Exhibitions/ Art Object

Saint Sebastian

Alessandro Vittoria (Alessandro Vittoria di Vigilio della Volpa) (Italian, 1525–1608)
Italian, Venice
Overall (confirmed): 21 3/8 × 6 3/8 × 6 3/8 in. (54.3 × 16.2 × 16.2 cm)
Credit Line:
Samuel D. Lee Fund, 1940
Accession Number:
The preeminent Venetian sculptor of the late sixteenth century, Alessandro Vittoria was highly productive in diverse media and types of work. He is most closely identified with portrait busts, which collectively create a sober image of Veneto society, but he also produced excellent stucco decorations for palaces and stone statues for churches. In addition, he issued a distinguished series of bronze statuettes —  including thirteen known signed examples —  about half of which have religious subjects, such as Saint John Baptist (formerly in the Venetian church of San Francesco della Vigna), and half mythological ones, such as Mercury (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles).[1]

Saint Sebastian is among the most successful of these bronze statuettes and was a favorite of the artist, who kept it and a variant in his house and proudly mentioned it in various wills. The composition depends on a lifesize work in Istrian stone of 1563 – 64 commissioned from Vittoria by the Montefeltro family for the altar in San Francesco della Vigna.[2] The dynamic, twisting composition is indebted to various works Vittoria admired, including Michelangelo’s Dying Slave (Musée du Louvre, Paris) for the overall pose and such Hellenistic sculptures as the Dying Alexander (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) for the emotive face and flowing hair.[3] Venetian painters from Carpaccio to Vittoria’s contemporary Tintoretto inflected the style of the saint’s elongated figure.[4] In the Metropolitan’s bronze, Vittoria accentuated the length of the body and exaggerated its torsion. As the viewer moves around the sculpture, the smooth surfaces of the metal catch the light, emphasizing the fluid modeling of the male body and the precision of such details as locks of hair and tree bark.[5]

Three extant bronze variants of Saint Sebastian —  this one; another, unfinished, in a private collection; and a third, draped and unsigned, in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art —  have proved difficult to disentangle historically, despite the existence of some documentation. Vittoria’s fifth will, dated May 1584, mentions two castings of Saint Sebastian, one signed and one unsigned.[6] We know that Vittoria paid Andrea d’Alessandri (Andrea Bresciano) for having cast a Saint Sebastian on December 14, 1566, and that on May 16, 1575, he paid Orazio, a son-in-law of the late Andrea d’Alessandri, for casting another figure of the saint.[7] Before the appearance in 1998 of the bronze now in a private collection, it was generally assumed that the Metropolitan’s and the Los Angeles versions were the two cited in Vittoria’s 1584 testament. [8] Recently, however, scholars have agreed that the slack modeling and thin cast of the Los Angeles version indicate that it is a later after cast.[9] The Vittoria specialist Manfred Leithe-Jasper has proposed that the Metropolitan’s version is the first cast and that the second cast is, in fact, the unfinished version in a private collection, since X-ray examination has shown them to be nearly identical technically.[10] Leithe-Jasper further noted that the crisply engraved signature on the Metropolitan’s bronze —  "Alexander.Victor.T.F." —  reflects the artist’s early practice, continued into the 1560s, of using the letter T to refer to his birthplace, the city of Trent (ancient Tridentum). The signature "Alexander.Victoria.F." on the bronze now in a private collection is consistent with the artist’s later practice; moreover, the lettering is more casually engraved, suggesting that the work was not signed at the time of casting (and thus was described as unsigned in Vittoria’s will) but added later.

There are no arrows to identify the protomartyr Sebastian either in the stone version at San Francesco della Vigna or in the bronze versions; only the figure’s troubled expression and contorted limbs reveal his torment. Clear signs of torture being absent, it is the beautiful body that is the artist’s focus. Indeed, the artist himself seems to have been ambivalent about the subject: in one of his wills Vittoria states that the bronze statuette of Sebastian could also be interpreted as a Marsyas.[11]

The importance of the statuette to Vittoria and the resounding success of his brilliant Mannerist figura serpentinata are suggested in a number of paintings. Paolo Veronese’s Alessandro Vittoria shows the sculptor leaning against a carpeted table and cradling what is probably a plaster of one of the prototypes of Saint Sebastian.[12] Across the table lies a fragmentary ancient marble torso. Its rippling muscles are an obvious source for Vittoria’s work, but the artist seems confident that the Renaissance sculpture will surpass its classical model in the complexity of its pose. Plaster casts taken from preparatory models or finished bronzes surely circulated among artists and collectors. They appear in paintings as disparate as Bergamesque painter Evaristo Baschenis’s Musical Instruments and a Statuette (Galleria dell’Accademia Carrara, Bergamo) and the Dutchman Jan Steen’s The Drawing Lesson (J. Paul Getty Museum), testifying to the esteem in which seventeenth-century artists continued to hold this marvelous composition.[13]

[Ian Wardropper. European Sculpture, 1400–1900, In the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 2011, no. 25, pp. 80–83.]


