Apollo’s Ankles, or What I Know About Plaquettes

The object illustrated above is a plaquette. I didn’t know the term until very recently, but now I know just enough about plaquettes to attempt writing a post about them.

Random Treasure Cover final-page-001This plaquette has been my property for a few weeks. I saw a photo of it in an online auction catalogue, and immediately conceived an uncontrollable urge to become its new owner. In the past I have described this feeling as “The Buzz” and have attempted to analyse it in Chapter 4 of my book Random Treasure – Antiques, Auctions and Alchemy (copies available here).

You see an object coming up in an auction (or in this case a picture of the object), you get excited, and from that moment until the lot is offered for sale you think about nothing else. Then, having agreed with yourself what is to be your maximum bid, you happily exceed that amount and keep on bidding and bidding until you have won it and it becomes your property. Or at least that’s what has happened to me on numerous occasions, some with disastrous outcomes and some quite successful.

More often than not, the Buzz phenomenon occurs in relation to an object concerning which one has only the sketchiest ideas about what it is, where it comes from, who made it, and when it was made. There’s just something about it which gets you going. It might be mere curiosity to learn something about it; or you might get a notion (without accompanying evidence) that you can resell it at an enormous profit; or  you might find yourself inexplicably desperate to get it in your hands and spend time with it; or it might be mere covetousness. Or any combination of the above.

In the case of this plaquette, as soon as I saw the catalogue image and description I experienced a Buzz which embraced all of the above elements. I wonder why? Here’s what I had to go on:

  • Two images of the front and back of a gilt frame containing a dark-coloured oval plaque mounted against a red background;
  • A catalogue description: Lot 422 – Bronze patinated oval plaque on a velvet background within a giltwood frame, size overall 32 x 24cm. Estimate: £30-£40

It’s difficult to reconstruct one’s exact feelings at a specific moment in time, but I think my sequence of reactions in the light of this scant knowledge was roughly as follows:

  • Oooh, that’s an interesting looking sculptural relief
  • Catalogue says it’s bronze, and this auctioneer is usually accurate in her description of materials
  • It’s showing some kind of classical scene – I’ll need to find out what the subject is
  • It looks old and worn, too old to be a Victorian reproduction
  • Someone has recently done an expensive job on the framing
  • Bloody hell – could it be a genuine Renaissance bronze plaque?
  • I’ve always dreamed of owning a Renaissance bronze but have never thought I’d have a chance of buying one
  • I MUST HAVE IT!!!

This soliloquy – or something rather like it – was given utterance (inwardly) on the Thursday evening before the Saturday sale, which gave me some 36 hours in which to do background research. During this interval I was able, thanks to the wonder that is the internet, to discover:

  • what type of object it is and the name given by collectors to this class of object;
  • the subject of the scene depicted in relief on its face;
  • the existence of an apparently identical example in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; and
  • Some recent auction prices for comparable objects.

By Saturday I was in a state of high excitement and ready to flex my limited auction-spending budget in my eagerness to secure this object for my collection (or, possibly, for study and subsequent resale). But not too much flexing, because in-person auction viewing was still prohibited by our Scottish Covid lockdown. Much as I wanted to own the plaquette, I had only seen the images online, and wasn’t ready to risk blowing too much on what might turn out to be a worthless piece of trash.

The estimated price was a modest £30 – £40 but I was confident that it would comfortably exceed this estimate. So what should be my maximum bid? Taking everything into consideration, I decided I wanted it so much that I could risk up to £200. Or a bit more. Or maybe a bit more still.

In the event, surprisingly (to me), online bidding tailed off rapidly and I secured the plaquette for a hammer price of just £70. Then, on the following Monday morning, I went in a state of some trepidation to collect it. Was it what I thought it might be? Would I like it? Or had I wasted my money?

Readers of this post have been very patient so far (or have you?) in tolerating a detailed account of the blogger’s purchase of an unusual and abstruse object, without actually learning much about the object itself.  I’m sure that that’s not what you want. I empathise with your deep frustration. I apologise for having been so parsimonious with information.

