For almost two centuries from the mid-16th century on, the courts of Europe considered ivory sculpture to be one of the loftiest and most sophisticated forms of artistic expression.
The most important sculptors of the Baroque era both in Italy and across the Alps, and even as far afield as the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, tried their hand at this highly complex and difficult technique in which the artist's skill was matched only by the preciousness and rarity of the raw material.
Throughout Europe emperors and grand dukes, popes and princes, ranking prelates and wealthy bankers vied for the ivory sculptors' work, often putting together collections of masterpieces in this sophisticated artistic genre ranging from traditional figurative work to fully-fledged tours de force in turned ivory – which merged the pleasure of visual capriccio with the scientific stringency of mathematical calculation.
Italy played a key role in the huge growth in the number of carved ivory pieces in the 16th and 17th centuries, a second blossoming after the popularity of ivory carving in the Gothic era, whose epicentre had been in Paris. The elephants' tusks reached Europe through the great ports of Venice, Genoa and Naples, and these, with Rome, were also the cities in which this valuable and exotic material prized for its ability to replicate the human complexion was carved. The Italian passion for ivory in the 16th and 17th centuries even prompted collectors to seek out African and Indian pieces in addition to late Classical and Medieval work. It was precisely in Florence between the 16th and 17th centuries that the first collections of ivory pieces from the past were initially put together and the first studies of medieval ivory carving were published.
Ferdinando I de' Medici (1549-1609) started one of the most spectacular collections of carved ivory in Europe, and the collection went from strength to strength over the years, eventually running into several hundred items before the dynasty became extinct. In terms of its size, quality and importance, the Medici collection was paralleled only by that of the imperial court in Vienna and those of the princes in Dresden and Munich. Cups and reliefs, mythological compositions and genre scenes, saints and portraits of princesses, turned towers and trinkets: every aspect of figurative and abstract art is reflected in the ivories in the Florentine collection.
Most of the Medici ivories are now in the Museo degli Argenti in Palazzo Pitti, where they form one of the leading attractions in the rooms on the ground floor, allowing the visitor to enter a magical world of graceful diaphanous objects which appear to have leapt straight out of a fairy tale.
Yet despite their international importance, no specific exhibition either in Italy or abroad has ever been devoted to Baroque ivories. This exhibition is designed to make good that lacuna for the very first time, and to do so precisely here in Florence at the Museo degli Argenti, home to the world's largest and most splendid historical ivory collection comprising work by the greatest sculptors in the genre. In this exhibition "the Florentine collection is temporarily supplemented by figures, vases and other items now housed in major collections in Europe and the United States, reflecting the supreme skill achieved in the Baroque era, in particular in Germany and central Europe, not only by such court artists as our own highly accomplished Sengher, but even such talented monarchs, fond of dabbling in the experimental, as Czar Peter the Great" (Cristina Acidini).
The exhibition, consisting of over one hundred and fifty pieces both from the Florentine collection and from leading foreign museums, along with other ivories from private collections never before shown in public, will be writing a new and spectacular chapter in art history, a chapter never yet studied in any depth – especially not in its "international" aspect which was such a unique feature of the Medici collections.
The exhibition is broken down into several sections tracing the art of ivory carving from the 15th century, when it caught Lorenzo the Magnificent's eye, through the High Renaissance and later, right up to the explosion of the Baroque with works by the most celebrated Flemish and German artists of the era, from Leonhard Kern to François Duquesnoy and from Georg Petel to Balthasar Permoser.
The first section is devoted to the rediscovery of ivory as a raw material and to ivory collecting in Italy, with two Congolese "oliphants" present in the Medici collections in the 16th century and such medieval works as a Diptych which once formed part of Lorenzo the Magnificent's collection. Recently identified in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Diptych is now returning to Florence for the first time in over five hundred years.
The section also includes a number of masterpieces from the first areas in which ivory carving was revived in the 16th century: Venice, with work by Francesco Terrilli, and Rome, where Flemish masters Nicolaus Mostaert (Niccolò Pippi) and Jacob Cornelisz Cobaert were active in the latter part of the century.
The second section, entitled Virtuous Geometry. Turned Ivory, showcases some spectacular examples of a contest which pitted the most important German sculptors against one another as they vied to create increasingly complex figures in ivory – minor miracles of technical virtuosity merging symbology and numerology, geometry and philosophy: "polyhedrons and spheres, Chinese boxes, variations on the five solids of Greek geometry surmounted by a very slender spiralling pinnacle" (Marco Riccomini).
