Giovanni Francesco Susini

Giovanni Francesco Susini, “The Farnese Bull”, 1613, Bronze, 46.5 x 38 x 38 cm

Giovanni Francesco Susini, known as Gianfrancesco, was born in Florence, Italy, in 1585. He was trained as a junior member in the Florence workshop of Flemish sculptor Giambologna, where his uncle was the principal  bronze-caster. In 1624-1626, Gianfrancesco spent time in Rome where he experienced both the classical and the emerging statuary of the Baroque movement; however, he had already established for himself a Mannerist style of exaggeration and tension in his work.

Gianfrancesco’s first independent commission, by the Medici Grand Dukes, was a bronze bas-relief for a chapel altar in 1614. For a sculpture to be placed in the Medici family’s Boboli Gardens, he produced a small figurative bronze with thrashing figures set on a small oval plinth. Gianfrancesco also contributed two other works to the Boboli Gardens; “Cupid Breaking a Heart with a Hammer” and “Cupid Shooting an Arrow”, both set in the Vasca dell’Isola, or the Island Basin of the Gardens.  In 1615 for the main entrance of the Santissima Annunziata, he created two containers of bronze for holy water, acquasantiere, to be placed on the columns. 

Gianfrancesco’s designs usually employ complicated, balanced relationships of figures, usually two or three, meant to be appreciated from multiple viewpoints. All of his bronze smaller works, including the table sculptures, were finely cast and finished, viewable from all sides. 

Few sculptures by Gianfrancesco bear his signature. A signed marble statue “Bacchus and a Young Satyr” is exhibited in the Louvre Museum; the 1627 “Abduction of Helen” now in the Los Angeles Getty Museum; the 1639 “Venus Burning the Arrows of Love”, the 1638 “Venus Chastising Love”, and the “Gaul Committing Suicide”, all now in the Louvre. Gianfrancesco’s small bronze “David with the Head of Goliath” is now at the Liechtenstein Museum in Venice. Both sculptor and caster, Giovanni Francesco Susini died in Florence, Italy, on October 17, 1653.

Inspired by the ancient marble sculpture of the Farnese Bull excavated from the Baths of Caracall in 1545, Gianfrancesco made his bronze group “The Farnese Bull” in 1613. The group was expertly cast in several components, invisibly joined together, and engraved. Several castings of this work were made, located now at the Galleria Borghese, noted in the collection with a ebony pedestal in 1625, and at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg; 

The rather obscure myth behind this sculpture can be located in Lemprière’s “Classical Dictionary” published in 1788: 

“Dirce was a woman whom Lycus, King of Thebes, married after he had divorced Antiope. When Antiope became pregnant by Jupiter, Dirce suspected her husband of infidelity to her bed, and imprisoned Antiope, whom she tormented with the greatest cruelty. Antiope escaped from her confinement, and brought forth Amphion and Zethus on mount Cithæron. When these children were informed of the cruelties to which their mother had been exposed, they besieged Thebes, put Lycus to death, and tied the cruel Dirce to the tail of a wild bull, which dragged her over rocks and precipices, and exposed her to the most poignant pains, till the gods, pitying her fate, changed her into a fountain, in the neighborhood of Thebes.”

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