In the latter part of the 16th century Alessandro Vittoria dominated artistic life in Venice, much as his near exact contemporary, Giambologna, dominated the world of Florence (London, op. cit., p. 387). Sculptor, decorator, painter and architect, Vittoria had no rival in the Serenissima in these years, and his Saint Sebastian was one of his most cherished creations. The emergence of this bronze statuette from a French private collection where it lay unrecognised, is therefore an exciting discovery both because of the extreme beauty of the figure, and its art-historical importance in the context of 16th-century Italian sculpture.
The development of this celebrated composition is known from extensive documentary evidence. The earliest version was executed in stone, as an attendant figure on the Montefeltro altarpiece which Vittoria carved in 1563-1564, in S. Francesco della Vigna, Venice (illustrated in Planiscig, op. cit., fig. 472). However, Vittoria seems to have become fascinated with the figure and the possibilities for creating a more attenuated version in bronze, where he could exploit the tensile strength of the material. It is known from numerous documents that two bronze versions of the St. Sebastian were cast. The first of these is recorded on 14 December 1566, when Vittoria makes a final payment of 7 scudi to his friend Andrea Baruzzi (Il Bresciano) for the casting of a 'Saint Sebastian in bronze' using Andrea's metal (il s[an]to Sebastia[n]o di bronzo col suo metalo). We know further that the bronze is to be cast from a wax which has been 'well-finished' by Vittoria (la cera rinetata bene). Almost 9 years later, on 16 May 1575, Vittoria paid the son-in-law of Andrea, Orazio, to cast a second version (dil S[an]to Sebastiano ch[e] glia zetato di bro[n]zo). Both these versions remained in Vittoria's personal collection at least until the time of his 5th will in 1584, when they were bequeathed to Count Mario Bevilacqua and Francesco Tedaldo. At the time of his death in 1608, only one of the St. Sebastians remained, recorded in an inventory of that year as being in his 'studietto'. He directed in his final will, also of 1608, that the remaining bronze should be sold to a Prince or some other collector who would value it, with the proceeds to be divided among his heirs. It is a testament to Vittoria's own devotion to the image of the St. Sebastian that he kept at least one version of the bronze in his personal possession from the time of its creation until his death 42 years later. It is also significant that when his portrait was painted by the artist Veronese (now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), he was portrayed holding the modello for this statuette.
The situation is somewhat confused by the fact that in his will of 1570, Vittoria states that the bronze could be altered to represent either a Sebastian or a Marsyas by making a wound below the left breast in the middle (la mia statua di bronzo quale puo servire raconciandola overo san sebastiano, over Marsia facendoli la ferita sotto la tetta sinistra nel mezo d[e]lla tetta). The fact that the identity of the statue could be altered through subtle variations has been one of the prime reasons for associating the two documented statuettes with two bronzes known today, one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the other in the Los Angeles County Museum. The Metropolitan example relates extremely closely to the present bronze. The Los Angeles example varies in a number of details (the position is slightly more exaggerated and the figure has drapery around the hips) and is currently thought to be a late cast, possibly of the 1575 version, the present location of which (if one adheres to this theory) is unknown.
The appearance of the present bronze re-opens the entire discussion as to which of the extant bronzes may be the examples described in the documents. In the past, it has been argued that in Vittoria's mind, the original (nude) model became a Marsyas, and that subsequent references to a Sebastian must refer to a different version, represented by the (draped) model in Los Angeles. It is also pointed out that in Vittoria's 5th will of 1584, he says that one statue has his name engraved on the foot (that is, the plinth), and the other one is 'without letters' (senza lettere). This fits neatly with the two bronzes known hitherto in that the Metropolitan bronze is signed, and the Los Angeles bronze, even if an after-cast, shows no evidence of a signature.
It is important, however, to return to the documents. Significantly, in the document relating to the casting of the second bronze, which is fully five years after Vittoria has discussed the possible dual identity of the subject, he refers to the statuette as a St. Sebastian, just as he had done to the first cast. Moreover, the method by which Vittoria himself says one could differentiate the two is by means of a wound below the left breast. None of the bronzes under discussion exhibits any evidence of this wound, including the version in Los Angeles. This is an important point, particularly when one is trying to determine whether or not the Los Angeles bronze might represent the 1575 cast. At no time does Vittoria mention the use of drapery as a method of determining the identity of the bronze, and the one method he does mention is noticeably absent. Finally, although the signature on this statuette would appear to discount the possibility of it being the second bronze cast (which was described in 1584 as being unsigned) there is nothing to prevent this bronze from being either the 1566 cast, or the 1575 cast which was signed subsequent to the will of 1584. Vittoria's own choice of words (intagliato) indicates that the signature was engraved or incised, not cast, into the bronze. It is therefore possible that the second version was signed years after it had first been created, perhaps at the request of a potential buyer or beneficiary. In terms of quality, the present bronze is outstanding, and fully justifies the attribution to Vittoria's own hand. From the documents, there is nothing to indicate that this is not one of the two versions cast in 1566 and 1575.
With its attenuated limbs and graceful serpentinata pose, the St. Sebastian is a masterpiece of Venetian mannerist sculpture, and it immediately gained widespread fame among collectors and artists alike. It appears in numerous drawings and paintings including the Portrait of a Collector by Palma Giovane. The subject of this painting has been tentatively identified as Bartolomeo della Nave, a friend of Palma Giovane's and someone who is known to have owned the 'fine St. Sebastian by Vittoria' which he displayed among his other statuettes and proudly showed 'to all the important people of Venice' (London, op. cit., no. 70). It also appears in Jan Steen's The Drawing Lesson of 1663, where a young girl is depicted sketching a plaster cast. The St. Sebastian thus became a visual icon in its day. Four hundred years later it retains its power as a striking image of mannerist beauty.
A BRONZE FIGURE OF SAINT SEBASTIAN
On an integrally cast circular bronze plinth; signed on the plinth 'ALEXANDER.VICTORIA.F.'
24½ in. (54 cm.) high
L. Planiscig, Venezianische Bildhauer der Renaissance, Vienna, 1921, pp. 435-524.
J. Pope-Hennessy, Catalogue of Italian Sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum, I-III, London, 1964, p. 529.
London, Royal Academy of Arts, The Genius of Venice - 1500-1600, 25 November 1983 - 11 March 1984, Jane Martineau and Charles Hope, eds., nos. 70 and S37, pp. 138-139, 193, 387-388.
Berlin, Skulpturensammlung Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Von allen Seiten Schön - Bronzen der Renaissance und des Barock, 31 October 1995 - 28 January 1996, Volker Krahn ed., no. 83, pp. 298-299, entry by Manfred Leithe-Jasper.
V. Avery, The Early Works of Alessandro Vittoria (c. 1540 - c. 1570), II, unpublished doctoral thesis, August 1996.