The man who invented this kind of item – typically found in Wunderkammern, yet also reflecting contemporary research in the fields of mathematics and engineering – in the late 16th century was an Italian, Giovanni Ambrogio Maggiore, in service in the courts of Germany. The exhibition hosts fully 18 pieces of this kind, which entered the Museo degli Argenti collection thanks to Prince Mattias de’ Medici as part of the spoils taken during the Thirty Years War, including work by Marcus Heiden and his pupil Johan Eisenberg, the most accomplished ivory turners of the Baroque era.
The third section, entitled Artists from Across the Alps. The Masters of Baroque Ivory Carving, includes masterpieces by Leonard Kern and Georg Petel, two great sculptors active in southern Germany in the first half of the 17th century. Their work displays a remarkable affinity with Baroque figurative art in Italy, providing evidence of the two artists' trips to Rome, Naples, Genoa and Tuscany, and revealing the special debt they owed to the figurative vocabulary of Peter Paul Rubens.
The section also hosts work by Justus Glesker from museums both in Italy and abroad – including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the Galleria Estense in Modena, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg and the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich – displayed as a group for the very first time. Glesker was celebrated in the 17th century as one of the best sculptors of his day. The section also explores the position of Genoa as a centre of ivory carving. Domenico Bissoni, the leader of the local school, introduced extreme expressiveness and unprecedented naturalism in the depiction of suffering and death, a style which was especially well received in Spain where most of the Genoese school's work was shipped. Flemish artist François van Bossuit, possibly the first artist to have an illustrated catalogue raisonné devoted to his work, is also present in the exhibition with a selection of secular and religious subjects.
The fourth section, entitled The Blossoming of Late Baroque Ivory Carving Across the Alps, includes work by Christoph Daniel Schenck (who modelled his energetic style on the work of Francesco Mochi) and allows the visitor to compare works of art in different materials (ivory and wood) and formats (large and small). Balthasar Griessmann, an Austrian artist active in Salzburg, and Ignaz Elhafen, who initially worked for the imperial court in Vienna and subsequently for the Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm von der Pfalz and his wife Anna Maria Luisa de' Medici, developed innovative and highly personalised ways of using engravings (especially Italian engravings) as models for their own works.
The visitor can appreciate this aspect in the exhibition thanks to a direct comparison between Pietro Aquila's large engraving entitled the Rape of the Sabines, after Pietro da Cortona, and various ivory relief versions of it, as well as Elhafen's spectacular tankard from the Margrave of Baden. This is the first time that the tankard has returned to Europe since its sale in Canada.
The fifth and last section, The Climax of Late Baroque in Italy, focuses in particular on the work of the great sculptor Balthasar Permoser, who was active in Rome from 1675 and in Florence from 1682 at the latest. Permoser's experience in Italy was as crucial to his own career as it was to that of other artists, and indeed it was Permoser who took the forceful style of the late Baroque, inspired by the work of Bernini and Foggini, across the Alps, where he was to direct the largest and most influential project ever seen in central or northern Europe at the court of Augustus II the Strong, king of Saxony and Poland.
Claude Beissonat on the other hand, though working in Naples, shipped most of his output to Spanish patrons. The section ends with the figure of German sculptor Johannes Sporer, who fell in love with a beautiful Roman girl while studying in the Eternal City and promptly settled down there, carving copies of Classical works and mythological or classicising figures and themes both in boxwood and in ivory, thus taking the first steps towards Neo-Classicism.
The exhbition, devised and curated by Eike D. Schmidt and Maria Sframeli, who also edited the catalogue, is promoted by the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali with the Direzione Regionale per i Beni Culturali e Paesaggistici della Toscana, the Soprintendenza Speciale per il Patrimonio Storico, Artistico ed Etnoantropologico e per il Polo Museale della città di Firenze, the Museo degli Argenti, Firenze Musei and the Ente Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze.Enel supports "Un anno ad arte 2013", confirming its interest in the enhancement of Florence's cultural and artistic heritage. Enel's modus operandi in the region of Florence is designed to conjugate technological innovation with the Florentine and Italian cultural tradition, which this exhibition so worthily embodi