This masterpiece chalcedony carving of Venus and Cupid sleeping in a shell is the most important work attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni to have appeared at auction. This seminal example of the art of hardstone carving is likely to have been owned by Rudolph II, the Holy Roman Emperor and Queen Christina of Sweden, before being securely identified for the first time in the legendary collection of Cardinal Jules Mazarin (fig. 6). From Francois Lesçot's valuation of Mazarin's collection we know that the group of 100 colour hardstones belonging to the cardinal had a combined value of 47,790 livres, compared to his entire paintings collection which was valued at 36,560 livres. Of these 100 hardstones only three were valued over 2000 livres. These three star pieces are the jasper nef by Ottavio Miseroni with the monogram of Rudolf II, the byzantine sardonyx vase with 16th century mounts, both now in the Louvre (MR 143 and OA 8 respectively) and the chalcedony cup with the present lid carved with Venus and Cupid (the cup alone was bought back by the Louvre in 1968, OA 10305 figs. 2, 3 & 5). Once acquired by Louis XIV (fig. 1) the Venus and Cupid cup and cover must have stood out as one of the highlights of his great collection in Versailles. Its importance is evidenced by its valuation when it was sold by the Directoire in 1796. Of the 145 hardstone objects purchased by Jacques de Chapeaurouge (fig. 7), the Venus and Cupid cup and cover was the second most expensive item. The reappearance of this marvel of glyptic art presents a very special opportunity to acquire a work of royal magnificence with a superb provenance.
We are grateful to Diana Scarisbrick for her assistance in cataloguing this lot and to Dr. Victoria Avery for allowing us to quote from the translation of Dr. Rudolph Distelberger's essay on the Venus and Cupid cover, 'An unknown masterpiece from the Miseroni workshop', in the catalogue for the forthcoming exhibition Splendour & Power: Imperial Treasures from Vienna, which opens at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge on 16 August 2011 until 12 January 2012.
Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni and the art of hardstone carving
This chalcedony cameo of Venus and Cupid cradled together within a scallop shell can be attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni (1551-1616), the greatest of all the hardstone engravers of the Renaissance period (see Rainer, op. cit., we are greatly indebted to this study). He belongs to the school of artists who emerged in the second half of the sixteenth century in Milan as masters of the art of cutting hardstone - jasper, agate, lapis lazuli, rock crystal – vases, jugs and dishes into exotic and unusual shapes decorated with motifs from nature and classical mythology. Some of the most talented - Annibale Fontana (1540-1587), the Saracchi, Alessandro Masnago (1560-1620) - won international fame. However, even their great achievements were surpassed by members of the dynasty founded by Gasparo (1518-73) and Girolamo Miseroni (1522-1600), descendants of a long line of Milanese goldsmiths. As his eldest son, Giovanni Ambrogio succeeded Girolamo as head of Girolamo's workshop in 1600, while his brothers, Ottavio (1567-1624), Aurelio and Alessandro founded the school of hardstone cutting in Prague under the patronage of the Habsburg Emperor Rudolph II. All four, in Milan and in Prague, were engaged in supplying the Emperor and other art loving rulers such as the Electors of Saxony and Bavaria and the Grand Duke of Tuscany with these highly sought after vessels designed to express princely magnificence and power. They were prized because the stones, valued for their rarity, colour and texture were so resistant that they could only be cut with diamond dust, a process requiring patience, time and a high level of technical skill as well as artistry. In the hands of the best masters, like the Miseroni, the unyielding material was transformed into objets d'art, combining sculptural and pictorial qualities in the grand manner.
Here, the different tones of yellow, red and grey, provided by Nature have been utilised so as to create the nude figure of the goddess of Love and her little son, her garment, the shell, her blonde hair and cap and his attributes as well as the fluted shell itself. The patron, in this case most probably the Emperor Rudolph II, would have appreciated the huge difficulties which had to be overcome in order to complete this perfect interaction between nature and art. As Miseroni drilled the surface of the stone he could never be sure whether the vein of colour from which he was developing his form would abruptly crack, disappear or continue; and the larger the stone the greater the risk. It is a measure of Miseroni's genius that the figures, attributes and shell seem to emerge from a stone of this large size as if they had been waiting for him to release them from it.
We can but marvel, as Distelberger has commented, at 'the difficulties the master took upon himself when he decided use this stone for his carving. The stone has no distinct layers, and the colours seem to melt into each other like clouds. On the back of the shell, near the hinge, we can see how the stone cutter has restricted the space in which the group of figures lies. He succeeded in carving the whole of Venus' body from the light part of the stone. The thin strip of blonde hair, with a lock protruding between her left arm and the cloth, is particularly skilful. The drapery serves to veil the darker areas on the foot and ankle of Venus' right leg and her left arm. Cupid's back and head lie as if in shadow, and his unusual position near Venus' lower body is equally dictated by the nature of the stone. The triangular piece of drapery under her right elbow and the elongated pleats between the two figures are noticeably less detailed in comparison to the clearly delineated folds in front and the group is clearly intended to be viewed from a particular angle, i. e. at a slant from the front'.
