The eternal art of bronzes

Bronzes have a very long history. The classic and classy Liechtenstein Garden Palace in Vienna´s 9th district has a huge collection of sculptures and bronze reliefs belonging to the Princes of Liechtenstein. During March 2023, they opened an impressive exhibition to the public: “Cast for Eternity“. I visited the exhibition with Instagramers Austria and Instagramers Vienna. Here are a few impressions and a bit about the history of the collection and of bronze sculptures.

Bronze sculpture has been a popular medium in art for thousands of years. The earliest examples of bronze sculpture date back to ancient civilizations such as the Mesopotamians and Egyptians, who used the medium to create small figures and decorative objects. The Greeks and Romans also used bronze extensively in their sculpture, producing some of the most famous works of art in history.

During the Renaissance period in Europe, artists rediscovered the techniques of casting bronze, and this led to a renewed interest in the medium. Sculptors such as Donatello, Michelangelo, and Cellini produced some of their most famous works in bronze, including the statue of David and the Perseus with the Head of Medusa.

Bronze was expensive, and regions that had copper developed extensive trade routes to transport the raw material for bronze alloys across Eurasia. The art of foundry was developed to a very high standard, and often bronzes were “recycled” — bells and even sculptures transformed into ammunition during wars, and vice versa in peace times.

Christ in Distress by Adrian de Fries, 1607

The Princely Collection of the Liechtenstein Palais comprises bronze sculptures from the late middle ages through the Renaissance and up to the nineteenth century. The collection began under Karl I of Liechtenstein, when he commissioned bronze figures from the artist Adrian de Fries (1556–1626), a Dutch sculptor who trained in Italy and is considered one of the most important sculptors of the Renaissance period. In Italy he worked with Giambologna, one of the most prominent sculptors of the time. After returning to the Netherlands, he became a court sculptor for the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, where he produced many of his most famous works. De Vries is known for his dynamic and expressive bronze sculptures, which often depicted mythological figures and scenes.

It is always an experience to approach these sculptures and admire their perfect surface.

Johann Kräftner (curator), about De Fries

In this exhibition, the Palais Liechtenstein shows not only its own objects, but also loans from other museums, overall about two hundred works that cover the history of bronze sculpture from the thirteenth to the late nineteenth century.

Bust of a Youth, c. 1520, by “Antico” (Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi)

Another artist whose work is represented with several pieces in the exhibition is Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi (“Antico”), who became famous for his studies and copies of antique sculptures, but in his bronze busts we can particularly admire his skill of translating marble portraits into bronze with great finesse and attention to detail. I personally find his work extremely beautiful. Just look at the life-like portrait of the young man above, a figure where it is not known who the model was, but who is sometimes thought to be Alexander the Great.

Johann Kräftner pointing out the perfect balance bronze sculptures of horses had to have.

Small format bronzes began to emerge in Rome around 1440, when the sculptor Filarete made a small copy of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The new genre of small bronzes became fully established only a generation later, with sculptures from pagan motifs and mythology and literature being turned into statuettes for the palaces and houses of the nobility and wealthy patrons. The concept of a “chamber of art” arosse in the Germanic region, related to the Italian one of “studiolo”, where rooms were decorated with precious objects, such as busts of ancient writers, philosophers, or the muses, as well as “curios”, for the admiration of visitors.

Head of Jupiter, a Roman bronze from the 1st century. Many bronzes depict mythological figures.

A lof of the bronze sculptures that were cast during the Renaissance and thereafter were copies of original Roman antiquities and later of famous marble figures, for example those belonging to the Medici in Florence.

Some bronzes were also gilt to make them even more shiny and precious. During the Renaissance, gilding was a popular technique for bronze sculptures, as this could symbolize the importance and power of the person or institution it represented. For example, many Renaissance rulers commissioned gilded bronze equestrian statues of themselves to be placed in public spaces as a symbol of their authority. In addition to its decorative function, gilding could also protect the bronze from the elements. Bronze can be susceptible to corrosion over time, especially in environments with high levels of moisture or pollution. Gilding creates a barrier that helps to protect the bronze from these damaging effects, making it more durable and long-lasting.

Fully gilded bust of Marcus Aurelius, c. 1500, by “Antico” (Pier Jacopo Alari-Bonacolsi)

Two pieces that stand out as a pair are the busts of Anima Beata and Anima Dannata by Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi, from the early 1700s. They are bronze sculptures considered to be one of the artist’s most important works and masterpieces of Baroque sculpture. They were based on earlier marble sculptures by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The first sculpture depicts the figure of the Anima Beata, which is a concept in Christian theology that refers to the soul in its state of blessedness in heaven. The Anima Beata is portrayed as a beautiful, serene female figure, with her head slightly tilted and her eyes raised in contemplation. The counterpiece is Anima Dannata, depicting depicts a figure writhing in agony, twisted in a dramatic and expressive manner. “Anima Dannata” translated to “damned soul” or “cursed soul,” and the work is often interpreted as a representation of the torments of hell or the agony of sin.

Last but not least, the library at the Garden Palais features some exquisite clocks, but is also well worth seeing just for its own beauty. Cartel clocks were very popular from the 1730s until well into the 19th century. One example is Robert Osmond´s Cartel clock with ornate bronze mounts from about 1755. It is a notable example of French Rococo clockmaking from the mid-18th century. The term “cartel clock” refers to a type of wall clock that was popular in France during the 18th century. These clocks were typically mounted on a flat wooden panel, or “cartel,” that was designed to be hung on a wall. The clock case was often highly decorative, with elaborate mounts and ornate details that reflected the tastes of the period.

Robert Osmond, Cartel clock with ornate bronze mounts, 1755/60

In the 19th century, bronze sculpture became even more popular, as advancements in technology made it easier and less expensive to cast bronze. Although not on view in this exhibition, many famous bronze sculptures were made by Auguste Rodin, for example, such as the Thinker and the Burghers of Calais. Bronze sculpture continued to be popular in the 20th century, with artists such as Henry Moore, Alberto Giacometti, and Barbara Hepworth producing works that explored the expressive potential of the medium. Today, bronze sculpture remains a popular and highly valued art form, with many contemporary artists using the medium to create works that engage with contemporary issues and themes.

I would like to thank the Palais Liechtenstein and Igersaustria and Igersvienna for inviting us to this very informative guided tour!

This exhibition is only on view until 31 March at the Gartenpalais Liechtenstein in Vienna´s 9th district.

The wonderful cupola of a restored clock at the library

All photos © Karin Svadlenak-Gomez

Sources: Exhibition catalogue, website of the Palais Liechtenstein, exhibition tour, web research

The Farnese Bull by Giovanni Francesco Susini, second quarter 17th century, after the famous marble group at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples

3 thoughts on “The eternal art of bronzes

  1. This collection contains some very impressive bronzes, Karin. I don’t think I have ever watched the casting process, but it would be very interesting. All I can think of is Schillers “Die Glocke”.


    1. Thank you for reading, Tanja, these bronzes are really impressive. I have not watched the casting process live either, but in the exhibition there was an interesting video that showed the process. Unfortunately I did not have the time to watch it all, but it would be really fascinating to witness it live (and photograph it!). Die Glocke- well, your education shines through!

      Liked by 1 person

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