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Rijksmuseum Acquires Tommaso Porlezza della Porta Terracotta Sculpture

The Rijksmuseum has acquired a terracotta sculpture by the Italian master Tommaso Porlezza della Porta. The 22.5 cm sculpture depicts the Old Testament prophet Balaam and was produced sometime between 1575 and 1578. One of the most beautiful 16th-century Italian terracotta sculptures still remaining, it was the model for a sculpture in Loreto, one of Italy’s major pilgrimage sites that is visited by millions of pilgrims each year.

This small terracotta sculpture was the scale model for a life-sized marble sculpture that was created for the Santa Casa in Loreto. This ‘sacred house’ is a shrine that was built in the 16th century around the remains of what had been considered Mary’s birthplace since the Middle Ages. Tradition has it that the house was miraculously brought from Nazareth (in Palestine) to Loreto (central Italy) by angels. Loreto was the major papal construction and sculpture project of the 16th century.

During the 16th century, many prominent artists, including Tommaso Della Porta from Rome (c. 1546-1606) who was the creator of this sculpture, were commissioned by the Vatican to produce works to adorn the Santa Casa. The pose and style of the sculpture are typical of the work of the great Michelangelo, so it is no coincidence that it was long attributed to this famous sculptor.

The Rijksmuseum has worked on acquiring this piece for the last three years, since senior curator of sculpture Frits Scholten saw it at an art dealer’s in London. At the time the sculpture was reserved for an American museum. However, the financial crisis meant that the museum was unable to raise the necessary funds to purchase it. On hearing that the Louvre was also interested in the prophet Balaam, the Rijksmuseum then stepped up its acquisition efforts and with the support of private donations, managed to secure the acquisition at the last moment.

The Rijksmuseum already owns a rich collection of 17th-century terracotta sculptures. With the new acquisition, early examples of this form of sculpture will also be represented when the main building reopens in 2013. The prophet Balaam will be the highlight of the Italian Renaissance gallery.

According to Frits Scholten, ‘Its excellent artistic quality and link to Loreto make this sculpture an important work. It will add a key element to the international profile of the Rijksmuseum collection. Though it may be small, it’s of monumental significance. Large sculpture is embodied in this small model.’

Image: The prophet Balaam, Tommaso Porlezza della Porta, 1576-1578

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