As part of the history-of-art course at the University of Cambridge, every first-year student is asked to submit a dissertation about a single work of art in the city’s collections. Over the years, people have picked the most diverse things, from paintings to sculptures, from tapestry works in college halls to glass mushroom models from the local Museum of Science. I probably did not choose one of the weirdest specimens: I was visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum looking for inspiration, when I saw a shiny object sitting in a vitrine. It was a group of three gilded statuettes depicting the Flagellation of Christ, set on a green-marble pedestal.
Flagellation – Alessandro Algardi – first half of the XVII century
I initially thought I had found some Mannerist bronzetto as it reminded me of the famous salt cellar made by Benvenuto Cellini for Francis I of France. However, the caption redirected me to Alessandro Algardi, a Baroque sculptor whom I barely knew as one of the rivals of Gianlorenzo Bernini in Rome. I was fascinated by the colour effect created by the precious materials: the gilded bronze used to create the statuettes, the three cartouches, and the robe of Christ; the base of mottled green marble, beautifully carved with architectural details; the short column of yellow agate Christ is chained to.
Salt cellar for Francis I – Benvenuto Cellini – 1540-1543
I started doing my research and found out that there was an entire series of these objects, some in public and some in private collections, with the Fitzwilliam one being the only one currently on display. I was intrigued by the fact that there were two different types of these Flagellation scenes, as classified by Dr Jennifer Montagu, whom I had the pleasure to discuss my theories with. The Fitzwilliam Flagellation (as it is named throughout my dissertation) belongs to the so-called “type B”, which usually features a rock or marble base, an unusually short column, and a feistier model used for the two flagellators. “Type A”, on the other hand, features a more delicate composition (although the figure of Christ remains the same), a taller Corinthian column, and a wooden pedestal.
Type-A Flagellation in the Musées Royaux d’Art et d’Histoire of Brussels
The scholarship available about this group is quite limited. Montagu is the main source but she mostly attempted to classify the various pieces and she did not comment extensively on their making. Who would commission such pieces? Where would they be displayed? In what workshop context were they produced? These are some of the main questions that I tried to answer throughout my work. I thought that Algardi produced the two “archetypal” models and then used them to create a series of relatively cheap but still highly refined sculptural products through indirect cast. Patrons would have presumably purchased them as decorative artefacts to be used in a secular setting, unlike what stated by Jozef Grabski, who believes they would have been found in private chapels or similar devotional contexts.
Monument to Leo XI – Alessandro Algardi – begun 1634
As result of my research, my findings may help explain the process of production that led Algardi to produce the two groups. Probably, he did not take care of the casting but was hired by craftsmen specialised in metalwork. There is evidence that he worked for goldsmiths when young in Mantua, producing models for them to cast in bronze and silver. The Flagellation case, which dates back to Algardi’s early years in Rome, may have followed the same procedure. It is important to remember, whenever we see the word “sculptor”, that this may indicate a variety of tasks other than the physical making of sculptures. In the case of Algardi, the production of models must have involved the creation of drawings and maybe maquettes to be used by others as guidance. As these objects had Algardi as the common denominator (probably more workshops produced them, at least one per type), his name survived but he certainly was not the only agent in the process.
Detail of one of the flagellators
The Fitzwilliam Flagellation proved to be a wonderful case study that allowed me to discover a lesser-known side of the production of bronze artefacts in the seventeenth century. The collaboration between artists and craftsmen shows how much the difference between these categories has been (over)emphasised by the art-historical narrative as distinct. Moreover, the object reveals the incredible complexity and the broad network involved in the creation of such artefacts. These may appear simple decorative objects at first, but that actually required the collaboration of several specialised craftsmen alongside with the artist.