It seems almost unthinkable that Britain has allowed a pair of exceptional monumental bronzes commissioned in 1710 from the Florentine baroque sculptor Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi, by John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough for his newly-built Palace at Blenheim, to leave the country.
An export licence was required because the sculptures, The Wrestlers (fig.1) and The Knife-Grinder (L’Arrotino) (fig.2), were over 50 years old and valued at £4,590,000; well in excess of the £65,000 licence threshold for works of art destined for export to Europe. Culture Minister Ed Vaizey initially deferred the granting of an export licence on the recommendation of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, which met on 6th November 2013, in the hope that the bronzes could be saved for the nation. Export was temporarily stopped until 18th March 2014, because it was agreed the pair of bronzes met two of the three Waverley criteria.
The expert advisor objected to the export of the sculptures on the grounds that that they were of outstanding aesthetic importance not only because of the ‘precision of modelling’ and ‘the chiselling of the head and facial features’ which are ‘characteristic of Soldani-Benzi’, but also because these bronze copies after the antique ‘are in fact fresh creations’ representing a ‘transmutation of the techniques and effects of marble carving into those of bronze casting’ which in effect ‘created a new work of art’ .The advisor also thought that because they were fully documented with a completely unbroken provenance the sculptor’s technique ‘could be studied and understood within the context of his other works.’ The bronzes’ connection with the Churchill family and Blenheim were seen as further adding to their historic importance to this country.
The bronzes were specifically commissioned for Blenheim by the Duke of Marlborough, a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire and victor in the War of the Spanish Succession, he was one of the most illustrious European figures of the day. The bronzes are fully documented and while they form a pair, they are also part of a group of four sculptures after the antique which the Duke commissioned from Soldani; the other two, forming a separate complementary pair, were the standing figures of The Medici Venus (fig.3) and The Dancing Faun (fig.4). The bronzes were first mentioned in a letter of 1709 from Christopher Crowe, a merchant and British consul at Leghorn, to the Duke of Marlborough’s son-in –law, Lord Sunderland. Another letter of 1710 from the architect of Blenheim, John Vanburgh, to the Duke of Marlborough records that the commission was given to Soldani that year by Sir Henry Newton.
All four bronzes were based on classical marbles which had been purchased by Cardinal Ferdinano II de’Medici and which today stand in the Tribuna of the Uffizi in Florence. Newton obtained permission from Duke Cosimo III de’Medici to have the casts made and to speed up the work Soldani was allowed to reuse moulds, probably made by the grand ducal sculptor, Giovanni Battista Foggini, which had been created to cast plaster copies of the statues for Johann Wilhelm, The Elector Palatine. There is even a record of official permission being given on 8th September 1711 for the export of the four bronzes to the Duke of Marlborough.
When the licence was temporarily stopped, Vaizey explained: ‘Bronzes of this scale and type in UK collections are a rarity, and it would be a terrible loss if these superb examples of Soldani’s craftsmanship were to leave UK shores. I hope the extra time granted by the export bar I’m imposing allows a UK buyer to come forward.’ Sadly this did not happen and the licence has now been issued.
3rd Dimension understands that the bronzes are now for sale on the international art market. Despite the fact that The Wrestlers and The Knife-Grinder (L’Arrotino) have been repaired and regrettably repatinated, 3rd Dimension considers their export a great misfortune and serious loss to the nation.
Main Image: Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi, The Wrestlers, 1711, bronze, formerly Blenheim Palace, Oxford (photo: flickr, Art Fund)