The iconography and attribution of the Venus and Cupid cover
While the scallop shell with polished ribs between the matt concave flutes radiating towards the indented edges imitates nature, so too do the figures, which demonstrate Miseroni's command of anatomy. Inspired by classical art, Venus's nude body is a model of feminine beauty and contrasts with the soft chubby limbs of the infant Cupid. The bond between the mother and her son is emphasised by the way she presses him close to her with one arm and stretches out the other to hold his hand. As befits the all powerful goddess of Love, Venus has finely chiselled regal features, enhanced by long wavy blonde locks, crowned by a small cap. She and Cupid are enclosed, as if in a bed, by her garment which is draped into decorative folds around her feet. In addition to the classical character of the scallop shell alluding to her maritime origin, and of Cupid's attributes, the bow and quiver, there is the silver gilt long necked swan perched over them which could be Jupiter, in that guise so as to seduce Leda, but is also a bird sacred to Venus.
The swan and the silver gilt curvilinear border have been attributed to the Augsburg silversmith Anton Schweinberger (d.1603) by Distelberger. He compares it to the maritime ornament created by Schweinberger for a ewer made of half a Seychelles nut (Kunsthistorisches Museum, inv. no. 6872). Schweinberger was employed from 1587 by Rudolph II whose courtly commissions, being independent of guild regulations bear neither the maker's mark nor the stamp of the city. However, Daniel Alcouffe argued that the silver mounts on both the cup and cover are mid-17th century. The swan mount is not described in the 1661 inventory of the Mazarin collection and is only specifically identified in the 1729 inventory of Louis XIV.
As is well known, the study of Renaissance glyptics is handicapped by the absence of signatures and archival documentation, however, the attribution of this example to Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni is fully supported by comparative examples. Closest in style, technique and material is another important Venus and Cupid group in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (Inv.-Nr. KK 1730). There are many similarities: the anatomically correct reclining figures have been cut from the milky white layer of the stone, contrasting with the extraordinary reddish brown tint of the hair, and with the greyish blue garment which is spread out in full and elaborate folds, while the features of Venus are also classically beautiful and she holds her son close to her. The noble shape of the wine jar with acanthus leaf decoration which is placed beside them provides another classical element in the strong sculptural composition determined by the different colours of the stone, which is the same 'calcedonio di Grigioni' as the Venus and Cupid cover. In realising the potential of a single block of stone with such apparent ease the artist has proved his total mastery of his exacting medium. Secondly, there is the similarly shaped head of the kneeling figure of the Penitent Magdalena arms crossed in prayer, attributed to Ottavio Miseroni, the younger brother of Giovanni Ambrogio, and thirdly, an earlier work attributed to Giovanni Ambrogio, a lapis lazuli salver centred on a chalcedony cameo of Leda enthroned seduced by Jupiter in the guise of a swan, anticipating that surmounting the present Venus in the shell. These two last examples are also in the Kunsthistoriches Museum. All these comparisons are fully discussed by Distelberger (op. cit.).
Rudolph II and art in Prague around 1600
As the finest maker of the Milanese school Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni was well known to Rudolph II, the greatest art patron of his time. In the 30 years that followed the establishment of Rudolph II's court in Prague in 1583, it became a magnet for many of the greatest artists in Europe including the painters Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Bartholomaus Spranger, Hans von Aachen and Roelandt Savery, the sculptor Adrien de Vries and goldsmiths Paulus van Vianen and Wenzel Jamnitzer. Rudolph's passion for the most luxurious objects was so great that two of the leading families of craftsmen from Italy, the Castrucci from Florence and Miseroni from Milan relocated to Prague. Giovanni Ambrogio was, therefore, well placed to supply Rudolph with objets d'art which might distract him during his frequent melancholy moods. These virtuoso creations appealed to the Emperor on account of the rare and exotic materials, their astral and talismanic powers and the artistry they inspired. However, the genre did not advance after his death in 1612 and during the Thirty Years War objects from the Imperial Kunstkammer were plundered. As Distelberger has observed 'The Swedes could have taken it, for instance, when they sacked Prague Castle in 1648, at the end of the Thirty Year's War. Like so many other precious objects taken from Prague at that time, the Venus shell could have found its way to Rome with Queen Christina of Sweden, when she moved there, and, through her, eventually to Cardinal Marazin'. Although there is no documentary evidence to confirm that the Venus and Cupid Shell cup and cover were possessed by the Habsburg Emperor, or Queen Christina, its subsequent history is well known.
