It’s Later Than You Think (Favorites from Washington’s National Gallery, 10)

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, museums were built to impress: when you walked into the grand entrance, there would be a moment when you stopped in your tracks and realized you were entering a remarkable place. The Great Hall at the Metropolitan Museum was designed by Richard Morris Hunt to create just that effect.

The Rotunda at the National Gallery has the same purpose, and its focal point is a sculpture of Mercury presiding over a large fountain. The twisting motion and curving lines of the Mercury make it a perfect fountain figure: walking around it to see all sides is irresistible, because you can never see it all from any one angle.

after Giovanni Bologna, Mercury, , c. 1780/c. 1850, bronze. Washington, National Gallery, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

after Giovanni Bologna, Mercury, , c. 1780/c. 1850, bronze. Washington, National Gallery, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

Back in 1580, Giambologna sculpted a Mercury for a Medici villa in Rome. (It’s now at the Bargello in Florence.) For the past four centuries, his Mercury has been frequently imitated and copied. One of these is the centerpiece of the Rotunda at the National Gallery. But when was it cast?

When the National Gallery and Harry N. Abrams published a gigantic picture book in 1977, the figure in the Rotunda was attributed to Adriaen de Vries (ca. 1560-1627). That would have made it a near-contemporary to Giambologna’s original. But when I searched “Adriaen de Vries” on the National Gallery’s site, the Mercury didn’t appear.

I eventually found a National Gallery page for Mercury, but it attributed the work to “Anonymous Artist / Bologna, Giovanni”, and gave the date as ca. 1780-ca. 1850! Further prowling about the web turned up a page for docents at the National Gallery, which explains (with no mention of the former attribution to de Vries) that “Thermoluminescence testing of remains of the clay core preserved inside the hollow bronze showed that the sculpture was made some time between 1780 and 1850.” Well, that’s certainly later than we thought.

Still, it’s a fabulous piece, and I’m looking forward to seeing it from all angles. I wish I had photos of different angles of the Giambologna original to compare it too, though. The Bargello’s site is lamentably stingy with photos.

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About Dianne L. Durante

I constantly seek out art that's inspiring, thought-provoking, skillfully executed, and/or beautiful so I can share it (in jargon-free language) with others who need and enjoy such art, but don't have time to search for it themselves. As an independent scholar, writer, and lecturer, I focus on art history and history, with forays into food, history, politics, and publishing. My most recent projects are three volumes on Alexander Hamilton, Central Park: The Early Years, Innovators in Sculpture (a survey of 5,000 years of art in 2 hours), and videoguide apps by Guides Who Know. Click on the Books & Essays tab for a list of all books. For upcoming projects, see my Patreon page.

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