a spiritello — a sprite, or winged infant — and that a painter named Antonio was paid on March 26, 1432, for the gold with which it was gilt.[2] Inventories of the Casa Vecchia made in 1503 and 1516 describe what is likely to be the same figure: respectively, "a marble column with a bronze idol on a ball" and "a marble column either fixed or built against a wall, with a ball and idol above."[3] The Casa Vecchia bronze is not mentioned in later Medici records, but the existence of two small sixteenth-century versions of the model suggest that it remained in Florence for some time.[4]

The style of the Museum’s Sprite accords with an early fifteenth-century date. Many scholars have noted in the arrangement of the arms and in the facial features its close relation to the famous Florentine sculptor Donatello’s gilt-bronze Dancing Angel on the font of the Baptistery at Siena Cathedral.[5] Francesco Caglioti assigns the model of Sprite to Donatello (1386/87–1466) but the execution of the bronze to a collaborator.[6] Finding its pose less fluid than those of Donatello’s known bronzes of this period and the engraving too artless to have been done under his direct supervision, Draper regards Sprite as a work by a close collaborator of the master. For him, this is a work that follows Donatello’s inventions and displays many of his stylistic hallmarks but appears to be a step away from the master himself.

If Rustici’s Mercury was a replacement for the damaged Sprite, as Draper has suggested, then this earlier work may also have represented the child Mercury.[7] While that god is often seen with winged sandals, this figure’s shoulder wings and tail have no place in his usual description. A suggestion has been made that the Museum’s figure may represent one of the four classical wind gods, especially since images of them exist with shoulder wings and tail, supporting this interpretation. For Draper, it is the west wind, Zephyr, whose breath is gentle, that should be considered. This scholar notes that Mercury and Favonius (the Latin name for Zephyr) were sometimes conflated by medieval authors.[8] The association of Mercury, god of commerce — so critical to the Medici fortunes — with a favorable wind is the kind of hybrid meaning admired in the Renaissance. The doubling of associations would have intrigued the viewer’s mind at the same time that the gleaming form of the boy, rising above splashing water, would have delighted eye and ear.

[Ian Wardropper. European Sculpture, 1400–1900, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2011, no. 1, pp. 10–12.]

Footnotes:
[1] John Pope-Hennessy. An Introduction to Italian Renaissance Sculpture. Vol. 3, Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture. 2nd ed. London, 1970, p. 342, pl. 40.

[2] Draper’s publication will be a study of Italian bronzes in the Metropolitan Museum.

[3] John Shearman. "The Collections of the Younger Branch of the Medici." Burlington Magazine 117 (January 1975), pp. 20, 27, nos. 76, 80; Carl 1990, p. 42.

[4] One, now in the Museo Nazionale Bargello, Florence (inv. no. 425), was once part of the Medici collections in the Palazzo degli Uffizi, Florence (unpublished). The other was sold from the Cyril Humphris collection, at Sotheby’s New York, on January 11, 1995, no. 101.

[5] James David Draper in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Notable Acquisitions, 1983-1984. New York, 1984, pp. 26–27; Draper in Italian Renaissance Sculpture in the Time of Donatello: An Exhibition to Commemorate the 600th Anniversary of Donatello’s Birth and the 100th Anniversary of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Exh. cat. Detroit Institute of Arts; Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; 1985–86. Detroit, 1985, pp. 126–27, no. 24. See also Buddensieg 1986.

[6] Francesco Caglioti. Donatello e i Medici: Storia del "David" e della "Giuditta." Vol. 2. Florence, 2000, figs. 341–44.

[7] Draper in Italian Renaissance Sculpture 1985, p. 127.

[8] On this point, see Charles Dempsey. The Portrayal of Love: Botticelli’s Primavera and Humanist Culture at the Time of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Princeton, 1992, pp. 38 – 40; Alessandro Nova. Il libro del vento: Rappresentare l’invisibile. Genoa, 2007, pp. 89, 208.
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