Any attempt to identify the subject of this terracotta model has to begin from a close observation of the male figure at the centre of the composition, characterised by the appearance of the terracotta which gives the impression of movement and is engraved with thin parallel lines which may be seen beneath the surface. The terracotta would seem to represent Zeus’ thunderbolts and, therefore, the subject of the figure would appear to be the meeting of Jupiter and Semele. According to the legend, the god, instigated by Juno, his jealous wife, presented himself (in divine semblance) to Semele, his lover. However, the power of his thunderbolts, as Juno had predicted, had burnt her to a shrivel. A feature of the cloak with which the god intends to cover or uncover the female figure at his feet is, on the other hand, generally associated with the representation of the myth of Vulcan, the God of Fire, depicted at the moment he discovers his wife, Venus’, betrayal of him with Mars. Nevertheless, the absence in this composition of any reference to Mars, not even evoked by any sort of warlike attribute, would suggest that the real interpretation of the subject, and the one we intend to adopt here, concerns the meeting of Jupiter and Semele.
The scene is defined by architectural elements that might allude to the bed on which the act of adultery is consumed. Jupiter and the little cherub by his side stand upon a rectangular element that terminates on one side by a volute, or spiral. Semele, on the other hand, is leaning, with the upper part of her body, on a low semi-circular structure. A second cherub completes the picture and is kneeling at the far right of the group, now lacking both arms and any attributes that might have enabled us to identify him as Cupid.
The techniques of Lombard late-baroque sculpture are evident in the model under examination, in particular those artists who, between the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries worked in and around the Cathedral of Milan. The closest comparisons may be made with the works of Carlo Francesco Mellone, the artist who had contributed more than any other artist at that time to the renewal of local sculpture towards a so-called Lombard barocchetto style.
Carlo Francesco Mellone (sometimes called Melone – with one ‘l’ - in documents) was born in Milan on September 14th 1670. As he himself declared, he had undertaken his artistic training in the school of architecture of the Cathedral of Milan as a pupil of Carlo Simonetta (Milan circa 1635 – June 10th 1693) before leaving for Rome for five years to perfect his skills. Having returned to Milan, between July and August 1693 he applied to be admitted to the group of sculptors who were on the pay-roll of the Cathedral of Milan’s fabbrica, or workers’ yard. As a matter of fact, Simonetta’s place had become free since he had died the previous month and had held the position of cathedral protostatuario, the person in charge of all of the cathedral fabbrica’s sculptors as well as the person whose duty, according to contract, was also to teach a certain number of pupils. Mellone was in turn elected protostatuario on December 30th 1715 and towards August, 1717, Mellone left again for Rome in order to sculpt the relief for the urn in the Monument to Pope Gregory XIII in St Peter’s, under the guidance of Camillo Rusconi. Having returned to Milan in 1720, he once again took up the post of cathedral protostatuario which he kept until a year before he died whilst continuing in parallel fashion to undertake other works for important Lombard workers’ yards.
In his first work sculpted for the Cathedral of Milan, the Saint Rosalia, finished in May 1695, Mellone proposed the figure of a woman that was light and giving the impression of movement. The figure was almost “de-materialised” beneath her robes. This would have appeared to be innovative in the eyes of the local sculptors who were still solidly anchored to the Roman models of the Seventeenth century.
We know of no other work realised before 1695 and neither do we have any news of his first stay in Rome even though we can imagine that in the Eternal City he frequented the considerable group of Lombard artists who had arrived in Rome to seek fortune. During those few years he must have frequented the workshop of the Milanese Camillo Rusconi who was a sculptor and who he had most certainly already met in the fabbrica of the Cathedral of Milan where Rusconi had undertaken his apprenticeship as the pupil of Giuseppe Rusnati. There was little coincidence therefore when Mellone paid tribute to his early works in Rome with Rusconi when he sculpted the Eight Virtues between 1701 and circa 1710 for the Collegio Ghislieri in Pavia. The latter Virtues were inspired both by the four Virtues made in stucco by Rusconi in the Church of Saint Ignatius, already on display in 1686, and the four other Virtues preserved in the same church, the work of other artists from his circle. These are a group of statues that have always been recognised as among the earliest Rococo examples of late Roman Baroque.
