Sunday, October 9, 2011

Ancient Roman eagles, and eagles with snakes.

Image from the official website for Pompeii and Naples
When attempting to find out the date of an object, one wants to find parallels, and from them you can deduce or support a dating for a piece. In my research I did not find the exact parallels I wanted but I did find a few other examples of sculptures featuring an eagle with a serpent. The photo above is of a fountain found at the House of the Faun in Pompeii. Here the eagle stands with his wings raised up but not fully outstretched. You can see a snake next to the eagle, sheltered in its raised wing as the eagle looks over at it. It is almost loving the way the eagle seems to have this snake protected under its wing as he looks back at it tenderly. The snake, whose head is missing, is coiled and almost standing on the coils. It is almost menacing, so one wonders what exactly is depicted; was the intent of the sculpture to show an eagle surprised by a dangerous snake which is one potential reading, or is it an eagle who has taken the snake under its wing literally. If one knew exactly what myth or image was being depicted one could tell.

As important as just finding a Roman eagle with a snake, even if not fully understanding their relationship, is the treatment of the feathers on the neck and body, which are the same. Neck feathers are smaller but similarly untidy in their arrangement as the body, sort of tousled, again nearly fur-like, although here due no doubt to the large scale and different medium, the feathers are distinct and clear, unlike on my bronze.

photo taken of an illustration in a book showing a statue of Zeus with his eagle.
Above is an image of a marble statue of Zeus with his eagle companion next to him. Again, like the marble above, the feathers of the neck are treated like those of the body, as found in nature, and their wavy appearance are almost fur-like.

Again taken from the web, a statue in the Vatican of Ganymede and the Eagle, who is Zeus in disguise. Here the feathers are more like fur again.

Another image taken of a book page with a photo of a relief of Ganymede and the eagle of Zeus. Here, even though a very poor resolution image, you can see a wavy fur-like pattern of the feathers as on my eagle.

Another photo from a book on Roman sarcophagi, here one found in Nikopolis, and again, even in this poor quality image you can see the wavy fur-like treatment of the body and neck feathers of the eagle. I would like to find other examples and get better quality photos of them, but even this small sampling supports that the Romans did depict eagles in the manner in my bronze.

However below you will see the exact iconography:

Taken from an article titled, Eagle and Serpent. A study in the Migration of Symbols, by Rudolf Witkower, published in the Journal of the Warburg Institute, Vol. 2, No. 4, 1939.

The photo is of a relief on the apex of the interior of a Triumphal Arch at Pola which is in Croatia. The eagle grasps the snake in his talons, and they look at each other in the same way as in my eagle. Here the snake is proportionately larger than in the bronze, and the low relief carving is not as well sculpted as the bronze or the other marble examples cited above. It is slightly provincial in the quality of its carving, as is found in the outlying areas of the Roman Empire. Wittkower interpreted the depiction on this arch to be about the triumph of Rome over its enemies, however, I am less sold on that idea. Again, the snake is hardly dead here, it is huge and quite dangerous looking. Its not even clear that the eagle intends to kill the snake, while he is holding the snake in his talons, he is also is looking at the snake as the snake looks at him, he is not rending the snake and dealing a death blow to it.

The Pola Arch may tell us the original purpose of the bronze and explain the holes in the wings and tail.  Perhaps they were for attachment in an architectural setting, the coffer of a ceiling or an arch or other structure. It does read very well from below. There is no other way of displaying it, unless you mount it on a stand as I did, otherwise it would either have to be hung as it was at Christie's.  Roman public buildings often had bronze architectural decoration. An infamous example is the Pantheon which was stripped of its bronze decoration by one of the Popes, which was melted down and cast by Bernini to make the Baldachinno over the altar at St. Peter's Cathedral. Survival of such bronze architectural decoration is rare, as it was pillaged to melt down for weapons, coins and the like.

I continue to look for parallels and evidence to support the eagle, and will report back here should something come up. If anyone can contribute reading this, please feel free to comment or email me with your thoughts.

The eagle; what species is it?

