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Work Dwarf with Snail
Department of Decorative Arts: Renaissance
Gnome with a snail
© 1985 RMN / Pierre et Maurice Chuzeville
A naked dwarf straddles a snail. The juxtaposition of a deformed figure and a monstrous snail is somewhat audacious and bears witness to the sixteenth-century taste for bizarre and unbalanced forms. The dwarf is reminiscent of garden sculptures made for villas; indeed, the Villa Careggi has a sculpture of the same subject. In the past this work has been attributed to many different artists, but it is now generally agreed that this bronze is a revealing work of Florentine mannerism.
A naked dwarf sits astride, but unbalanced, the shell of a snail, holding the handle of a whip in his right hand. He seems to want to goad his strange mount to move more quickly. This statuette is identical to a marble statue in the gardens of the Villa Careggi in Florence. In the same Villa is another statue, of a dwarf straddling an owl; the bronze version of this is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The two statues at the Villa Careggi are called 'Morgante' and 'Margutte'. Morgante (c.1535 - after 1595) was the dwarf of Cosimo de'Medici I and his successors; he was named after a fictional giant, 'Morgante Maggiore', who was a character in an epic poem by Luigi Pulci published in Florence in 1481. Between 1560 and 1600, many depictions of dwarves were produced at the Florentine court, because of the level of curiosity provoked by Morgante.
Representations of dwarves and putti were very fashionable before the 1560s as part of the decoration of fountains in Florence, or as ornament in frescoes in a number of palaces (for example, in the Camera Picta of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua). Because of this, the Louvre bronze was attributed successively to Tullio Lombardo, Francesco Colla, the Paduan School, and finally to Valerio Cioli. This last attribution is probably the most secure, because Cioli was the sculptor of the two marble statues at the Villa Careggi. We know that Cioli travelled to Carrara in 1599 to acquire the marble for four statues, two of which were to be of dwarves. However, he was dead by the end of the year, and as a result the sculptures were completed by Valerio's nephew, Simone Cioli, after his uncle's models. The workmanship of the bronze statuette is much better than that of the marble sculpture, which leads one to suppose that the former is earlier than the latter, and that it was made by Valerio Cioli himself.
Technique and Style
This dwarf on his snail was cast in bronze by the lost-wax method, and the hair and the body have been gone over with a graver after casting. The statuette is covered in a black patina that is now crazed; this was probably the 'oil patina' Vasari describes in his writings, the oil having been coloured with smoke black to give it this dark hue. The bronze-maker's workmanship is very sensitive, playing with light/dark effects and accentuating the roundness of certain forms as well as movement. This work can be seen as part of the developing trend towards naturalism in small bronzes of the mannerist period, because of the imbalance in the composition and the strong modelling of the gastropod and the dwarf.
BibliographyLefébure Amaury, "Le Gnome à l'escargot", l'oeuvre en direct, musée du Louvre, 12 février 1993
Pope Hennessy John, "A small bronze by Tripolo", Burlington Magazine, CI, 1959, pp. 85-89.
Florence (mid-16th century)
Gnome with a snail
Acquired in 1933
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