About three years ago, I had the interesting task of cataloguing the NMM sculpture holdings for Collections Online, though other photographic priorities have delayed publication. There are nearly 130 items, in marble, terracotta, plaster and bronze: most are portrait busts, with some significant works by major artists.
One is a fine Italian bronze of Galileo (1564-1642), long ascribed to Pietro Tacca (SCU0022). Tacca was pupil and assistant of the great Giambologna, and from 1608 his successor as sculptor to the Medici court in Florence, where Galileo was also court philosopher, mathematician and astronomer from 1610. In 2009 we lent this to an exhibition in Pisa (Il Canocchiale e il Pennello – ‘the telescope and the paint-brush’) which brought me into contact with Dr Federico Tognoni, one of a team working on a new edition of Galileo’s work, for which he is compiling a volume on Galileo’s portraits. In the exhibition catalogue Dr Tognoni reattributed the bust to Lodovico Salvetti – a lesser Florentine sculptor who is recorded as making two of them about 1666 (one intended for Louis XIV), copied from a Caccini bust of 1612 of which Galileo himself had approved. References which Dr Tognoni kindly supplied revealed other information we did not know, particularly that our bronze had been found in about 1906 in use as a garden ornament in the west of England by Max Rosenheim, a well known collector. We presume that Rosenheim established the Tacca attribution on stylistic grounds, since we have as yet found no record of him doing one. It was at least an astute ‘near miss’, for while even Salvetti’s dates are unknown he was a pupil of both Giambologna and Tacca, and we are happy to accept the new suggestion.
Galileo Galilei, attributed to Lodovico Salvetti (SCU0022)
Rosenheim died in 1911 and his collector brother Maurice in 1922, after which their holdings were dispersed in a number of London sales in 1923. We have yet to pinpoint when the bronze was sold, but know it quickly passed into the huge scientific instrument collection of George Gabb, which the Museum’s founding benefactor, Sir James Caird, bought in toto for Greenwich in 1937. With it came no less than four other portraits of Galileo which Gabb had collected. One is an even more dramatic Italian pear-wood reliquary bust of around 1700 (SCU0023). Like the bronze, this has not been displayed here for many years and its reliquary compartment holds a fragment of fringed velvet, thought to be from Galileo’s formal academic chair. Dr Tognoni has now provisionally ascribed it to the circle of Giovanni Battista Foggini, the most significant Florentine sculptor at the turn of the 17th/18th century and creator of the monumental tomb in Santa Croce in which Galileo’s remains were transferred in 1737.
Galileo Galilei, circle of Giovanni Battista Foggini (SCU0023)
The other three portraits are paintings. One is a perfectly competent Italian copy, dated 1879, of a well-known bust-length portrait of Galileo in old age (BHC2701). This is by Justus Sustermans (1597-1681), a Flemish artist who also worked in Florence as a Medici court painter: he did the original for Galileo himself in 1636, to send to a friend in Paris, but it has been in the Uffizi Palace, Florence, since at least 1678.
Galileo Galilei, after Justus Sustermans (BHC2701)
The second is the earliest surviving painting of Galileo, made when he was a mathematics teacher in Padua about 1602-07 (BHC2699). This is traditionally ascribed, apparently on the basis of an early 19th-century print, to the Venetian artist Domenico Robusti called Tintoretto (like his better known father, Jacopo): we have only in the last week discovered that an article published by Vincenzo Mancini, in the magazine ‘Padova e il suo territorio’ (February 2008), suggests much more convincingly that it is probably by a well-established Paduan artist, Francesco Apollodoro, though its pre-1914 history remains unknown.
Galileo Galilei, recently reattributed to Francesco Apollodoro (BHC2699)
The last is another portrait of Galileo in old age, about 1640, with an old Italian inscription on the back of the original canvas stating that it is by Sustermans and that it came from the Palazzo Pandolfini, Florence, for which family it is presumed to have been painted (BHC2700).
Galileo Galilei, by Justus Sustermans (BHC2700)
The complication with the Sustermans portraits, of which there are other versions and copies, is that they are usually rolled together as all based on the 1636 Uffizi one, without note of fairly obvious differences. The first is that the Uffizi version shows Galileo in a laced doublet, turned slightly to his left but looking alertly upwards to his right and, from the line of his shoulders, probably standing: the general effect is dynamic. The Museum’s shows him in a more robe-like garment seated in chair turned slightly to his right: his arms rest on its arms, raising his shoulders a little, and he holds a telescope in his right hand. Though the position of the head in both is almost the same his face is more sunken with age, and the effect is of almost hunched repose in which he looks quietly out and slightly down towards the viewer. This does not prove that he sat to Sustermans more than once, but it does suggest that the ‘Pandolfini-type’ portrait is likely to be one of the last painted of him, or even done just after his death. Whether it is the original, we simply do not yet know, but it was certainly done for a distinguished family and is in what appears to be its magnificent original Florentine frame.
Gabb fortunately noted that this portrait and the pear-wood bust were previously at Corsham Court, Wiltshire. A now much-visited independent country house, this has been home since the 18th century of the Methuen family and their notable collection, though much was dispersed in early 20th-century sales. It has good records and enquiry quickly elicited a photograph of about 1885 showing the bust standing in the lower corridor there. The exact sale through which it left is still for resolution, but a note in the 1903 Corsham catalogue records that it was at Christie’s in 1920 and that the bust’s purchaser was ‘Gubb’ (i.e. Gabb) for 58 guineas. That was also the price of the ‘Pandolfini’ Galileo oil when sold at Christies on 14 May 1920, to a purchaser calling itself the ‘Art Collections Association’, of which Gabb was perhaps a member or obtained it from. The Corsham catalogues also show the painting had passed – with many others – into the Methuen family in 1844, on the marriage of Frederick, later second Lord Methuen, to Anna Sanford. Her father, the Revd John Sanford, was a notable and large-scale collector who lived in Florence for five years up to 1837. Sanford was also a good record keeper: we therefore now know that, on 26 April 1833, he bought the picture and frame there, for 534 pauli (£12.10s) from the Marchesa Nimini – though who she was and its previous history remain a blank. It is likely the pear-wood bust was also a Sanford purchase, but that too remains to be confirmed.
You may well ask where all this leads. First, it is simply what museums do for the societies who are the real owners of the public collections they care for: these have often accumulated, over decades or even centuries, with imperfect information about many things in them, even objects recognized as ‘valuable’ in rarity or financial terms. Without upgrading such knowledge, however, it is not possible to judge anything’s real significance: museums also have tales – which they usually try to avoid telling in public – about serious mistakes made through not doing so. Second, the present examples show there are still significant gaps to fill on this small ‘galaxy of Galileos’, including their fuller histories, and the relationships of the various versions and copies by or after Sustermans. Is ours really what we think and hope it is? How can we know without knowing more about the others, of which there is as yet no full list or critique?
Finally, despite all five items having entered the Museum en bloc in 1937, the year it first opened, no one yet seems to have spotted a very simple point. Even setting aside the 19th-century copy, they appear to be the largest and best single holding that exists of contemporary or near-contemporary portraits of this towering scientific figure. It is certainly unique in Britain and any museum or art gallery, world-wide, would count itself lucky to have just one of them. The ‘Pandolfini’ portrait has been hanging in the Queen’s House and the (now) ex-Robusti at the Royal Observatory, also part of the NMM, for some years. It is unlikely, however, that either – let alone both – of the superb busts will be displayed until 2012/13 when the Museum plans an exhibition on the history of astronomy: a case, perhaps, of ‘not before time’!