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Finding Franzoni

A bit of serendipity leads to acquisition of an 18th-century marble sculpture
July 18, 2017
Appears in March 2009
Francesco Antonio Franzoni (Italian, 1734–1818). Panther Attacking a Goat, late 18th century. Marble, 24.2 x 30.5 cm. Dudley P. Allen Fund 2008.109

Jon L. Seydl Vignos Curator of European Painting and Sculpture

When a curator finds something interesting at an auction house, it’s usually because a specialist gives us advance notice in the form of digital images or old-fashioned transparencies. Or, if no one at the auction house knows the curator’s particular interests, we find out like everyone else—from the auction catalogue. But in the case of the Franzoni, there it was, serving as a paperweight on an employee’s desk. I was visiting the offices, rather than the sales rooms, of Sotheby’s Sculpture and Works of Art department to see something else entirely when I noticed a very beautiful and curious sculpture resting atop some papers while the specialist prepared its catalogue entry. And so a curator’s interest was piqued.

If you think that this panther attacking a goat looks like an antiquity, the artist—Francesco Antonio Franzoni—would have been pleased. The sculptor emulated a restored antiquity, creating numerous fracture lines in the marble, most notably in the panther’s tail and the goat’s jaw, neck, and free leg. Made entirely by the hand of Franzoni, these lines do not mark actual breaks in the stone.

Initially trained in Carrara, where Michelangelo and Bernini got their marble, Franzoni moved to Rome and worked in the orbit of the great antiquarian and printmaker Giambattista Piranesi. Franzoni’s practice mostly centered on restoring antiquities. Best known for his work at the Vatican Museums, particularly the Sala degli animali (more on that in a moment), the massive supports for the porphyry tombs of Constantine’s daughter and mother, and especially the immense chariot in the Sala de la Biga, Franzoni often took fragments of antiquities and—following an 18th-century taste that preferred completed antiquities to fragments—combined them with restorations of his own design, departing significantly from whatever the original fragments might have depicted. Yet he also sculpted works entirely on his own, particularly in his extensive work on the Palazzo Braschi in Rome—the home of Pope Pius VI, the last pope of the 1700s, who launched the
Vatican Museums into what you see today. 

In fact, Cleveland’s new sculpture has a lot to do with Franzoni’s work at the Vatican for the pope. It derives clearly from one of the animal groups in the Sala degli animali, which was already probably a work concatenated from fragments by the artist himself. For the CMA sculpture, Franzoni considerably revised the “original” by refining the carving, creating a thinner, more elegant base, and increasing the size of the goat to present a more equal encounter between the animals and make the composition more symmetrical. Franzoni thus appealed to the classicizing, 18th-century taste for balanced, elegant, and graceful sculpture, while “improving” the errors in ancient sculpture (something that happened earlier in the century in response to the discovery of paintings from Herculaneum).

Unlike most American museums, the CMA antiquities collection contains no work with significant restorations by early modern sculptors, and no examples of independent work by the era’s most significant sculptor/restorers. Moreover, Italian sculptors of the 18th and early 19th centuries are represented only by Antonio Canova and Lorenzo Bartolini, so this acquisition helps expand the story. And genre subjects in sculpture—aside from the terracottas by Clodion and a handful of Renaissance bronzes—are not well represented in the collection, so the Franzoni provides an important link to the works of 19th-century animal sculptors such as Antoine-Louis Barye. 

We won the Franzoni sculpture at auction last July. After a deft cleaning by objects conservator Shelley Paine, the work was installed in Gallery 10, dedicated to art around 1800 and particularly to the theme of the recovery and re-imagining of antiquity. It rests under two paintings of ruins by Hubert Robert.