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Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias

  • Object:

    Plaquette

  • Place of origin:

    Padua (city) (probably, made)
    Venice (probably, made)

  • Date:

    1500-1525 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Ulocrino (maker)
    Briosco, Andrea Il Riccio, born 1470 - died 1532 (maker)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Bronze

  • Credit Line:

    Bequeathed by Mr George Salting

  • Museum number:

    A.423-1910

  • Gallery location:

    Medieval & Renaissance, Room 64, The Wolfson Gallery, case SS3

The Renaissance interest in Greek philosophy is shown in this image of Aristotle (right) and Alexander of Aphrodisias (left). Alexander was perhaps the most famous commentator on Aristotle’s work in ancient times.
The format of the plaquette was developed in the mid 15th century, the best examples were produced between c.1485 and 1530, and were limited to central and northern Italy. In their purest form they were by definition light and of a size that could be held comfortably in the hand for close inspection. Unlike portarait medals they were one sided. They were modest in their relief and often used rilievo schiacciato, a very shallow form of relief, to give a subtle illusion of depth, as used with aplomb to depict the hill-town in the backround of this plaquette.

Physical description

Aristotle is sitting under a sparse tree gesturing as if in discussion. He faces left in profile and wears a flattened hat. He has a closed book in his lap and another beside him on the ground. A hare or rabbit sits in the bottom right-hand corner beside the book. On the left Alexander of Aphrodisias stands before Aristotle holding an open book, dressed in a turban and robes. In the background between them lies a fortified hill-town in very faint relief. There is a hole pierced in the top.

Place of Origin

Padua (city) (probably, made)
Venice (probably, made)

Date

1500-1525 (made)

Artist/maker

Ulocrino (maker)
Briosco, Andrea Il Riccio, born 1470 - died 1532 (maker)

Materials and Techniques

Bronze

Marks and inscriptions

'.ALEX.APH.ARIS.'
Inscribed at the top to the left. The pierced hole covers part of the A of ARIS

Dimensions

Height: 7.45 cm, Width: 5.75 cm cm, Depth: 0.4 cm max., Weight: 0.1 kg

Object history note

From the Salting bequest.

Historical significance: As most plaquettes were either religious, allegorical, or depicted a scene from Greek or Roman mythology, the subject matter of Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias is unusual in its depiction of real historical figures from Ancient Greece. Aristotle is sitting under the tree gesturing as if in discussion, a book in his lap and another beside him on the ground. Alexander of Aphrodisia’s Eastern origins are emphasised. He is depicted in a turban and robes, the costume of an Ottoman Turk, as the ancient city of Aphrodisias is located in modern day Turkey. He stands before Aristotle holding an open book. In the background between them lies a fortified hill-town in very faint relief. The Hare or rabbit sitting next to Aristotle may represent his interest in natural history; his varied and numerous works included Historia Animalium – a sort of predecessor of the medieval bestiary.

This imagined scene would have been impossible in reality, as the great Greek philosopher Aristotle lived between 384-322 B.C., whereas Alexander of Aphrodisias, who was also a philosopher and the most famous commentator on Aristotle, was active in later antiquity, in the late second and early third century AD. Alexander of Aphrodisias was a commentator in the ancient tradition of writing close commentaries on Aristotle’s numerous and varied works, a tradition established in the first century BC. His fame as an exemplary commentator continued throughout later antiquity and the Middle Ages, when Thomas Aquinas regarded his work as an important source of information about the true Aristotelian doctrine.

Alexander’s writings were rediscovered in the late 15th century with the rise of Renaissance Aristotelianism, as part of humanist revival of classical studies. Most Renaissance philosophy makes either direct or indirect use of Aristotle’s texts, and in many of the Renaissance universities philosophy was taught by the interpretation of texts by Aristotle and often involved the use of textbooks derived from works by him and his commentators. The first Italian edition of Aristotle’s complete works were printed in Venice in 1483. The Latin translation of Alexander’s de Anima was printed in Venice in 1495 and was reprinted several times. Considering the intellectual interest in Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias contemporary to the production of the plaquette, the fantasy of an imagined physical meeting between the two philosophers makes sense, resulting in the production of a plaquette with an unusual historical and literary subject matter.

Plaquettes such as this were collected by humanist scholars, and the style and subject matter reflects the ubiquitous passion for all things connected to ancient Greece and Rome in the Renaissance. There is pictorial evidence that they would have been suspended or displayed on shelves in the scholars study amongst original antiquities and other objects all’antica. As a format it died out in Italy at the end of the 16th century, possibly as improving knowledge of the art objects of ancient Greece and Rome rendered the manufacture of objects simply ‘in the antique style’ less desirable. However, concurrently plaquettes had gained popularity in Northern Europe during the 1500’s, and flourished there for 200 years where they were particularly strong in Nuremberg and Ausberg in Germany, already centres of metalwork production.