At last, it is time for some facts. Time to tell you what I know about plaquettes in general and about this plaquette in particular. Brace yourselves: it’s going to be a long ride.

After much thought I have concluded that the most efficient way to convey these facts to curious readers is to employ a tool or technique heretofore ignored by the Random Treasure blog but much used on other websites where the imparting of facts and explanation is paramount: the FAQ or Frequently Asked Question.

In the case of questions about plaquettes, it has been necessary to make a small but innovative variation to this useful technique. Allow me to introduce the SAQ or Seldom Asked Question.


SAQ #1: What does it look like?

It looks like an oval slab of moulded and dark-patinated metal mounted on red velvet in a gilded rectangular frame.

First the frame, which is slightly interesting in itself. It is in simple gilded wood, 245 mm x 323 mm, but it is not a newly made frame. It dates probably from the 19th century and has been re-used for the purpose of displaying the plaquette. On close inspection, it can be seen that a not wholly successful attempt has been made to erase from the lower rail a neatly lettered inscription which reads H McCULLOCH RSA 1864, indicating that the frame once held an artwork by the well-known Scottish landscape painter Horatio McCulloch (1805-1867). Why the McCulloch picture was bounced from the frame, and precisely what Scottish view featured in the picture, will doubtless remain as unanswered SAQs, but the re-use of the frame as a display vehicle for the plaquette has been professionally done, and apparently quite recently.

The red velvet mount is backed with card, and the bronze panel is attached to the backing by some kind of silicone adhesive. Or it was attached until I carefully prised it off the mount for the purposes of close examination and study.

The panel itself measures 85 mm x 178 mm. The base thickness is around 2 mm, but the figures moulded upon its face are in high relief and the bronze at its highest point (the tip of the central figure’s nose) is 10 mm thick. Overall, the piece has a very dark, almost black patina, but at the most prominent points this has been rubbed away to show bright bare metal underneath. The scene depicted on the front face or obverse is a very busy one, with multiple male and female characters engaged in various activities against a background of trees. There’s a flying horse in there too.

By contrast the reverse side of the plaquette is plain and roughly finished, with visible file marks near the edges. The object is heavier than it looks, a dense, solid, cold-feeling piece of metal which weighs 272 gms. There are signs of wear and some very minor areas of verdigris. It looks old. Very old.


SAQ #2: What is it?

Eugene Piot
Eugene Piot

It’s a plaquette. So what’s a plaquette? Unsurprisingly, a plaquette is a small plaque. The term is a diminutive, like kitchenette, or caravanette. But as far as I can tell, the name is meant to be descriptive only and not derogatory in any way (unlike, for example, the term suffragette, which was coined as an insult but backfired when it was adopted by militant suffragists as a badge of honour). Plaquettes were first described as such by the French collector and art critic Eugene Piot (1812-1890), who wrote about them around 1860.

By this date, most existing plaquettes were already three or four centuries old and were collectors’ items. They seem to have been a phenomenon of the Renaissance, and were quite popular in parts of Europe (Italy, Germany, France, Netherlands) from around the mid-fifteenth century until the seventeenth century. There was a mild revival in the making of plaquettes from the second half of the nineteenth century, but in the hope that you’ll take an assurance from me that my plaquette is not an example from this brief resurgence, I don’t intend to say anything about it here.

Plaquettes have never, it appears, been wildly popular in the way that paintings or statues or prints or tapestries were popular. They have always been a minority taste and a specialist collecting interest. Here is a definition from 1989 which is so much more precise and useful than anything I could write that it is quoted in full:

“To the handful of specialists who study this somewhat recondite art form, the question ‘What is a plaquette?’ has proved perennially interesting. Recently Francesco Rossi has developed a tentative definition: a plaquette, he suggests, is ‘a cast bronze relief, with no predetermined subject and no premeditated purpose, that is serially replicable by moulds, and adaptable, integrally or through variants, to any decorative use’. He further notes that the vast majority of such reliefs display figured ‘obverses’ but blank ‘reverses’, and that they may occur in quite a wide variety of shapes; that when made as multiples they seem never to have been cast in more than fifty examples; and – at least in their earlier and more characteristic phases – they virtually never present portraits.” [1]


SAQ #3: How was it made?