[1] For the thirteen signed bronzes, see Manfred Leithe-Jasper. "Alessandro Vittorio bronzista." In "La bellissima maniera" 1999, pp. 325–29, p. 325.

[2] For the history of this commission and its publication, see Victoria Avery. "St. Sebastian; Alessandro Vittoria (ca. 1528–1608)." In The Encyclopedia of Sculpture, edited by Antonia Boström, vol. 3, pp. 1738–40. New York, 2004.

[3] Many scholars, from Wilhelm R. Valentiner (1942) to Manfred Leithe-Jasper (in "La bellissima maniera": Alessandro Vittoria e la scultura veneta del Cinquecento. Exh. cat. edited by Andrea Bacchi, Lia Camerlengo, and Manfred Leithe-Jasper. Castello del Buonconsiglio, Trent; 1999. Trent, 1999, p. 342) have noted that the Dying Slave and the Dying Alexander served as models for Saint Sebastian.

[4] Leithe-Jasper (in Genius of Venice, 1500–1600. Exh. cat. edited by Jane Martineau and Charles Hope. Royal Academy of Arts, London; 1983–84. London, 1983, p. 388, no. s37) is one of the scholars who have mentioned the influence of these painters on the present work.

[5] Richard E. Stone. "Organic Patinas on Small Bronzes of the Italian Renaissance." Metropolitan Museum Journal 45 (2010), pp. 107–23, p. 109, emphasizes how successfully the North Italian type of black patina enhances the statuette’s lustrous skin.

[6] Giuseppe Gerola. "Nuovi documenti veneziani su Alessandro Vittoria." Atti del Reale Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti 84, pt. 2 (1924–25), pp. 339–59, p. 353.

[7] The documents of 1566 and 1575 were first cited in Riccardo Predelli. Le memorie e le carte di Alessandro Vittoria. Trent, 1908, pp. 132, 155 – 56. Victoria J. Avery (1999, p. 64, doc. no. 91, p. 85, doc. no. 91) has reviewed both of these documents thoroughly.

[8] Leithe-Jasper (in Genius of Venice 1983, p. 388, no. s37) took this view. The unfinished bronze appeared in a sale at Christie’s, London, July 7, 1998, no. 109.

[9] Already in 1987, before the bronze in a private collection was discovered, Scott Schaefer and Peter Fusco doubted that the Los Angeles County Museum’s bronze (M.51.12; H. 21 ¾ in. [55.2 cm]) was a contemporary cast, citing it as possibly eighteenth century; see Scott Schaefer and Peter Fusco. European Painting and Sculpture in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. Los Angeles, 1987, p. 170.

[10] Leithe-Jasper in "La bellissima maniera" 1999, pp. 342 – 45; Leithe-Jasper 1999.

[11] This observation is in the third will, dated November 7, 1570: "statua di bronzo, quale può servire raconciandola, overo san Sebastiano, over Marsia, facendoli la ferita soto la tetta sinistra o nel mezo della tetta" (bronze statuette [which] can be turned into a Saint Sebastian or a Marsyas by adding a wound below the left breast or in the center of it); Gerola 1924 – 25, pp. 348 – 49.

[12] The most recent discussion of Veronese’s portrait of Vittoria is in Jérémie Koering. "L’Art en personne(s)." In Titien, Tintoret, Véronèse: Rivalités à Venise, pp. 178–99. Exh. cat. edited by Vincent Dieulevin and Jean Habert with Arturo Galansino. Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2009–10. Paris, 2009, pp. 181, 186, and pp. 182 – 83, no. 16.

[13] See Leo Steinberg. "Steen’s Female Gaze and Other Ironies." Artibus et Historiae, no. 22 (1990), pp. 107–28.
Signature: Incised around base: ALEXANDER VICTOR T[RIDENTUM] F[ECIT] (Alessandro Vittoria of Trent made [this]).
Federico Mylius , Genoa (until 1879; sale, Villa Mylius, November 11, 1879, no. 181); Private Collection, England ; [ J. & S. Goldschmidt , Frankfurt; sold to Bayer ] ; Mr. and Mrs. Edwin S. Bayer , New York (by 1927, until his death in 1928) ; Mrs. Edwin S. Bayer , later Laura, comtesse Sala (1928–33; sale, Galerie Jean Charpentier, Paris, May 19, 1933, no. 49); Clendenin J. Ryan , New York (after 1938–40; sale, Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, January 19–20, 1940, no. 274; sold to MMA)
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