Plaquettes in Renaissance Italy developed from the growing interest in the visual and intellectual cultures of the classical world, and had their place in the collection and display of classical art and artefacts. This plaquette by Ulocrino gives us an interesting example of a primarily intellectual classical subject matter manifesting itself in the visual arts in Renaissance Italy.

Historical context note

The format of the plaquette was developed in the mid 15th century, arguably by the artist Filarete and Cardinal Pietro Barbo, later Pope Paul II, (1464-1471), in the bronze foundries he established in Rome. Pietro Barbo was a renowned collector and patron.

The best examples of Italian plaquettes were produced between c.1485 and 1530, and were limited to central and northern Italy. In their purest form they were by definition light and of a size that could be held comfortably in the hand for close inspection. Unlike portrait medals they were one sided. They were modest in their relief and often used rilievo schiacciato, a very shallow form of relief, to give a subtle illusion of depth, as used to the extreme for the hill-town in the backround of this plaquette. This differentiates the plaquette from larger bronze reliefs, along with the fact that up to 50 were cast from the same moulds. Plaquettes were usually bronze like this Ulocrino relief, but they were also cast in brass, lead or precious metals.

Whilst religious plaquettes had both public and private functions, and mounted religious plaquettes, known as paxes, were held up during mass for the kiss of peace, those with a secular subject matter such as these were usually for private, personal use. They were used as pendants, desk ornaments, and applied to functional objects such as pounce-pots. They were also valued as fine miniature works of art. Plaquettes had a role in disseminating classical imagery and designs throughout Europe, in the same manner as the contemporary print. The subject matter was often a miniature composition, only rarely a single isolated figure. The artist Moderno is widely regarded as the most accomplished designer in this medium.

Descriptive line

Plaquette, bronze, Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias, by Ulocrino, Italy (Padua), ca. 1500-25

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Rossi, Francesco "Ancient Gems and the Origin of the Plaquette" in Alison Luchs, ed. Italian Plaquettes Vol 22 Studies in the History of Art, NGA Washington 1989.
Jestaz, Bertrand "Riccio and Ulocrino" in Alison Luchs, ed. Italian Plaquettes Vol 22 Studies in the History of Art, NGA Washington 1989.
Pope-Hennessy, John, Renaissance Bronzes from the Samuel H. Kress Collection Phaidon Press for the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, London 1965, pp. 70-72.
Kuhn, Heinrich, "Aristotelianism in the Renaissance", in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2005 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
Frede, Dorothea, "Alexander of Aphrodisias", in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy(Winter 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
Morrison, Donald R. "'Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias' by Ulocrino" in Sorabi, Richard, ed.Aristotle Transformed: The Anchient Commentators and their Influence, London: Duckworth 1990, pp.481-484.
'Salting Bequest (A. 70 to A. 1029-1910) / Murray Bequest (A. 1030 to A. 1096-1910)'. In: List of Works of Art Acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum (Department of Architecture and Sculpture). London: Printed under the Authority of his Majesty's Stationery Office, by Eyre and Spottiswoode, Limited, East Harding Street, EC, p. 66
Maclagan, Eric. Catalogue of Italian Plaquettes . London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1924, p. 27

Labels and date

PLAQUETTE with Aristotle and Alexander of Aphrodisias
About 1500-25
Ulocrino (active about 1500-25)

The Renaissance interest in Greek philosophy is shown in this image of Aristotle (right) and Alexander of Aphrodisias (left). Alexander was perhaps the most famous commentator on Aristotle's work in ancient times. The sculptor, Ulocrino, is known only from his signature. His identity and life remain a mystery.

Italy, Padua

Bronze

Museum no. A.423-1910 [2008]

Production Note

We know little about the artist, Ulocrino. What we do know for certain is there is a coherent body of work with this signature, from between 1485 and 1530, of a style and subject matter that suggests Padua or Venice. The compatability of this body of plaquettes by Ulocrino, of which these are two examples, with works by the renowned Paduan sculptor Andrea Briosco, called 'Riccio', has led to the suggestion that they might be by the hand of Riccio, signing under a pseudonym. 'Riccio' means 'curly-haired' in Italian, and it has been mooted that Ulocrino could be a hybrid of the Greek Oulos and Latin crinis that would also mean 'curly-haired'.

This theory that Ulocrino can be associated with Riccio has been rejected by many because of differences in style with a body of signed Riccio plaquettes, and the fact that such word-games were very popular in the Reniassance which would account for the similar nickname if Ulocrino also had curly hair. But a similarity with Riccio’s later sculpture, and some doubt on the identity of some plaquettes traditionally ascribed to Riccio in recent years, has confused matters further. In summary, is possible that Ulocrino is Riccio's signature in the later stages of his career.

Materials

Bronze

Subjects depicted

Book; Tree; Towers; Rabbit; Town; Hare; Hill

Categories

Plaques & Plaquettes; Sculpture; Myths & Legends

Collection

Sculpture Collection

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