Renaissance bronzes sparkle at National Gallery

How do you tame a stallion with wings? One of the most dramatic pieces of Renaissance bronze sculpture, now on view at the National Gallery of Art here, gives a hint.

``Bellerophon Taming Pegasus'' is a key attraction in the exhibition titled ``Renaissance Master Bronzes from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.''

This show, consisting of 75 sculptures, will be on view in the National Gallery's east wing through Nov. 30.

It will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for exhibition there Dec. 18-Feb. 18, 1987, and then to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will be seen March 15-June 17.

About that winged stallion. Pegasus, the flying horse of Greek mythology, is said in one version of the myth to have been tamed with ``gentle magic'' and a golden bridle. But in this bronze version, Bellerophon, son of the king of Corinth, subdues him with brute force and the threat of a cudgel.

The magnificent silvery bronze stallion - front legs pawing the air, tail waving like a banner, wings uplifted for takeoff - has been doing battle with his tamer for 500 years.

The statue was done between 1480-1484 by Bertoldo di Giovanni. Bertoldo, an assistant to the Florentine master sculptor Donatello, was also reputed to be Michelangelo's teacher in sculpture.

The Renaissance bronzes vary wildly in subjects, from several Venuses (with and without arms) to a gaggle of satyrs, equestrian statues, a cluster of angelic putti, lifelike renditions of a crab, a toad, a seated panther, bulls, and other mythological figures from Mercury to Hercules.

There is also a sprinkling of the sublime, although many of the bronzes were for domestic or nonreligious use by a variety of collectors.

The religious pieces include an early 16th-century work by Moderno, an intricate ``Madonna and Child With Saints Relief,'' with a bright gold surface, known as firegilt, combined with bronze.

In a darker, more subdued vein, there is a ``Pieta With Angels,'' in which Christ Jesus appears to be lifted out of the sarcophagus in rock by a flock of angels. It is an anonymous bronze relief for a tabernacle door, attributed to northern Italy in the mid-16th century.

The works of art on display here are from what J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery, calls ``one of the greatest collections of Renaissance bronzes in the world ... offering fascinating glimpses into European culture during the transition from medieval to modern society.''

In introducing the collection he described it as made up of ``objects of delectation and delight, which are also rich and pregnant with meaning.''

In the Venus Felix by the master sculptor known as Antico (1460-1558), the dark form of Venus is lit with gilded curls and a draped, gold robe.

Most of the sculpture in this exhibit was produced in Italy and purchased by royal Austrian collectors.

Manfred Leithe-Jaspar, head of the sculpture and decorative arts departments at Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, is traveling with his bronzes.

``My English is nearly inexistent,'' he said, when questioned by the press, but did add that he hoped ``my bronzes, my children, will fare well here in this important museum.''

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