THE three cases in the middle of GALLERY 2 are arranged with the smaller and more precious objects in the Benjamin Altman Collection. In de-scribing them the four pieces of Goldsmiths’ Work and Jewelry in CASE B will be discussed first. Next, the Enamels will be taken as a whole, passing from the two earlier pieces in CASE B to the remaining pieces in the central case, CASE C. Finally the Rock Crystals will be described, proceeding from the four pieces in CASE B to the remaining pieces in CASE A.
In CASE B the eye is immediately attracted by the exquisite Triptych of Milanese workmanship, late fifteenth century, the oval of the triptych proper surmounted by a crucifix with the figure of our Lord. The doors are of gold enameled in translucent colors basse taille with a representation of the Nativity on the outer side; on the inside, to the right and left respectively, the Delphic and Erythraean Sibyls, who were supposed to have foretold the virgin birth. These doors, when open, show a superb clouded agate with an intaglio of Saint Sebastian. On the reverse of the central panel, in translucent enamels on gold, there is a splendid vesica shaped glory with a representation of our Lady and the Holy Child as described in the words of the Apocalypse, “And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun and the moon under her feet.” The scrolls bear the usual inscriptions, Primo genitum peperit filium suum, “she brought forth her first born son,” and on the reverse, Ora pro nabis S. Sebastiane, pray for us, Saint Sebastian.”
To a great many, the history of goldsmiths’ work and jewelry in the sixteenth century revolves around the name of one man Benvenuto Cellini. Goldsmith, jeweler, sculptor, and medalist, a protégé of popes and princes, he has left to us in his Autobiography a singularly vivid and picturesque account of his life. While it is impossible to accept at face value the belief in his powers which a candid self-glorification reveals to us, or even to allow him a place as a genius who has moulded an age or founded a school, his fame rests secure as an extraordinary artist and a most admirable and splendid technician, versed in all the secrets of his art.
One of the greatest treasures of the Altman Collection is the Cup or salt cellar of gold and enamel, generally called the Rospigliosi Coupe (CASE B), by Benvenuto Cellini, dating to the second quarter of the sixteenth century. It belonged formerly to Prince Rospigliosi of Rome, who inherited it from his grandfather, Prince D. Clementi Rospigliosi, Grand Master at the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. Prince Rospigliosi did not have any documents of a nature to establish positively the absolute authenticity of the attribution. On the other hand, modern criticism has been able to trace definitely, from the descriptions in Cellini’s writings, but one of the larger pieces which Benvenuto classed under the comprehensive term “grosseria.” This single piece, the salt cellar made for François I of France, is now at Vienna. However, Pion and other men, who have devoted themselves to a study of Cellini and his works, hold that this ” Rospigliosi Coupe” is undoubtedly his handiwork, the sumptuousness of the design, the subtlety of its workmanship, and the richness of the enameling corresponding to a taste of which no other artist of the time was capable. I t is entirely of gold, the basin fashioned in the form of a shell, polished on the inner side to receive the salt, if this be in reality a salt cellar. A fantastical dragon with wings outstretched supports the basin and is in turn sup-ported by a tortoise enameled in yellow and black. But it is upon the Sphinx, seated upon the rim of the shell, that Cellini has lavished the utmost resources of his workmanship. The figure is beautifully modeled, while the wings and tail are enameled with transparent greens, reds, and blues of an extraordinary brilliance. A great pearl falls from her breast and smaller pearls are in her ears.
Another piece in CASE B, a Cup of jasper, also in the form of a shell, is mounted in enameled gold. A fanciful marine dog sits on the lip of the cup. It is a charming piece of workmanship, quite characteristic of the more florid taste of the later part of the sixteenth century.
The most distinctive form of Renaissance jewelry is the pendant. With the exception of crucifixes, it usually takes the form, in the later part of the sixteenth century, of an elaborate figured subject, the precious stones in themselves being of secondary importance. Very typical is the Pendant in CASE B. It is of gold, the beautifully modeled and enameled figure of Neptune standing in an architectural niche, while on the reverse Neptune rides upon his sea chariot drawn by the dolphins. It is set with diamonds and rubies and with the pendant pearls which are particularly characteristic of jewelry of this period.