Late sixteenth-century writers on the arts in Italy and Holland alike extolled Willem de Tetrode as one of the preeminent European sculptors of his day. Yet because many of his most important works have been lost or destroyed – and also, perhaps, because art historians have given Dutch sculpture as a whole little attention – it is only very recently that Tetrode’s artistic identity has begun to come into focus. Most of the objects in the 2003 Tetrode exhibitions in Amsterdam and New York are given to the artist on the basis of recently advanced stylistic arguments that tie the manner of those works, directly or indirectly, to the sculptor’s only surviving documented statues: the bronze reductions of famous antiquities that Tetrode is known to have made in 1559 for Count Niccolò Orsini of Pitigliano. The ideas are fresh enough that a show such as this one would have been inconceivable even twenty years ago. It provided the best opportunity the public is likely to have for some time to evaluate the work of this understudied master.
The earliest records of Tetrode’s activities relate to his undertakings in the workshop of Benvenuto Cellini in Florence between 1548 and 1551. New research, carried out in preparation for the exhibition, confirms the recent suggestion that, though Cellini had many assistants working on bronzes in these years, Tetrode himself acted exclusively as a marble sculptor. As Frits Scholten, the exhibition’s curator, points out in his catalogue essay, the documents relating to this period imply that Tetrode, in contrast to others in the Cellini shop, had not been trained as a metalsmith. It is easy to imagine that, were it not for the iconoclastic demolition of church decorations in Delft in 1573, Tetrode would be best known today for monumental works in stone.
This makes it all the more noteworthy that nearly every statue in the exhibition was bronze. What roles are we to imagine Tetrode to have had in their production? In the catalogue, Emile van Binnebeke quotes an intriguing 1560 letter by Chiappino Vitelli, who wrote that the Orsini bronzes ‘were cast by [Tetrode]’ (82). By contrast, the catalogue’s informative essay on casting technique, researched collaboratively by four of the most knowledgable people currently working on the subject and written by Francesca Bewer, notes that Tetrode worked with a professional founder when making the Orsini statues (101), and refers more generally to ‘sculptor-founder team[s]’ (108) responsible for other works. Adding to the unclarity here are the dates given in the captions to the Tetrode works illustrated in the catalogue’s essays. As the entries at the end of the catalogue reveal, those dates are, on the whole, not the dates its authors associate with the making of the bronzes, but rather the dates of sometimes much earlier presumed models (none of which is documented, and none of which survives) on which the bronzes are based. Should we conclude, then, that Tetrode exemplifies a seemingly new late sixteenth-century professional possibility – of making a career primarily as a modeler? As visitors to the exhibitions could see, finally, the bronzes associated with Tetrode also vary dramatically. Some are masterpieces of metalworking, while others – including a number of the Orsini bronzes – are poorly cast and hastily finished. Where there are multiples, significant differences are often visibly apparent: the surface modeling of the Hamburg Bacchus lacks the delicacy of its Cambridge double, and the two figures are strikingly different in size. In cases where it is possible to see original patination, this, too, can differ sharply from work to work. What, in these cases, is the genealogical relationship between the versions?
That it is now possible even to formulate questions along these lines is a great credit to Scholten. Between this exhibition and the splendid Adriaen de Vries show of 2000, Scholten has done more to advance the study of Dutch sculpture than anyone in recent memory.
University of Pennsylvania