The long history of bronze has had many dark ages spaced through it, and the lost sculptures overwhelmingly outnumber the survivals. Among them the bronze Colossus of Rhodes, a wonder of the world, stood a hundred and twenty feet high for fifty-six years in the third century B.C., fell in an earthquake and lay in pieces where it had fallen for nine hundred years more. Not one fragment of the original survives, nor do we clearly know from the one surviving fragment of the one possible replica what it really looked like.
Before Rome conquered the world, another great event had shaped the history of bronze sculpture, the rise and fall of the empire of Alexander the Great. Alexander’s death did not bring on a Dark Age but rather an age of aesthetics not altogether different from our own. It created a new demand for bronze sculpture, but the function of that sculpture had changed. No longer were images made for sacerdotal purposes, to celebrate or propitiate gods or kings, but to please connoisseurs.
This is important, because the products of the two eras in which aeasthetics have dominated the arts are profoundly different from those of the ages that preceded them. The aesthetic phase that began with Alexander lasted six hundred years and embraced bot Hellenistic and Roman art. During those centuries it was secular rather than religious art that predominated.
This connoisseurship removed arts from their central connection with worship to an era where taste prevailed. The rise of Christianity put an end to this phase, which, after a gap of a thousand years gave place once again to a new consideration of aesthetics during the Renaissance. Hellenistic art, whether in Greece or Egypt or the Middle East, maintained something of its native flavor but changed direction. From India, where Buddha wore an imported Apollo’s head, to Alexandria, where small bronzes reached their highest technical perfection, sculpture became eclectic to please collectors, who usurped the position of the Gods.
Rome acquired its bronze sculpture by looting and by purchase. Countless bronzes left their places of origin in the baggage of Sulla and at the demand of Nero, while the dealers who supplied wealthy collectors ranged over the Western world as avidly as their descendants installed in Bond Street in London and New York. Antiques were in demand and forgery was widespread; the Greeks themselves forged or initiated their predecessors precisely as Ming craftsmen in China forged the bronzes of the Shang and Chou dynasties, hundred of years after these dynasties were dust.
Rome fell, and with this fall the West entered its most recent Dark Age, to the sound of execrations from the early Church which cursed Rome for her luxury and destroyed her brazen images with the greatest vigor. The destruction of Rome’s metal monopoly was accompanied by a loss of techniques; as the craftsmen died, or were killed, or gave up. But only the most ambitious techniques were lost. It was the monumental hollow cast bronze which ceased to be made. Bronze facture continued, especially in the Eastern Empire which passed it back to Western Europe in the form of minor artifacts.
The exception to this was the sequence of great bronze doors, many of which still survive. In the West, the earliest are those of Charlemagne at Aachen, cast in the ninth century. The sequence culminates in the great ”Doors of Paradise” made by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Florentine Baptistry in the years following 1425; perhaps the most influential single creation of the early Renaissanc
culptors like Bonnano, Oderisius, and Barisanus, like the Master of Hildesheim and Renier of Huy, together with many others whose names are lost,contributed to the great corpus of medieval bronze sculpture which is collectively known as ”Dinanderie’ because from Charlemagne’s time the city of Dinant on the Meuse was supreme in the field.
Although technically the processes of casting were simple, the reliefs on these doors become increasingly accomplished over the centuries. As sculpture, piously dedicated to God, they achieve a grandeur, a nobility and a simplicity of purpose, that make the bulk of Roman and Hellenistic art, aside from portrait sculpture, look tawdry.
During some thirteen hundred of these years, a monumental bronze equestrian statue remained standing in Rome as the result of an error of attribution. The fervid Christians, while bent on destroying pagan idols, believed this staue, which is actually of Marcus Aurelius, to represent the Christian emperor Constantine. Hence it survived. The other seminal masterpieces to be viewed with wonder were the four gilded bronze horses , made in Greece more than three centuries before Christ, which decorated the facade of St. mark’s in Venice from the thirteenth century on.
These ancient marvels could not be matched by medieval man, but were seen by Donatello,the sculptor who, like Ghiberti, bestrides the opening decades of the Renaissance. It was he who created for the first time since antiquity a monumental bronze equestrian statue, modeled on the antique and representing, in Roman splendor, a professional soldier of Venice called Erasmo de narni and nicknamed ”Gattamelata” . Erected in 1453, it stands to this day before the Church of San Antonio at Padua.