The majority of plaquettes are made in bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. Smaller numbers are made in brass, lead and silver, and some examples were plated or gilded with gold or silver. Most were made by the lost wax (cire perdue) method.

In simple terms you take a lump of hard wax and sculpt or engrave it to the shape and size that you want. Wax is a good medium for carving because it can take a lot of fine detail. When you have finished carving, you encase the wax in plaster or clay to make a mould, leaving a small pouring hole in the top and some ventilation channels. Then you pour molten bronze into the hole, which replaces and vapourises the wax. Then you remove the mould and are left with a perfect replica in bronze of the wax model, ready for finishing and patination.

The lost wax technique and variations upon it has been in use for thousands of years and is still used by sculptors today (as in the example pictured above). In cases where there is to be only one copy of a sculpture, it’s OK to break up the mould after casting the bronze. If, however, you want to make several copies (as did plaquette makers), you would have to find a way to make re-useable moulds. Or you could make a new mould each time by encasing a finished plaquette in plaster or clay and carefully removing it to pour a new cast. This process, known as aftercasting, risks losing detail in the new impression.


SAQ #4: What are plaquettes for?

The quotation above suggests that plaquettes have “no premeditated purpose”, and it seems indeed to be the case that the reasons for sculptors to make and for collectors to purchase plaquettes are rather uncertain. Very many of them are pierced with holes, indicating that they were affixed to walls or attached to other objects. Some were used as decorative panels on fancy boxes and items of furniture. Some were used to decorate sword pommels, others had keyhole shapes cut into them and were used as lockplates.

Plaquette pax
Cast gilt bronze pax plaquette, image sourced from https://www.bmimages.com/preview.asp?image=00035055001

Most plaquettes feature an identifiable narrative scene, either religious or classical. The religious ones might have been used as portable, pocketable objects used for purposes of private devotion, or as a Pax, an object to be passed round the congregation to receive the Kiss of Peace as part of the Catholic mass. As a result, many plaquettes show signs of wear from being handled frequently over long periods.

You wouldn’t simply have looked at a plaquette in the way you would look at a painting or a print or a sculpture. You would get much of your appreciation from touching it and feeling the heft and the detail. I can verify from handling my plaquette that it is a very tactile object.

It appears however that the main purpose of owning a plaquette with a classical scene – or better still, a collection of plaquettes – was to keep it as a component of your Cabinet of Curiosities or Kunstkammer.

I could write and write about the Kunstkammer, filling many a Random Treasure blog post with plagiarised information about this endlessly fascinating subject, but if you’re as interested as I am, you can google it for yourselves. Suffice for the purposes of this post to say that a Kunstkammer is (or was) a private collection or museum which assembled in a concentrated and lovingly-curated setting the rarest, the most valuable, the best-wrought and most curious objects that the collector could find to represent the wonders of nature (fossils, bones, horns, etc), the wonders of science (clocks, astrolabes, automata, etc), and the wonders of art (pictures, statues, engraved jewels, gold and silver artefacts, etc).

The Kunstkammer was a 16th century invention of the Renaissance. Those who assembled a collection of this kind tended to be very rich or very royal or very powerful, and a corollary was that the Kunstkammer was not a private place but a showroom in which you displayed to your visiting peers the exquisiteness of your taste, the depth of your learning, the breadth of your network of suppliers, and the extent of your wealth.

Picture a beautiful room, its walls lined with pictures and tapestries, statues everywhere, tables covered with figurines, fossils, gleaming metalwork and ceramics, clocks and scientific instruments. At one side, a tall cabinet covered with elaborate and colourful marquetry, two of its drawers half-open to reveal: in one, a collection of medals stamped with portrait profiles of the high and mighty from bygone ages and the present day, and in the other, a collection of moulded plaquettes showing complex narrative episodes from the Bible and the classics. Get the idea?