The eagle against black
One thing struck me in particular about the eagle, the fur-like treatment of the feathers on the neck and body of the eagle. It resembles the pelt of a bear or the mane of a lion more than the feathers of a bird. I recalled seeing such treatment of the f Roman sculptures of eagles, but was finding very few examples in my books or online. I have a pretty good visual memory, so if I think I saw it, I am sure I did, it is just a matter of finding it again. Strangely, once I started looking for Roman representations of eagles, I found very few. While we strongly associate the eagle with Imperial Rome, when looking for representations of eagles at the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, I found hardly any. In Rome I believe there are more, but I can find few illustrated in my books. I will have to make a trip to Europe to revisit Rome to find the one I remember seeing with this distinct fur-like treatment of the feathers.

Apart looking for ancient parallels the question I asked was, is this fur-like feathering based on nature?  For this Google proved invaluable as a source of images of eagles. I found that one species of eagle that does have this type of feathering on the body, the Golden Eagle. This made sense to me,  since it is the largest eagle that the Romans would have known of, and is because it is so majestic it became the symbol of the king of the Gods, Zeus.

A golden eagle on Google
In the photo a and you can see how the feathers of the neck go down to cover the body, no distinction between the neck and body. The feathers are long and tapered to a fine point, and are not stiff like wing feathers.

Golden eagle and carcass in winter
The action photo above of an eagle scavenging a winter carcass allows us to see how the feathers on the legs and body are fur-like.

The above images and others I have found, demonstrate that golden eagles have wispy long pointed feathers covering their neck and bodies down to their legs, that can look fur-like. Given the Roman and Greek interest in naturalistic depiction, this at least would seem to support the possible Roman date of this eagle. Now I needed to find other ancient Roman eagles with similar feathering of the body.

The Eagle cleaned and examined

Above is a screen grab from Christie's website showing the eagle with the shiny black patina it had when I first saw it and bought it. 

photo by Telyfoto Inc.
Above is the eagle as it now looks, after I cleaned it. I experimented with different solvents, and it was turpentine that worked to dissolve and remove the black. Amazingly, under it was a green patina, which looks like what you would see on an ancient Roman bronze. If this bronze was really 17th Century, under the black would have been bare metal. Patina is misleading when it comes to Renaissance bronzes as generally a patina is a reaction of a surface to its environment.  In the Renaissance they often applied layers of shellac and varnish with colors to achieve a satiny look to the surface.  And then other times they would apply chemicals to alter the surface inducing a chemical patina to imitate that on ancient bronzes.  But they would not have put black on top of a green patina, what would the point be?  The green would be covered by the black, they could just put the black on top of the metal and achieve the same effect, why add another process?   If however this was an ancient bronze which was discovered in pieces, the wings and tail having broken off, the reattachment with solder would have been obvious, as some areas would have patina, and others would be bare metal. By covering the whole thing in black, the eagle was made to look uniform. A 17th Century bronze is unlikely to have ever been buried, and would not have acquired the type of patina that I found under the black. However, to be sure of that the patina was the product of long burial and not chemically induced, I took the eagle to a well known conservator in Holyoke Massachusetts, Susan White.

Above is a detail of the eagle after cleaning showing the patina, which is of the varied dark and lighter green with reddish undertones that you would expect from an ancient patina. Also visible are the dents and damages to the forward edge of the wing, and you can also see where the wing was joined back to the body. The round hole was done at the time of the repairs I think.

The examination by Susan White took several steps. First was a close microscopic look at the surface to see what the patina is made of. Then she also took it to a facility that has an XRF machine, which uses x-rays to determine the exact composition of the metal. This is useful to determine if something is a pastiche; made up of disparate parts but not belonging to each other, as is possible in a piece like this. Then Susan also took small samples, etched them with acid and examined the slices under a microscope to see if there is intergranular corrosion, where the corrosion products penetrate into the crystalline structure of the metal.

The initial examination under low powered magnification, 1x-7x, revealed a varied patina layer, thin in parts and thick and compacted malachite in others. The thin areas which in places reveal the metal underneath made the piece look as if it does not have age, but the thicker compacted areas indicated an object of some age.

Due to the evidence of reattachment of the wings and tail, Susan arranged to have the piece analyzed by X-ray Flourescence, XRF, which determines the exact composition of the alloys, and would reveal wether this was a pastiche or all of a piece. Several areas were chosen to scan, one on each wing and tail, and another on the body of the eagle. The scans of the different parts confirmed that they all belonged, they were statistically identical, proving they were cast from a single batch of alloy. It also revealed that the eagle is cast not of the usual bronze alloy, which is copper tin, but instead is copper zinc, in other words, brass. The exact alloy revealed by XRF is the following:

Copper 67%
Zinc: 25%
Iron: 6-10%
Trace amounts of lead were found, no greater than 1.7% in the snake, but averaging about 0.6%.

