This lovely exquisite bronze oil lamp, dating to the beginning of the 16th century, depicts a naked dwarf-like man, crowned with vine leaves and seated astride a donkey's head. The dwarf's face is looking upwards with open mouth, while his hands are grabbing the vine branches that adorn the animal's head like a crown. On its forehead the donkey carries an opening for an oil reservoir, bordered by a beautiful rosette. A prow-shaped tongue, decorated underneath with palmettes, projects from its mouth, carrying an opening with a runnel for a wick. Attached to the man's back is a stylised vine branch wreathed in tendrils and forming a handle.
The lamp represents an allusion to the Bacchanalia, festivals in honour of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, whose companion and tutor Silenus was often portrayed so inebriated that he had to be carried by satyrs or a donkey.
This type of lamp, of which several variants still exist today, is believed to have been inspired by Antique bronze oil lamps that took the shape of masks and grotesque heads. Moreover, due to their stylistic likeness to these Antique bronze lamps, they themselves have, until fairly recently, often been erroneously classified as Antiques by various scholars. It was the Italian Renaissance philosopher and physician, Licetus (1577-1657), who first identified the sitting figure as Silenus and referred to passages from Ovid and Virgil linking together Silenus and the donkey as symbols of drunkenness. Licetus also suggested that the lamps would have been primarily used during the night-time, when inebriation was most likely to occur.
The numerous variants of this model mainly differ in the execution of the floral patterns as well as in the details of the head and hair of the sitting man. Some variants portray the latter like a foolish looking figure wearing a Phrygian cap, while others sport a monstrous satyr-like creature instead of a man. Further minor variations exist in the form of the handle, the configuration of the base, the opening for the oil reservoir and the shape of the spout.
The present outstanding bronze closely resembles examples from the Brunswick collection (inv. no. Bro 6), the V&A (inv. M.678-1910), the Uffizi and the Ashmolean museum (WA 1888.CDEF.B1101).
These figurative oil lamps were highly popular in 16th century Veneto, most notably in the university city of Padua. The great appreciation and estimation for these objects among the wealthy elite are demonstrated by the fact that several of the most renowned sculptors of the time produced exquisite variants of these lamps. This trend found its culmination in the extremely imaginative and elaborately decorated bronze lamps of Andrea Briosco, known as il Riccio, and his workshop, to whom, until recently, the present bronze has often been attributed on the basis of stylistic similarities. However, recent scholarship has argued against this, based on a lack of features that can be connected with the repertory of decorative forms used by il Riccio. A more likely origin is a different, unidentified North-Italian workshop, most likely in Padua.
The present oil lamp, like il Riccio's small bronzes, presents a distinctive expressionist modelling combined with a passion for the erudite themes that would have appealed to an audience in the university city of Padua. From Padua the lamps found their way into many prestigious art collections around Europe. It has been documented that casts of these highly sought-after lamps were present in the collections of the Duke of Medinaceli, the Dukes of Brunswick and in the collection of the Duke of Alcalá. There was an example in the Bargello as well as in the collection of the Venetian collector Onorio Arrigoni and the British collector Lyde Browne.
Allen, Denise Maria, and Peta Motture. Andrea Riccio: Renaissance master of bronze. The Frick Collection, 2008.
Berger, Ursel, and Volker Krahn. Bronzen der Renaissance und des Barock: Katalog der Sammlung. 1994.
Mariacher, Giovanni. Bronzetti veneti del Rinascimento: 181 tavole in nero e 8 a colori. N. Pozza, 1971.
Warren, J. Medieval and Renaissance Sculpture in the Ashmolean Museum, 3 vols., 2014.