The medals and plaquettes are small and handy components of the Cabinet of Curiosities. They can be got out of the drawers by the Collector and passed into the special visitor’s hands for close inspection and appreciation – and of course in the unspoken hope that the visitor is too ignorant to recognise the character or scene depicted, which provides the Collector with an opportunity to show off his erudition with a detailed explanation. The pronoun his was used deliberately, because the overwhelming majority of Collectors of this kind were men.

erasmus
Erasmus of Rotterdam. Image borrowed from http://pisanus.com/belgium/metsys-erasmus.html

It wasn’t essential to be fabulously wealthy or powerful to set up a Kunstkammer. Prosperous merchants used them as status symbols, and learned academics also made collections. The scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam assembled a notable collection of plaquettes.

By the eighteenth century the fashion for the Kunstkammer had mostly faded out and many royal and noble cabinets of curiosities passed into public ownership to form the nuclei of national museum collections. This is how a great many plaquettes came to be in public collections and not all that many remained in private hands – which also helps to explain why private collectors are few and far between.


SAQ #5: Who are the people depicted on this plaquette?

The scene is from Greek mythology. The setting is Mount Parnassus, a rocky landscape with some big trees. Mount Parnassus is the home of poetry, music and learning. It is sacred to Apollo and the Muses, and is the site of the Temple of Apollo. The chap in the centre sitting with his legs crossed at the ankles and holding in his lap a stringed musical instrument is the God Apollo himself. Because (among other things) he is the god of the Sun, there’s a big sun shining above him to his right. Across the sky to his left flies the winged horse Pegasus, who lives on Parnassus. Ranged around Apollo are the Nine Muses, who also live on Parnassus. The Muses are the goddesses of literature and the arts. You can see that a couple of them are holding books and one is banging some cymbals, but the depiction isn’t specific enough to tell which Muse represents which branch of the arts.

If you look closely to the left of Apollo’s right hand you can see the doorway to a small house or hut, which is the home of the Oracle of Delphi, also based on Mount Parnassus. There is a cherub or putto in the sky holding out a laurel wreath, and another one perched in a grapevine picking a bunch of grapes. At each side of the foreground a bearded god is pouring liquid from an urn. I think these might be river gods and the contents of their urns are springs from which flow the mountain’s rivers. One of these might be the Castalian Spring, in which you are required to bathe before consulting the oracle. There is a lot going on. Busy place, Parnassus.

Much interpretation is needed to understand what is happening, and back in the 16th century Wikipedia wasn’t quite yet available to do most of the heavy lifting for you. For the Collector trying to impress a visitor with his taste and learning, just this one plaquette affords almost unlimited scope for mansplaining.

It is probably safe to say that the busy and complex composition moulded in bronze on the plaquette did not appear fully-formed out of the head of the sculptor.  As I have attempted to show elsewhere in this blog (see https://random-treasure.com/2020/01/19/nativity-update/), Renaissance makers often looked for ideas and inspiration in the work of other artists. Engravers engraved images from paintings, from which they made cheap prints and etchings for wide distribution. Woodcarvers and sculptors then used the prints as source material for their compositions.

So it was also with makers of plaquettes. It seems very likely that the maker of my Parnassus plaquette would have taken his ideas from prints and pictures showing the same subject and a similar composition, and I have been able to identify four sources which may have been influential.


Source 1.

The Parnassus is a huge fresco (more than 6 metres wide) painted in 1509-1511 by Raphael (1483-1520) on a wall in the Palace of the Vatican in Rome on a commission from Pope Julius II. (As an aside, I wonder if any of my readers know why a Catholic Pope would want to have a vast tableau of pagan gods on his wall? If you can explain, I invite you to do so in the comments section below).

Parnassus by Raphael, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15709581

This great big in-your-face artwork was rendered into a very much more modest engraving around 1517-20 by Marcantonio Raimondi (1480-1534), a print which was widely circulated and much imitated:

“Raphael’s ‘Parnassus’ in the Vatican is the paradigmatic representation of the subject where Apollo on Parnassus is surrounded by the muses and famous poets, from which all later versions drew inspiration … it was Marcantonio’s print that established its canonical status.” [2]

Marcantonio Raimondi: Apollo sitting on Parnassus surrounded by the muses and famous poets, ca. 1517–20. http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/345269

In Raphael’s fresco and Raimondi’s engraving you can get the general arrangement of Apollo strumming, surrounded by the Muses, all set in a rocky landscape with big bushy trees as is the case in the plaquette.

