French school, of the second half of the 16th century
The Forge of Vulcan
Oil on panel. 60.5 x 85.5 cm.
Dated upper centre: 1574.
Private collection, Austria.
This work shows a group of smiths around an anvil, swinging their hammers in broad, sweeping gestures. The smithy in question is the forge of Vulcan, where the god and his assistants are employed making love-arrows for Cupid, which are then collected by small putti crawling upon the ground among the men's legs. The diminutive god of love is shown to the right of the image, but he does not pay much attention to the industry of the smiths and instead looks towards his mother Venus, who accompanies him on his visit to the forge. The forge of Vulcan motif offered artists the opportunity to paint male nudes in a variety of dynamic poses, contrasting the virility of the male figures with the graceful beauty of Venus.
The work is dated 1574 to the centre, and is traditional ascribed to a French mannerist painter. It can be brought into connection with an engraving of the same subject by Léon Davent after a 16th century composition by Luca Penni (cf. fig. 1). The artist follows the engraving in the overall composition and the arrangement of the central motifs, such as the group of men and the architecture. However, the poses of the individual figures, the landscape background and the motif of putti collecting arrows - which forms a curious contrast to the powerful, industrious smiths - are all the artist's own inventions.
Lucca Penni's composition is a product of the School of Fontainebleau, which represents the height of French Mannerism. Penni, who referred to himself as “il Romano” despite being a Florentine, was among the artists belonging to the circle of Rosso Fiorentino and Primaticcio who were commissioned by King Francis I to carry out the painted décor of Fontainebleau palace. Following the king's death in 1547, Penni relocated to Paris. There he made numerous drawings as designs for engravings, for example the work for Léon Davent. Henri Zerner emphasises the importance of printed graphics for the development of the Mannerist style in France, and the present work is an excellent example of this phenomenon (cf. Henri Zerner: Renaissance Art in France. The Invention of Classicism. Paris 2003, p. 125ff).