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LACMA buys Italian renaissance sculpture

`Saint John Capistran' caps a big year of acquisitions for the museum.

January 11, 2007|Christopher Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

HE stands just shy of 5 feet 3 and weighs in about 300 pounds. He lost his right foot a while back. And he hasn't shut his mouth for close to five centuries.

But "Saint John Capistran," a 450-year-old work in glazed terra cotta by the Italian artist Santi Buglioni -- is an honored new arrival at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Drawing on a grant from the Ahmanson Foundation, the museum bought the renaissance sculpture from a New York dealer late last year for an undisclosed sum, quietly installed it in a public gallery Jan. 4, then announced the acquisition.

"It's a rare and stunning thing," museum director Michael Govan said Wednesday, adding that "it brings to life all the other things we have in the room."

Experts believe the work represents the same 15th century saint whose name is carried by the Mission San Juan Capistrano -- a lawyer, born in the Italian town of Capistrano, who became a governor, and then a prisoner of war, and then a Franciscan friar.

Famed as a preacher who could hold vast crowds spellbound, John of Capistrano was commissioned at age 70 by Pope Callistus III to help lead 70,000 Christian crusaders against Turkish Muslims at Belgrade. The Christians prevailed, but John died later that year, perhaps of bubonic plague. He was canonized in 1724.

In some artworks -- but not this one -- John is shown treading upon a turban.

Made by Buglioni (1494-1576) in about 1550, LACMA's "Saint John Capistran" stands nearly life-size, wearing a Franciscan habit that's painted violet instead of the usual brownish gray.

The figure stands as if caught in mid-speech, his mouth open, one hand pointing skyward, the other holding a banner bearing the first three letters of Jesus' name in Greek.

The work's journey to Los Angeles began a year ago, when LACMA curator of European painting and sculpture Mary Levkoff, making her "usual circuit" of Manhattan dealers, beheld it at the Salander-O'Reilly Galleries.

"I thought, this is just spectacular," Levkoff said. When leaders at LACMA and the Ahmanson Foundation joined in the admiration, a deal was set in motion.

The piece's arrival caps off one of the biggest acquisition years in LACMA's 41-year institutional history.

More than 320 artworks arrived by gift and purchase in 2006, their collective value estimated at $40 million -- nearly twice the museum's average during the last 20 years.

"It's very heartwarming to see that level of generosity and commitment to the museum," Govan said.

The sculpture came to the New York gallery about four years ago through a purchase from dealer Luigi Bellini in Monte Carlo, Levkoff said.

In a letter supplied to LACMA, Bellini wrote that the work had belonged to his late father in Monte Carlo since at least the early 1960s.

Though the work's history before the '60s remains a mystery, Levkoff said, the sculpture has been discussed in publications since then and was loaned to an exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa in 2005.

LACMA has placed the piece in the middle of a room, facing a nativity scene relief made by Benedetto Buglioni (probably with Santi Buglioni's assistance), and neighboring an annunciation in relief by Andrea della Robbia.

"It actually looks like a person in the gallery," said Levkoff.

Moreover, she said, those three works together show how poses, proportions and colors in Italian Renaissance sculpture evolved through the 15th and 16th centuries.

Della Robbia's uncle, Luca della Robbia, is considered the pioneer of glazed terra cotta sculpture, having devised a process in Florence in about 1440 that yielded works more colorful, portable and affordable than marble sculptures.

Santi Buglioni is often described as the last Italian artist to produce major works through the same process.

"We can explain things over 100 years just standing in one room," Levkoff said.

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