There are several Poets present in addition to the Muses, but no river gods. Raimondi’s engraving has five putti holding wreaths, which are not in the fresco. These may have been derived from an earlier version of the composition (now lost) by Raphael, which might have included the putti, but Raphael must then have decided to bump them from the finished fresco. And there is no sign of Pegasus from either Raphael or Raimondi. We need to look elsewhere to see how he came into the picture.


Source 2

Apollo and the Muses was a painting by Luca Penni (1500-1556) which no longer exists but we know what it looked like because an engraving was made from it around 1557 by Giorgio Mantovano Ghisi (1520-1582).

Giorgio Ghisi, Apollo and the Muses, engraving. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/367534

In the engraving we find two putti with wreaths and one climbing a tree trunk; plus a couple of Poets (upper left). Again there are no river gods, but in a cave below the rock where Apollo is bowing (not strumming) his fiddle, there is a goddess or perhaps a nymph who is not only pouring water from a vessel but also expressing milk from her breasts. And there is Pegasus flying along behind Apollo’s right shoulder.


Source 3.

Apollon et les Muses sur le Parnasse is a fresco painted on the wall of the Ballroom in the Chateau de Fontainebleau near Paris by the Italian painter Niccolo dell’Abate (c.1509-1571).

Niccolo del’Abate, Apollo and the Muses, fresco, https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2e/Fontainebleau_%2877%29_Ch%C3%A2teau_Salle_de_Bal_04.JPG

Here, Pegasus is in a more prominent position directly behind Apollo, whose feet rest on the urn from which the Castalian Spring flows. Note that even although the fresco shows Apollo holding his bow in his right hand while he is empty-handed on the plaquette, the pose of his right arm is almost identical in both works.


Source 4.

Niccolo dell’Abate also seems to have painted another somewhat different version of the Apollo and the Muses composition from which a tiny engraving was made in 1569 by the French engraver Etienne Delaune (born c.1518).

Étienne Delaune, Apollo on Parnassus, engraving https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/399352

In this print there are no river gods or springs, and no putti, and Pegasus can only be seen from his rear end as he gallops into the forest. However, the position of Apollo’s legs and the crossing of his feet at the ankles are very close to what is shown in my plaquette.


It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the sculptor of the plaquette must have been influenced not only by seeing the prints of Raimondi (Source 1 for the composition of the tall bushy trees), of Ghisi (Source 2 for Pegasus and the Putto on the tree) and of Delaune (Source 4 for the position of Apollo’s ankles), but also by seeing, presumably in situ, the Fontainebleau fresco by dell’Abate (Source 3 for the position of Apollo’s right arm). 

It’s also possible that the sculptor used other sources which I haven’t been able to trace. For instance there’s no appearance of the sun in any of the four pictures which I have cited, and no sign of the pair of river gods with their urns. Or the plaquette sculptor might simply have made these elements up in order to distinguish his composition from the others.

The source pictures identified for the plaquette’s image might also help us in another respect. Whereas prints were produced in multiple copies and distributed widely and could have been seen anywhere around Europe, frescoes by their nature had to stay precisely where they were painted. The particular very distinctive position of Apollo’s right arm seems to be present only in the Fontainebleau fresco. Does this, I wonder, provide a clue as to where my plaquette was made?

Time to move on to my next Seldom Asked Question.


SAQ #6: Who made the plaquette, when and where?

An example in bronze of my plaquette is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum in New York[3]. Its catalogue entry says that it dates from 1565-’70 and is either French or Flemish in origin.

Another bronze specimen from the collection of Arthur Lobbecke was sold in an auction in Munich in 1908 (lot 871) [4]. The catalogue attributes it to an unnamed Florentine master, possibly from the school of Benvenuto Cellini.

