Approaching the second anniversary of the opening of the Medieval & Renaissance Galleries, we have some exciting new arrivals to the galleries on long loan from Her Majesty the Queen – three magnificent bronze busts by Leone Leoni (1509-1590), one of the great unsung heroes of Italian Renaissance sculpture. The busts, installed in late September, took up their commanding positions in Gallery 63, ‘A World of Goods 1450-1600’, which is devoted to international relations.
This is an ideal location for the busts, which portray Habsburg Emperors Charles V and his son Philip II, alongside the man who commissioned them, Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, the third Duke of Alba – a general and steward to both Charles and Philip. Notorious for his brutality, Alba ordered the massacre of tens of thousands of people while Governor of the Spanish Netherlands in 1567-73. Although Alba was no ruler, it is impossible to distinguish his status from that of his imperial masters. All are portrayed in richly-decorated armour in the antique style (all’antica), and around their necks is the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
The Order, represented by the dead sheep suspended from the collar, was established in 1430 by the Duke of Burgundy. By the sixteenth-century, there were fifty Catholic knights, plus the Habsburg King of Spain as sovereign. Charles – whose bust can now be seen adjacent to his exquisite cabinet – bestowed the Order on both Alba and on his son Philip, to whom the Empire passed when Charles abdicated in 1556. The inscription on the base of Philip’s bust declares him as ‘King of England, etc.’, a title to which he acceded on marrying Mary Tudor in 1554. On that occasion, Alba accompanied Philip to England, arriving at Winchester Cathedral with an impressive entourage of 6,000 men. This helps to date the busts, as it was only for the short period from his marriage in 1564 until he became Emperor in 1566 that Philip would have used that title so prominently. The famous painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari noted that Alba commissioned the three busts from the talented sculptor Leone Leoni, who was paid for them in 1568. We know from descriptions that they stood together in Alba’s castle in Salamanca in central Spain until it was destroyed by fire in 1813 during the Peninsular War, and the current arrangement follows the order described in the travelogue of Antonio Ponz in 1793. The busts have been in the Royal Collection since 1825, when they were purchased by George IV on the London art market.
The sculptor Leoni led a colourful life. He was accused of counterfeiting while working at the papal mint in Ferrara, and on attacking his accuser, was sentenced to lose his right hand. Thanks to some powerful friends, his sentence was commuted, and he spent a year as a galley slave instead. He was released following the entreaties of the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, whom he commemorated in medals and plaquettes, one of which is on display. Despite his sometimes unruly temper, Leoni established himself as an outstanding medallist and sculptor, based primarily in Milan, with a particular talent for portraiture. Some of his medals can be seen nearby to the busts in gallery 64, including an intriguing one of Michelangelo, which Leoni sent to the great master with the words ‘keep it and look after it for the love of me’.
Unlike Michelangelo, Leoni is hardly a household name today, but in his lifetime, he gained great fame and fortune through his art and, no doubt, his personality. This was in no small measure due to Charles V, who commissioned numerous important works from him, gave him a house near Milan cathedral, and in November 1549 made him an imperial knight. The image we have of Charles V today was fashioned through the sculptures of Leone Leoni, and the paintings of Leoni’s rival Titian. The V&A holds the greatest collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture outside Italy, and the most extensive bronzes collection in the world, but we have nothing quite like these stunning portraits, so we are particularly delighted to have them on loan. The current loan is a partnership between the V&A and the Royal Collection Trust, a charity dedicated to the care and wider enjoyment of the Royal Collection. More details on the Royal Collection can be found on their website www.royalcollection.org.uk