From Cardinal Mazarin to Louis XIV
In 1661 the Venus and Cupid cup and cover was clearly described in the posthumous inventory of the gallery of the Roman born Cardinal Mazarin (fig. 6), who brought the taste for Italian art to Paris: 'Une grande tasse d'une seulle agathe d'Allmagne en coquilles, portée par un dauphin d'argent vermeil doré pose sur une coquille aussy d'argent vermeil doré, avecq son couvercle d'une autre grande coquille d'Allemagne, aussy en coquilles, sur laquelle est entaillé une Venus tout nue couchée sur un drap et un petit amour auprés entourée d'un bord d'argent vermeil doré.....'. (Alcouffe, op.cit. p.21). Chantelou told Lorenzo Bernini during his visit to Paris in 1665, the Cardinal cultivated the taste for these 'propretés de cabinets et de cristaux...... pour entretenir et divertir le Roi' (Chantelou, op. cit. p.159).
Louis XIV (fig. 1) had obviously been impressed as that same year he purchased the cup and cover, with the seventy five other important hardstone vases from the Cardinal's estate for display at Versailles. Following the example of the ancient Roman Emperors, the Medici and the Habsburgs he recognised that these hardstone vases, more effectively than any other art, would express the prestige of his reign. He explained this concept to his son, the dauphin: 'Il n'y a rien qui marque d'avantage la magnificence des grands Princes que leurs superbes palais et les meubles précieux dont ils sont ornez'. As he also grasped that to serve this political purpose the vases had to be displayed in quantity, so he went on acquiring them. At first placed in cabinets, from 1682 they were shown in the Cabinet des Médailles entered through the Salon d'Abondance with its ceiling painted by René- Antoine Houasse which depicts some of the most famous examples in the collection. (Castelluccio, op. cit. p.111). The effect of the display of so many superb objects, placed high on the cornice, in pentagonal niches at the corners, grouped on consoles between pilasters on the walls, on the chimney piece, and reflected many times by mirrors must have been as magnificent as the king intended. (idem. fig. 154) In 1683 the Abbé Bourdelot recorded his impression 'que je vis de sortes de pierres précieuses mises en oeuvre: des éliotropes, sardoines, onix, agates des cornalines,toutes orientales. Il y en a de grosses de figures heureuse, et d'autres bizarres, qu'on avait bien pratiquée pour les mettre en oeuvre , don't on avait tire des formes agréables. Quelquefois, la variété des pierres qui s'étaient trouvées dans le bloc y avait servy, comme dans l'agateonix ou les divers polis yet couleurs donnaient un oeil et des graces différents. Quelle diversité capable de satisfaire les esprits les plus curieux'. (idem. p. 115).
Jacques de Chapeaurouge and the Directoire sales
Shortly after the revolution of 1789 valuations of all Crown property were made, including the hardstone vases. In 1796, deeply in debt, the Directoire decided to relinquish a quarter of this collection to a creditor, the Swiss Jacques de Chapeaurouge (1744-1805) (fig. 7) who was then active in Hamburg. Among the objects thus dispersed was the shell cup with Venus and Cupid lid which, marked no.376, disappeared until 1968. The cup, then without the cover, was offered for sale at the hôtel Drouot and acquired by the Louvre (figs. 2, 3 & 5) Alcouffe, op. cit. no. 91, pp.221-223). As for the cover, also marked 376, that has now reappeared from a Swiss private collection, looking just as splendid today as when it left the workshop of the celebrated Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni around 1600.
The rediscovery of the Venus and Cupid cover adds a seminal work to the prized oeuvre of Giovanni Ambrogio Miseroni. To hold in your hand the crowning glory of one of the masterpieces of Renaissance hardstone carving, that has remained unidentified for centuries, is a moment to cherish and prolong.
Chalcedony (agate) from Graubünden (Switzerland), the silver mount marked twice with French control marks of a swan (used for items traded after 1893)
9 by 20.5 by 14.1cm., 3½ by 8 1/8 by 5½in. overall weight: 983.8gr., silver gilt mount alone 659.4gr
R. Distelberger, 'An unknown masterpiece from the Miseroni workshop', Splendour & Power: Imperial Treasures from Vienna, exhib. cat. P. Rainer (ed.), Cambridge, 2011, pp. 60-67
D. Alcouffe, Les Gemmes de la Couronne, Paris, 2001, pp.221-223
P. Michel, 'Mazarin, prince des collectionneurs : les collections et l'ameublement du cardinal Mazarin (1602 – 1661)', Histoire et Analyse, Paris, 1999, pp.482-484
D. Alcouffe, 'The collection of Cardinal Mazarin's Gems', The Burlington Magazine, vol. 116, no. 858 (Sep., 1974), pp. 514-526, fig. 21
P. Verlet, 'Chapeaurouge et les collections royales françaises', Festschrift für Erich Meyer, Hamburg, 1957, pp.286-294
P. Chantelou, Journal du Voyage du Cavalier Bernin en France, Paris, 2001
S. Castelluccio, Les Collections Royales d' Objets d' Art, Paris, 2002
Probably Rudolph II, Holy Roman Emperor, until the sack of Prague in 1648
Probably Queen Christina of Sweden, in her collection in Rome
Cardinal Jules Mazarin, Rome, until 1665
Louis XIV, King of France and Navarre
Sold in 1796 to Jacques de Chapeaurouge
Private collection, Switzerland