Excerpt from Arthur Lobbecke collection auction catalogue, 1908, Lot 871

A copy cast in lead from the collection of Alfred Walcher Ritter von Molthein of Vienna was sold in 1926 (lot 267) [5]. In the catalogue it is grouped with other plaquettes tentatively attributed as juvenile pieces by the artist known to art historians as The Monogrammist HG, a woodcutter and printmaker from Strasbourg.

Excerpt from Molthein collection auction catalogue, 1926, Lot 267

The standard work on plaquettes is Deutsche, niederländische und französische Renaissanceplaketten, 1500-1650, by Ingrid Weber [6]. The Parnassus plaquette is described and illustrated as item no. 731 on page 315. It is said to be French, and dated to 1560-’65. The author cites specimens cast in lead held in Florence, Basle and London (British Museum), and in bronze held in the Vatican.

Thus we have from the battery of experts an estimated timeframe of 1560-’70, and a possible origin in France, Belgium, Germany or Italy. My own inexpert suggestion is that the plaquette couldn’t have been made before the appearance of Etienne Delaune’s print in 1569 (because of Apollo’s ankles), and was probably made in or near Paris where the sculptor must have seen Niccolo dell’Abate’s fresco at the Chateau de Fontainebleau (because of Apollo’s arm).

As for the maker, no-one, expert or inexpert, provides a convincing identification. It is almost certain that that is the way it is going to stay. A number of very famous sculptors from Donatello onwards were engaged in the production of plaquettes, and their pieces are well-known and well-documented. But very many of these objects from the Renaissance period are unattributed and are highly likely to remain so.


SAQ #7: Who collects plaquettes and why?

The collecting and study of plaquettes is so much of a minority interest in the world of antiques that it scarcely exists at all. My impression is that not more than perhaps a few dozen or maybe a hundred or two of these objects appear for sale by auction each year anywhere in the world. I have only been able to track down one auctioneer in the UK which regularly features plaquettes as one of its specialisms.

109-Front-CoverThe central London firm of Morton & Eden (https://www.mortonandeden.com/) are “specialist auctioneers of collectors’ coins of all periods and types, war medals, orders and decorations, historical medals and paper money”. They hold several sales per year, each typically featuring between 400 and 700 lots. In one sale in most years but not every year, they include a small section for plaquettes. For example, 25 specimens were offered for sale in 2020, 26 in 2019 and 19 in 2016. The volume of plaquettes coming onto the market is clearly minuscule in comparison with coins and medals, comprising perhaps around 1% of the business of the only specialist auctioneer.

The comparison between plaquettes on the one hand and coins and medals on the other is an important one, because historically plaquettes have tended to be classified alongside numismatics and not alongside sculpture. Yes, plaquettes are traditionally lumped together in auction sales and in public collections with coins and medals. Perhaps there is a historical reason for this: as I have suggested earlier, they tended to be displayed beside each other and handled together in the Kunstkammer.

This is awkward for plaquettes, because they don’t really fit in with this classification at all. Coins and medals are mostly struck, “formed mechanically by the force of two engraved metal dies pressing the image on to a blank disc of softer metal held between them”[7]. But as we have seen, plaquettes are usually made by the lost wax casting process, and are thus very different from coins and medals.

In fact, plaquettes have much more in common with sculptures, especially bronze sculptures, which were also usually made by the lost wax method. We might thus have found an explanation of why plaquettes tend to have been overlooked as a collecting interest: perhaps most coin and medal collectors aren’t all that interested in plaquettes because they are so far from their central area of interest, while at the same time most collectors of Renaissance sculpture might tend to regard plaquettes as inferior products coming within the purview of the numismatist.

Could it therefore be that plaquettes have fallen into a black hole in the firmament of collecting? They are rare outside public collections; their subjects are obscure and difficult to interpret; their makers are for the most part unidentifiable; little has been published about them that is accessible to the layperson; illustrations and detailed descriptions are hard to come by. Frankly, the humble plaquette doesn’t have much going for it.

After many hours of searching I have only been able to discover a couple of contemporary collectors with websites which appear to contain authoritative information about plaquettes. One is Michael Riddick, an American collector and dealer whose website and blog at https://renbronze.com/ contains a number of interesting and detailed articles about specimens in his collection.

