Bronzed beauty in city of Romeo and Juliet
Joseph De Levis & Company By Charles Avery Philip Wilson Publishers, £40 Reviewed by Julia Weiner
IT IS nearly 50 years since Dr Charles Avery, former Deputy Director of Sculpture at the V&A and then a director at Christies, first became interested in the work of Joseph de Levis and Company, a bronze foundry in Verona that produced work in the 16th and 17th centuries. This new catalogue raisonné includes discussion of all the 45 signed pieces by Joseph himself (1552-c.1614) as well as pieces by his brother Santo and his sons and nephews who continued his work.
While Joseph de Levis did not sign any works with overtly Jewish links, his successors produced Chanukah lamps, and mortars decorated with Menorot and Hebrew inscriptions for use by medics.
The book offers fascinating insights into Jewish life in a small town in Renaissance Italy. But how Jewish was Joseph de Levis? Interestingly, we have more concrete evidence about his nephews and sons because all but one of them were baptised, whereas Santo and Joseph were not (the book reveals that before becoming bronze casters, Santo was a cheese-maker and Joseph a silk weaver). And Avery points out that de Levis signed works as Joseph rather than the Italian Giuseppe.
The brothers produced a range of objects, many for Christian use, including bells for churches as far away as Genoa, Mantua and Milan. Joseph also made table bells which were, in the Renaissance, “adjuncts and symbols of power”, as can be seen from the inclusion of one on the table beside Pope Leo X in the famous portrait by Raphael. De Levis collaborated with sculptor Angelo de Rossi on a number of pieces with figurative elements including a pair of firedogs surmounted with sculptures of Jupiter and Venus which were acquired by the V&A in 1857 shortly after its opening and which first aroused Avery’s interest in De Levis. Perhaps the most striking of his sculptures is (from the Walker Gallery, Liverpool) of a man with the bronze cast head inserted into shoulders and a pedestal carved of red Verona marble, in which, Avery observes, the white veins of the marble provide “a substitute for the imitations of brocade”. The finest piece included is a ewer, formerly in the collection of Adele de Rothschild and sold at auction for £276,000 in 2002.
Five of Joseph and Santo’s sons worked in the foundry, though one, Giovanni Battista became a painter. A number of Chanukah lamps have been attributed to this generation, among them a beautiful example now in the Israel Museum where three cherubs intertwine to make up the back of the lamp. Along with mortars decorated with Menorot and Hebrew script, one of which was commissioned by a Jewish doctor, this suggests the foundry began to produce work for the expanding Jewish community of the city.
The plentifully illustrated text is academic in style but presents many interesting insights into the foundry’s work, including how bells were cast. Avery’s book is especially welcome since, as he says, because the foundry specialised in bells and mortars, it is “all too frequently regarded as beneath the notice of the historian of sculpture”.
Julia Weiner is a history of art lecturer and the JC’s art critic
Chanukah lamp, Israel Museum