Pair of Seahorses,

Luca Fancelli, circle of Settignano (Florence)1430 - Florence 1495

1470/1490 circa

volcanic tuff, known as pietra gallina, 60 x 40 x h70 cm


This pair of inventive sculptures resembling seahorses, with webbed front feet and fish tail, combining Medieval symbolism and figurative classical imagery, can be interpreted as a clear allusion to the creatures that pulled Neptune´s chariot through the waves. In keeping with this iconography, we can deduce that the two horses originally served as architectural elements in an old garden fountain, flanked by another pair of identical horses, arranged as a mirror-image, on which four marble basins rested for the outflow of the water, surmounted in turn by a base, decorated by a freize and protomes from which water spouted forth, topped by a monumental statue, perhaps Neptune himself.
This conformation can be inferred from a similar fountain, now situated in the main square in Asola (Mantua), to where it was moved during the second half of the Cinquecento on the orders of of marquis Alfonso Gonzaga, but originally executed for the Gonzaga fiefdom of Castel Goffredo (fig. 1). The statue of Hercules and the protomes from which jets of water gush are late sixteenth-century additions probably executed by the Trentino sculptor Antonio Carra at the time it was moved to its new location. Only the four seahorses at the base most probably constitute the older part of the fountain, and look entirely similar to the pair of sculptures presented here, from which they differ only in slight variations in anatomical detail and pose, with the front feet lifted higher and the heads animated by a different postural and naturalistic dynamism.
The sculptural garden group to which the present horses belonged was created for the grounds of a prestigious residence in the Mantua area during the prolific period of artistic activity promoted by Ludovico II Gonzaga, and perhaps even for the Gonzaga palace at Castel Goffredo itself, where from 1480 considerable architectural and decorative renovation was carried out at the instigation of Ludovico II´s son, bishop Ludovico Gonzaga (Brunelli 2011, p. 92).
This point of reference for the two sculptures is also confirmed by the material in which the two seahorses are carved, a tufaceous limestone, better known as pietra gallina, typical of this geographical area and widely used in the workshops sponsored by the Gonzaga. It is therefore legitimate to date their execution to the second half of the Quattrocento and to assign it to the circle of the Florentine sculptor Luca Fancelli, a multi-talented protégé of Cosimo de´ Medici - mentioned by Filarete in his treatise on Architecture as one of the most gifted artists of the early Quattrocento alongside Donatello, Ghiberti, Masaccio and Brunelleschi - whose fame derived from the work he produced from 1450 until 1491 in the service of Ludovico II Gonzaga in Mantua and the surrounding area. There, he worked on decoration in the principal workshops established during the Gonzaga´s reign, such as Palazzo di Revere (1451-1458), Palazzo del Podestà in Mantua (1462), Palazzo di Gonzaga (1468-1470) and di Motteggiana, known as "la Ghirandina" (from 1470), and that belonging to Rodolfo Gonzaga in Luzzara (from 1481) (Marani-Perina 1961, pp. 63-112; Carpeggiani 2004, pp. 216-247). The Florentine artist specialised mainly in the field of decorative sculpture, producing fireplaces, friezes, capitals and, as in the case of the present seahorses, also sculptural and architectural garden complexes, becoming a promoter of the gradual conversion within Mantuan artistic circles, characterised by their late-Gothic vocabulary and imagery, to the innovations of the Renaissance imported from Florence.
The present pair of sculptures can therefore be considered a new and valuable addition to Fancelli´s activity as a sculptor, expanding a corpus of works relatively limited until now. Also attributable to the sculptor are works such as the frieze of the tripartite fireplace with Gonzaga portraits and figures of winged cherubs bearing coats of arms (Mantua, Museo di Palazzo Ducale, Camera dei Soli, inv. G. 11548; G. Ferlisi - R. Signorini, in A casa di Andrea Mantega 2006, pp. 379-380, n. 27), probably identifiable as one of the two fireplaces on which, according to the documents, the artist was working between 1457 and 1458 in the Gonzaga residence at Revere (Carpeggiani 2004, p. 228). To these can be added the three plutei in tufaceous limestone carved in high relief with winged putti, garlands and decorative foliage, incorporated into the façade of the Mantuan church of San Sebastiano (Marani-Perina 1961, II, p. 515, 519; M. Bulgarelli, in Leon Battista Alberti 2007, pp. 474-475), a bracket all´antica from the earlier façade of the same church (Ivi, pp. 473-474, n. 83), the capitals and Gonzaga coat of arms for the palazzo at Revere (Carpeggiani 2004, pp. 221-223).

Pair of Seahorses,