The prestige of the commission from Pavia which, apart from the Virtues, also included the statue of Saint Pius V (also kept in the Collegio Ghislieri), tells us to what degree the thirty-year-old Mellone was considered one of the best sculptors in the Duchy of Milan at the beginning of the Eighteenth century. He had achieved his full artistic maturity by that time and his work involved commissions that came from outside of the Cathedral of Milan workers’ yard. Both the works for the major altar of the Milanese Church of Saint Nazaro (among which there was the model for the tabernacle with the Entombment in bronze by Giuseppe Fontana) and the beautiful Madonna with Child in marble (today kept in the same church but sculpted before 1708) were realised during the first decade of the Eighteenth century. The latter work was made for Francesco Settala, a person in close contact with Milan’s most contemporary artistic circles and “endowed with a fine understanding of painting and all the liberal arts”.
Among these stylistically homogenous group of works, Mellone appears as a sort of mediator between what was being elaborated in Rome and the artistic culture in Lombardy that was able, on its own, to rely on international solicitations coming directly from the France of Louis XIV and from the Courts north of the Alps, destinations that welcomed many emigrating Lombard artists seeking work.
Focusing now on the group of Jupiter and Semele, it would appear to be in harmony with this first period of Mellone’s career in Milan, characterised by his preference for sharp and graceful forms that would evolve into larger and more consistent shapes after the first fifteen years or so.
The particular features favoured by the artist may be recognised in Semele’s face, characterised by a delicate oval shape and with a mouth that was very small and with swollen eyelids. Mellone repeated these features (with few variations) in the figures he realised throughout his entire career. If we limit any comparison to the terracotta figures we already know, similar lineaments may be seen in the Sybil in the Museo del Duomo – or Cathedral Museum - of the Cathedral of Milan (of uncertain date), the Patience in Munich (perhaps linkable to a document from 1729) and the Liberality at Novara’s Museo Civico from around 1732.
With reference to these latter works, other characteristics include the way in which the material folds upon itself making geometrical triangles and the lithe fingers and the physiognomy of the cherubs. However, the most indicative feature might well be the elaborate hairstyle of the goddess that was far from any classical reference and inspired it would seem by the “coiffure à la fontange” that had become fashionable at the Court of Louis XIV at the start of the century. Both in the Saint Rosalia of the Cathedral and the later Sincerity by Caravaggio in the Sanctuary, Mellone sculpts similar “modern” hairstyles that lend – to a considerable degree - a certain late-baroque grace to his figures.
These features, however, do not prevent us from noticing the substantially Bernini-like character of the composition that documents how deep the link was between the sculptor and artistic culture in Rome. The Jupiter who theatrically bursts into space pays homage indeed to the fountains designed by Bernini, from the Neptune designed for the fountain of Cardinal Montalto’s villa (London, Victoria and Albert Museum) to the Moor designed for the fountain of Piazza Navona. The hairstyle of the latter statue, sitting on the forward part of the head as if blown by the wind is evoked in the same way that the curls of hair are modelled on the statue of Jupiter.
A comparison with the charcoal studies carried out by Bernini for the commission received in 1652 to design the fountains of the Este palace in Sassuolo also appear highly relevant here. These fountains were carried out in part by Bernini’s pupil, Antonio Raggi. The physiognomy of Mellone’s Jupiter may be compared to the Neptune and the River God with Dolphin sketched by Gian Lorenzo Bernini on papers preserved in Windsor Castle and at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. However, a more interesting comparison may be made with two further original studies preserved in the royal collections in Great Britain that were also connected to the Este commission. The studies featured a Fountain with Neptune and Amphitrite which was never sculpted.
In this particular case, Bernini had imagined the river god as if climbing upon a rocky spur and bending over the goddess who lay undressed at his feet. Such an idea for a statue finds evident similarities with the figure under examination here.
Due to the fact that we do not know the original destination of the statue we might surmise that the group of Jupiter and Semele was created as the model for a fountain or a group that was destined for a garden. Nevertheless, there is one different and more convincing possibility. In the Cathedral Museum in Milan there is a model, also in terracotta, that bears an exceptionally close relationship with the work of art under discussion here although it was actually sculpted by an artist who was less skilled and to this day still unknown.
In this particular model, there are two cherubs missing as are the flames beneath the male figure. However, the two characters are portrayed in the same way as the terracotta attributed here to Mellone, both with respect to the female figure and to her elaborate hairstyle.
It would be difficult to believe that such resemblances were merely accidental and therefore we should wonder whether the existence of this second model among the works at the Cathedral Museum was a clue that the figure under examination was also intended for the same customer.