The other website is an attractively-presented catalogue of a private collection of medals, plaquettes and medallions which can be found at http://pisanus.com/index.php.

There are plaquette collections in many major museums, but frustratingly few of them have informative and well-illustrated online catalogues. For example the splendid Sigmund Morgenroth collection is held at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara (https://www.museum.ucsb.edu/collections/fine-arts), but it doesn’t have a digitised catalogue. For shame, UCSB!


SAQ #8: Are plaquettes valuable?

Unsurprisingly, the disappearance of collecting interest in plaquettes down a chasm in the universe of antiques means that prices for these rare and fascinating objects are comparatively low. Even in an authoritatively-catalogued auction sale you can pick up a bronze plaquette – a genuine 500-year-old Renaissance sculptural production – for a few hundred quid.

By comparison, if you’re wanting to buy a small bronze statuette from the 16th century, you could expect to pay anything from a few thousand to a few hundred thousand; and similarly for a small oil painting (or a few million for artists with the biggest names).

As for the prints from which the sculptor of my plaquette derived his inspiration, although they are much more common they are eagerly collected and fetch good prices. A copy of Raimondi’s Parnassus print (trimmed, folded, split, repaired) sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1999 for US$3,450 [8]. A copy of Ghisi’s Apollo and the Muses print (trimmed, creased) sold at Christie’s in London in 1995 for £2,530 [9].

At Morton and Eden’s most recent auction featuring plaquettes, held on 4th November 2020 [10], 25 lots were offered for sale, of which 22 were sold and 3 unsold. 20 of the sold lots achieved an average price of £655 each, while the remaining two were very exceptional specimens which sold for £26,000 and £40,000. These latter two prices seem very high – until you compare them with the highest prices in the sale, which were for two coins at £130,000 each.

And then compare the price of £125,000 which Morton & Eden achieved in 2002 for a Renaissance plaquette, with their record prices for other classes of numismatic objects. In 2012, they sold a 1521 medal for £258,750. In 2011 they sold an Islamic gold coin for £3.72million.

Plaquettes? Small fry.


SAQ #9: Is this plaquette valuable?

Turning to the key Seldom Asked Question of whether I got a good buy when I spent £70 on my Parnassus plaquette, the answer is Yes, but not spectacularly good. It turns out that my plaquette has one or two issues.

For the information in this section I rely on the opinions of two experts who I have consulted by email, attaching photos of the plaquette.

Maryvonne Lambert-Carbone, whose husband’s collection is shown at http://pisanus.com/index.php kindly send me a copy of the illustration and text describing the plaquette in Ingrid Weber’s Renaissanceplaketten book. She says in her email that my example is “smaller than the original and its finish is less precise”.

Tom Eden of the auctioneers https://www.mortonandeden.com/ makes a similar point. He notes that:

“Ingrid Weber gives the dimensions as 90 x 185 mm. As yours are slightly less than this and that there are some rather weak areas (there should be a face on the sun for instance) I think we would classify yours as an ‘early cast’ as opposed to ‘contemporary’ (i.e. original). But it still looks quite nice and in high relief”.

My plaquette measures 85 x 178 mm. In a later email, Tom explains that:

“Each time a subsequent cast is made of a bronze (or other metal) object it ends up being slightly smaller as the molten metal shrinks as it hardens within the mould. This is why dimensions are important to know about”.

Left: plaquette llustrated in Weber’s Renaissanceplaketten; Right: my plaquette

So my plaquette is an aftercast and not fully original. It is smaller and lacks detail – which you can see very clearly from the above comparison of the Sun in my specimen with the example illustrated by Weber. My Sun hasn’t got a face. What a pity.

However, I take some consolation from Tom Eden’s use of the term “an early cast”. I’m sticking firmly to the belief that my plaquette, albeit a copy of the original, was made before the end of the 16th century. That means, as far as I’m concerned, that my dream of owning a Renaissance bronze has come true.

As for value, Tom suggests that “an estimate of around £500-700 might be in order subject to seeing it”.


SAQ #10: If you buy a plaquette cheaply, do you keep it or sell it?

