Nearly 20 years ago, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art led efforts to acquire an Italian Renaissance roundel from around 1500. That attempt fell through when the museum was outbid at an auction in 2003.
The curator, James David Draper, was disappointed. He had described the work, a bronze relief attributed to Gian Marco Cavalli, as “the most exciting Renaissance bronze to hit the market in ages”.
When Draper, who had been the Met’s curator emeritus of European sculpture, died in 2019, he left behind what Andrea Bayer, the museum’s deputy director for collections and administration, called “an important legacy” that was intended for acquisitions within its former department of Europe. sculpture and decorative arts.
And now the Met has accomplished what it couldn’t in 2003, using money from Draper and others to buy the roundel for $23 million from a gallery in Britain.
Museum officials see the purchase not only as the fulfillment of a distinguished former colleague’s dream, but also as the addition of an important work to his collection and a signal that he is once again a more active participant in the market. acquisitions.
In a statement, Met Director Max Hollein called the roundel “an absolute masterpiece, distinguished by its historical significance, artistic virtuosity and unique composition”, adding: “It is a truly transformative for the Met’s collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture. .”
Like most cultural institutions, the Met has suffered financially during the pandemic. Faced with a potential $150 million shortfall, he instituted furloughs and layoffs and began talks about selling some artwork to help pay for the care of the collection. The pace of acquisitions is slowing.
But the Cavalli is the Met’s biggest purchase since Hollein was named director in 2018 and the second biggest ever for the museum, after what was reported as a $45 million 2004 purchase of a painting of 8 inches by 11 titled “Madonna and Child” by Duccio di Buoninsegna.
The roundel of Cavalli, an Italian goldsmith, sculptor, engraver and medalist who worked for the Gonzaga court in Mantua, is decorated with gilding and silver inlay and shows characters from Roman mythology.
It depicts golden-winged Venus, goddess of love, gazing at Mars, god of war, while her Vulcan husband wields a tool to make a helmet. A Latin inscription, according to a museum translation, reads: “Venus Mars and Cupid rejoice. Vulcan, you work!
The work, which measures 17 inches in diameter, has been described by museum officials as the largest and one of the most technically sophisticated known examples of an early Renaissance bronze roundel. Experts believe it may have been made for Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, considered by many to be the most important female patron of the Italian Renaissance.
Cavalli, born around 1454, collaborated for more than 30 years with Andrea Mantegna, Gonzaga’s leading court painter, and with Antico, the Gonzaga family’s leading sculptor, museum officials said, adding that the attribution of works to Cavalli “remained difficult”. until the roundel was discovered in a British country house in 2003.