The iron is unexpected in a modern brass alloy, but the ability to smelt pure zinc was not developed until the Renaissance. The source ores for copper and zinc also contained trace amounts of iron, which got incorporated into the alloy if you cannot refine out the pure metals. Lead was often added to copper alloys to help with the flow of the alloy during casting, so is a perfectly normal element in such an alloy.

Brass is known to have been used in antiquity and in fact, I suspect that many objects described as being of bronze are in fact different alloys, of which copper zinc is one. Some art historians have taken to substituting "coppery alloy" for bronze when describing objects, as there were different alloys used with copper. One alloy in use in very early "bronzes" is copper arsenic, something that sounds positively dangerous to us now.

The metallographic examination consisted of Susan taking three small samples from the piece, one from the back of the left wing, a second from the back of the neck of the eagle, and third from the tail. An effort was made to ensure that the samples were not close to the areas of repair, as the heat from the soldering would alter them. The samples were mounted in epoxy resin and polished very finely to reveal their crystalline structure. After etching with 1:1 ammonia, hydrogen peroxide wash to bring out the crystals, the samples were looked at under high (25x) magnification which clearly showed the massive cuprite on the surface of the sample on the left wing, and the migration of the cuprite into the sample cross section along a grain boundary.

The conclusion of the results of the metallographic analysis suggest an early date to the First Millenium A.D., which would support a Roman date. However, as the nature of science, it can only provide support but cannot prove when it was made.

While the report seemed to bear out my hunch, I still needed to find parallels, if they exist, and overcome the doubt that pervades the field. An example of this; the head of the conservation department of the Metropolitan museum stated that there are no Roman brass cast sculptures, period. I doubt very much that this is true, the Romans certainly used brass, their coins were brass often, and coins were melted down to make sculpture and visa versa. When I go through the Metropolitan Museum's collection, I see many "bronzes" that I bet are in fact brass. Below is photo taken in the study collection of the Greek and Roman wing, of what looks like a brass object.  I wonder how many of the Met's bronzes were XRF'ed or otherwise tested for their exact alloy composition. My bet is very few, so how can anyone categorically say that there are no Roman brass cast sculpture?
Above is a fitting from a chariot, with the head of medusa, cast of a bright brassy looking metal, which was striped of its patina, or never developed one. I have not had it analyzed but bet no one else has. I also would guess it is not a standard copper tin alloy, but cannot know that without testing it. I make these observations to illustrate how varied "bronzes" are from antiquity, in composition and patina.

Later posts will look at other factors in attempting to determine the age of my Eagle.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Discovery: Bronze Eagle with Serpent

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Dear Reader,

I am going to tell another story of making of a discovery, and the effort to confirm it.  I am generally reticent to disclose where I buy things, but in this case I am going to relate the entire experience of discovery and research as I attempt to prove my case.  By sharing this with you, I hope to give the reader a sense of what goes on behind the scenes with art dealers.  The story will also illustrate a problem that both benefits and works against me - the blindness and superficiality of many of the experts in the field of ancient art.  What I mean by this will become clearer as I tell the tale.

In June of last year I went to New York to preview the antiquity auctions, and while at Christie's noticed a sign for a Decorative arts sale that included property from the collection of Michael Hall.  Michael is someone I have known well for many years.  He is a prominent, if controversial, dealer of European Works of Art, specializing in Renaissance bronzes.  He is something of a collector as well, with objects from nearly every culture and time period on the planet; antiquities, African, Asian, the whole gamut.  I was curious to see what he was selling off, so after viewing the antiquities sale, I went upstairs to the room where the bronzes from his collection were displayed.  In a room full of many beautiful Renaissance and later bronzes, was the eagle, hanging by fishing line from the ceiling, described as being 17th Century Italian.  Something about it piqued my interest.  The sculpture had an intensity that I associate with Roman art, and the condition of the piece did not make sense for the date given it.  While it was covered with the type of shiny black patina one associates with Renaissance bronzes, there were damages and small losses, something one sees in ancient pieces, but not later bronzes.  In the past I have encountered ancient bronzes re-patinated in the Renaissance, so am always on the lookout for them.