You might be able to tell from the excessive length, minuteness of detail and general gung-ho-ness of this post that I am utterly smitten by my plaquette. I would happily have it as the founding specimen of my world-leading plaquette collection.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is automatically a keeper. Sometimes I dispose of pieces that I love as a sort of exercise in self-denial, and sometimes I feel I have to sell them because they are simply too precious to be safe and secure in my care.

I’m pleased to say that in this instance I feel no need to deny myself the pleasure of ownership, and can cheerfully afford (at present) to forgo the opportunity to turn a profit. So I’ll be keeping it.

However, there still remains a significant imponderable. How do I display my plaquette?

  1. Should I return it to its red velvet mount in its antique gilt wood frame and hang it on the wall for look-but-don’t-touch admiration at a distance?
  2. Or should I lay it flat in a prominent location within my Cabinet of Curiosities for showing-off and handing to special visitors, all the while expatiating at length upon its many uniquenesses and virtues?

I can’t decide. It’s too difficult. The jury’s out. However, I have a strong inkling of the verdict of my readers on this delicately-balanced issue: For God’s sake, Random Treasure blogger, get a life!


References

[1] Lewis, Douglas, The Past and Future of the Italian Plaquette: Studies in the History of Art, 1989, Vol. 22, Symposium Papers IX: Italian Plaquettes (1989), pp. 11-16. Washington, National Gallery of Art (https://www.jstor.org/stable/42620413)

[2] https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/345269

[3] https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/207395

[4] https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/hirsch1908_11_26/0005

[5] https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/helbing1926_05_17/0039

[6] Weber, Ingrid, Deutsche, Niederländische und Französische Renaissance, plaketten 1500-1650 : Modelle für Reliefs and Kult-, Prunk- und Gebrauchsgegenständen : Bd. 1-2, München, Bruckmann, 1975

[7] http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/m/casting-a-medal/

[8] https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-marcantonio-raimondi-parnassus-after-raphael-1690316/?from=searchresults&intObjectID=1690316

[9] https://www.christies.com/lot/lot-giorgio-ghisi-287239/?from=searchresults&intObjectID=287239

[10] https://www.mortonandeden.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/web-109.pdf


2 thoughts on “Apollo’s Ankles, or What I Know About Plaquettes

  1. Another fascinating tale, thank you! It set me to thinking about the Baptistry doors in Florence and whether those entering the competition may have make plaquettes (or similar) to display their wares?

    It also made me consider my long-held feelings about artistic renditions of the inhabitants of Parnassus. I don’t have a classical education (Hyde’s ‘Greek Myths’ was about my limit) and wonder if that’s why I’ve never particularly taken to Poussain – while I can spot a plague saint on an altarpiece at 50 paces, I often don’t know who his subjects are and why they’re important. While my art history studies encouraged/taught me to admire the skills of Poussin & Co (including people like your artist), I don’t warm to the representations – I’m not sure if it’s because don’t know enough about the subjects or whether there’s a shared ‘classics’ style used when rendering the gods and classic heros (shared with later ‘revolutionary’ French artists). I know there’s a concern within art history circles that the near-loss of ‘Sunday Schools/Bible Classes’ and similar during our lifetimes will make altarpieces and paintings of Old and New Testament subjects ‘unreadable’ by future generations.

    Excuse ramble, but your posts are always both interesting in themselves and make me think around them ….

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    1. Thank you Anne. I have a feeling that the Baptistery doors were made a few decades before the earliest plaquettes, which seem to date from around the mid-15th century. Otherwise it would be a nice idea to think that Ghiberti might have made plaquettes of his ideas for the panels as a sort of proto-PowerPoint presentation. I guess it might possibly have been that the influence was in the opposite direction: perhaps the door panel reliefs were so popular that everyone wanted a piece of cire perdu bronze, thus creating a new genre of sculpture and/or a mass market for cheap knock-offs?

      My Jewish background and secular education at a nominally Anglican grammar school meant that I was probably always a bit more comfortable with interpreting classical scenes than biblical scenes. Indeed the whole fascinating topic of recognising saints by their attributes had entirely escaped me until relatively recent years – but now it’s one of my favourite art gallery pastimes!

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