By Costanza Beltrami

A Postcard from the DIA

This week I was lucky enough to spend some time at the fantastic Detroit Institute of Arts. Here are my three favorite pieces of Italian art from the collection…

Bronze Statuette of a Rider, Etruscan, late 5th century BC

The Etruscan culture originated during the Late Bronze Age (12th-11th century BCE) in central Italy, between the modern regions of Tuscany and Lazio. As a population, the Etruscans may have been indigenous to Italy, as they spoke a non-Indo-European language, namely a language pre-dating the vast migrations of people from Asia to Europe which began in the third millennium BCE. By the 8th century BCE, the Etruscans were trading with Greek merchants, leading to cultural encounter and exchange, and during the 6th century they had expanded their trade routes to encompass almost the whole of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Northern part of the Etruscans’ territory was very rich of metals, and they soon became skilled at working bronze for both artistic and military purposes. Etruscan bronze statuettes often follow Greek artistic conventions such as the representation of kuroi and korai, or represent Greek myths. When casting hollow bronze statuettes, Etruscan artists managed to infuse such characters and themes with an incredible delicacy and life-likeness. As you may remember from another of my blog posts, I find these qualities of Etruscan art really appealing. The DIA’s rider is a great example: look at his muscular legs, carefully draped robe and especially at his face, which seems completely focused on the task at hand.

Attributed to Bernardo Buontalenti, Ewer (brocca) with the Medici-Habsburg Coat of Arms, about 1575–1578

This elegant ewer decorated with grotesques has an extremely fascinating history. It is the record of an incredible technical success: the production of porcelain, which artists working for the Medici, the lords of Florence, were the first in Europe to achieve. Porcelain was produced in China since the 6th century AD, and it was first mentioned in an European text by Marco Polo in the 12th century. By the 14th century, porcelain wares were widely imported to Europe, where they were considered a luxury. Attempts a imitating this shiny, delicate material were legion, yet they all failed until the Medici encouraged Florentine designer Bernardo Buontalenti to study and experimented with imported porcelain. Technically, the “true” porcelain imported from China differed from the soft paste ceramic material produced by Buontalenti, yet he succeeded in perfectly replicating the whiteness, translucency and hardness of Chinese wares. Starting c. 1575, the Medici workshop produced other pieces in this material, of which 59 survive, many of them decorated with blue designs which intentionally evoke original Chinese pieces. Thus, this beautiful ewer is not only a technical novelty, but also the record of a cultural encounter. To its patrons, it would also have been a reminder of political and dynastic success, as it is decorated with the coats of arms of the Medici and the Habsburgs, the imperial family who ruled the Holy Roman Empire. In 1565, Francesco de’ Medici had married Giovanna d’Austria of the Habsburg family, a political marriage which promoted the Medici’s political status on the European stage. It is this great success that the coats of arms painted on the ewer celebrate.

Carlo Bugatti, Rocker, c. 1903

Carlo Bugatti was a Milanese furniture designer. after training as a painter in Milan and Paris, Bugatti produced his first set of furniture for his sister and her lifelong partner, the Divisionist Giovanni Segantini. Bugatti’s furniture is characterized by surprising organic forms which are linked to Islamic and Japanese design yet self-consciously original in form. At first sight, the DIA chair seems a very simple, almost bare object. However, it is a precious one: the wood making up the chair’s core is covered in vellum, an expensive material. Pencil-drawn lines defining the chair’s decoration are a tangible proof of the artist’s personal engagement with this object, underlining its uniqueness. The overall shape of the chair is also clever and well-studied: this is a rocking chair, an object supposed to be in perpetual motion, and therefore it is fitting that its form should be unbalanced, apparently fragile and unsteady. Moreover, the legs of the chair create a round shape which is reminiscent of a cradle, playing on the rocking chair’s form and function.

References: Mauro Cristofani, et al. “Etruscan.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online,

Cristina Acidini Luchinat, ed. The Medici, Michelangelo, & the Art of Late Renaissance Florence, exhibition catalogue (Yale University Press, 2002).

Henry Hawley and Saverio Simi de Burgis. “Bugatti.” Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press,

Photos: Wikimedia Commons, Detroit institute of Arts.

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