I was able to register to bid at the sale online, from the comfort of my gallery, and bought the eagle at the low estimate.  Earlier that morning I had some pieces at the Sotheby's antiquity sale, which sold well, so I felt confident to pursue the eagle.  However, Sotheby's wouldn't pay me for a while, so I wasn't sure when or how I would be able to pay for it.  Initially I thought I would just leave it at Christie's until Sotheby's paid me, but that demon of instant gratification got ahold of me, and I went into the City the Tuesday following the auction and paid for the eagle on my American Express card. 

Here is the eagle after I brought it home, still with its shiny black patina.  

The bronze is large, measuring 17 inches across the wings, huge for an ancient bronze. Several things struck me when I first saw it, where the serpent's tail is missing is a hole to attach it, and the serpents head is joined to the body with a tenon and pin.  Also visible here are damages to the leading edge of the wing.

The back.  Note the large round hole, and the areas where the wings join the body and the hole in the tail.
Looking at the back of the bronze its history becomes more apparent. Where the wings join the body there is a discontinuity of the feathers; the areas are blank of detail and look like the metal was applied with a knife, and the large round hole is odd.  There are dents and dings apparent.  It is evident on this view that the wings were broken off the body and re-attached with solder by brazing, and the hole was probably created at that time.  The damages one expects on ancient objects, but makes little sense for a later piece.  The hole in the tail and the others on the wings, not visible here, again indicate a use; perhaps it was attached to something else.  But it does not appear that this was created as a stand alone bronze statuette as most Renaissance bronzes were. 

Detail of the bronze

In this detail shot you can see the intense interaction between the eagle and serpent.  While held in the eagle's claws, the serpent is poised to strike and looks directly into the eagles eyes. The eagle for his part, while holding the serpent, is looking down upon it; they seem locked into a mutual embrace for lack of a better analogy.  While this can be seen as a confrontation of opposites, the ultimate earth dweller and the ultimate creature of the air, to me it seems less a contest than a dialogue.  This is something you encounter in ancient art, but different in spirit than that of the Renaissance and later periods.

In post antique times the snake is often associated with evil, the Christians saw the serpent offering the apple to Eve as the Devil.  However in antiquity snakes were often revered, there were certain cults where snakes played an important sacred role. Apollo is associated with snakes, in his divination role, and his son Asclepius has a snake as part of his symbol. Hermes has snakes twined around his staff, the caduceus and on the Athenian acropolis in the Erechteion, a sacred snake was kept in the foundation, tended by priestesses who fed it honey cakes.  Its welfare was considered essential to Athen's prosperity and security, a refusal of food by the snake was considered a very bad omen.  Snakes were associated with divination because they creep in the bowels of the earth, bringing her secrets back with them. The eagle, as the largest of the birds of prey, is associated with the sky, and a symbol and form of Zeus, the king of the Gods.  While one could see the sculpture as symbolic of the battle between the earth and sky, dark and light, I see a dialogue, an oppositional but equal relationship. So while the eagle is holding the serpent in its talons, and appears triumphant, we do not see the eagle killing it, and I think there is a reason for that.  What we see are two powerful creatures, rich in symbolic meaning, captured in this moment of balance.

It is not just the representation and feeling transmitted by the bronze, nor just the condition that lead me to think this sculpture is possibly ancient.  There are specific stylistic features that also support an early dating.  The feathers on the eagle's body, head and legs are treated sculpturally almost like fur, a wavy mane of sorts that goes from the head to the feet. This is something I recalled seeing in other Roman sculptures of eagles, but not in later ones.  The feathers of the wings and tail are done with a confident rather loose linear manner, probably first in the wax and then cold carved after casting to make them clearer.  Only the feathers on the bottom flapping edge of the wing are done in a more dimensional manner.  The consistent, strong, but not fussy manner of rendering the feathers is typical of Roman bronzes. 

However, to prove my hunch correct, I needed to see what the patina was, if it would come off, and what was under it.  I also needed to find parallels for the subject and the style of its rendering.   Only after doing my homework would I approach other experts.  I had already sent photos to several people knowledgeable about ancient art, but it was before I had cleaned it, and they responded that they didn't see it as ancient.  I am pretty sure it was simply the surface that put them off, I have often found the "experts" cannot see beyond the surface of a piece.

In subsequent installments here, I will take you through the process of my researching it, and while at first I had no idea where this would lead, it could lead to confirmation of my hunch, or disprove it.