• The Fall of Icarus, early 1700s. Francesco Bertos (Italian, 1678–1741). Bronze, 59.7 x 30.5 cm. Allen Memorial Art Museum. Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, Mrs. F.F. Prentiss Fund, Friends of Art Endowment Fund and Special Acquisitions Fund 1971.52

The Fall of Icarus

Bertos’s The Fall of Icarus depicts the conclusion of the Greek myth, in which Icarus falls to the earth because he flew too close to the sun—melting the wax wings his father, Daedalus, made for their escape from Crete. Usually Icarus is shown falling into the sea to his death, but here tumbles towards a symbolic river-god instead, liquid gushing from an urn beside him. Since Bertos was a sculptor, it would have been impractical for him to depict the entire scene below – he was after all working with volume and space to create a narrative, rather than paint on a canvas, and the sculpture requires a stable base.

Much as Icarus explored the limits of flight, Bertos experiments with the limitations of sculpture. This work reveals the artist’s intense interest in the nature of sculpture, twirling figures and drapery such that the viewer needs to rotate around the bronze and view it from every angle in order to understand the full narrative. Bertos blocks aspects of the sculpture from each viewpoint, obscuring gestures or expressions at every turn, so the work can never be fully viewed from one perspective.

Furthermore, Bertos has logistical concerns different from those of a painter. Though he was experimenting with the limits of bronze, Bertos also had to ensure the sculpture would stand. Although he began as a marble sculptor, it seema that bronze allowed Bertos greater flexibility, and he often cast limbs separately, later forming them into freestanding compositions. The fluid, elongated figures and delicately detailed features typify his other bronzes from this period.

Throughout history, the fall of Icarus has often been interpreted not only as an allegory for the struggle of artistic creation, but also as an incentive for a life of temperation. Bertos was also prompted to lead a life of moderation, much like Icarus. Given his dexterity in undercutting and drilling marble, Bertos’s mastery led to a dramatic accusation from the Inquisition in the 1730s that he must have collaborated with the Devil in order to create his sculptures. Following this conflict, Bertos worked almost exclusively in bronze.

Audio: Samantha Conroy, Oberlin College