This hypothesis is not as hazardous as it might initially seem since we have to bear in mind that as well as commissioning (and keeping) the preparatory models for the single statues in marble destined for the cathedral (all obviously holy in nature) the representatives at the factory set up proper exams each and every time a new “fixed” (salaried) sculptor had to be chosen from a series of possible candidates. This also occurred when an artist died and the workshop had to be allocated to someone else or when a particularly prestigious commission was to be assigned. It was a sort of contest to which a variety of sculptors were invited to take part with each artist interpreting the work in his own particular way. According to what studies have so far been able to establish, in these aforementioned cases, the preferences of the representatives favoured the choice of more complex subjects, often profane in character, with characters that interacted with each other in one single scene so as to put the candidates’ compositional abilities to the test. This would have been the case for the beautiful model with the Dream of Endymion (Milan, Cathedral Museum) which was presented in 1725 as the admission test for the “fixed” sculptors at the cathedral by Elia Vincenzo Buzzi (1708 – 1780), at the time Mellone’s most skilled pupil.
The Jupiter and Semele group might therefore have been sculpted in a similar context. The high level of quality in the modelling as well as comparisons with other documented works by Mellone would suggest the work being attributed to this particular sculptor during those years, after his first stay in Rome and before being elected as a protostatuario in 1715, when his position inside the cathedral factory’s (or fabbrica’s) complex hierarchy system was still uncertain. A comparison with the model kept in the Cathedral Museum, although simpler in composition and weaker from a modelling point of view, would suggest that this particular work was derived from the group sculpted by Mellone, probably realised by one of the cathedral sculpture school’s pupils who has yet to be identified.
• V. Caprara, Nuovi documenti su Carlo Francesco Melone, in “Civiltà ambrosiana”, 16, 1999, pages 45-51. Further biographical documentation regarding Mellone is preserved in the Archivio della Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano (from now on, the AFDM), especially the file of Occorrenze Particolari (from now on, the O.P.), 156/30.
• An initial profile of Mellone’s work outside the cathedral in S. Zanuso, Schede di scultura barocca in San Nazaro, in “Nuovi Studi”, 1, 1996, pages 167-174.
• Rusconi had arrived in Rome towards 1684-1685, just in time to find work in the studio of Lombard, Ercole Ferrata who died in 1686 (R. Engass, Camillo Rusconi 1658-1728, in, Early Eighteenth Century Sculpture in Rome, University Park – London 1976, pages 89-106.
• For further information regarding Rusconi’s Virtues and regarding the other four Virtues in Saint Ignatius (modelled by Jacopo Antonio Lavaggi, Simone Giorgini, Francesco Nuvolone and Giovanni Rinaldi) please see R. Engass, Rusconi and Raggi in St. Ignazio, in “The Burlington Magazine”, CXVI, 1974, pages 258-262.
• For information regarding Mellone as the supplier of models for metal sculptures please see S. Zanuso, A Pair of Putti from Palazzo Annoni and Bronze Sculpture of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries in Lombardy, Milano Carlo Orsi, 2013.
• R. Bossaglia, M. Cinotti, Tesoro e Museo del Duomo, Milano 1978, page 31, cat. 264.
• Zanuso 1996, in note 3.
• In order to reconstruct the complex series of events concerning the six marble statues in the Sanctuary of Caravaggio, a commission inherited by Mellone in 1715 by Stefano Sampietro and completed in 1739 by Carlo Beretta, please refer to documents published by Caprara 1999, in note 2.
• The drawings mentioned and, in general, Bernini’s fountains for Sassuolo are topics discussed in the recent, A. Bacchi, Sculture e apparati decorative. Bernini a Sassuolo, in Il Palazzo di Sassuolo dei Duchi d’Este, edited by F. Trevisani, Parma 2004, pages 47-54.
• Renata Bossaglia attributed it to Giuseppe Perego and emphasised the difficulty in identifying the subject that, according to the scholar, might have been identified as Hercules and Deianira or the Truth Revealed by Time (Tesoro e Museo del Duomo, Milano 1978, page 33, cat. 294). M. Di Giovanni Madruzza (in Settecento Lombardo, exhibition catalogue edited by R. Bossaglia and V. Terraroli, Milano 1991, page 335, cat. II.51) thought that it might be the model for Pluto who kidnaps Proserpina assigned in 1725 as an admission test for the “fixed” sculptors at the fabbrica to Pietro Martire Sanctus, a sculptor of whom we know very little today. However, the two figures do not represent a kidnapping scene and so the model cannot be identified with the one commissioned to Sanctus.
• C. M. Anselmi, L’uso dei modelli nel cantiere del duomo: tecnica, prassi e cronologia, in La Galleria di Camposanto. I modelli delle sculture del duomo di Milano, edited by G. Benati, Milano 2009, pages 41-61.