A Herm Away from Home

January 25 2011, 1:34pm

This sculpture is presented as a Grecian herm or boundary-marker. The original Greek herms were depicted exclusively as Hermes, the god of traffic, roads and boundaries. They were dedicated to him for protection and erected as markers in the countryside and in the streets and squares of towns. Herms began as simple quadrangular pillars topped with the head of the god, but evolved to represent a greater number of deities in the pantheon, and to incorporate more elaborate carving (figure 1). The Romans subsequently adopted this form of statue as decorative sculpture for gardens and villas.

Figure 1

The bronze head of this herm represents the god of wine and revelry, Dyonisus/Bacchus, crowned with a wreath of ivy leaves, a plant much esteemed by the ancients. Binding the brow with ivy was thought to prevent intoxication, as was boiling the plant with wine and drinking it. Ivy is also commonly depicted entwined around the thrysic wand, another of Dyonisus’ attributes. Rouge et gris marble drapery wraps his truncated shoulders and tapered marble pillar support, while the bronze stepped plinth is wreathed by laurels and a ‘Venus’ pearl-string, which evoke the triumph of lyric poetry. The prototype of the present example exists in the magnificent Villa Borghese Rome, where it occupies a prominent position in the main hall (figure 2). The Borghese herm, of alabastro a rosa, was commissioned in the early 1770s for the Villa by Don Camillo, Prince Marcantonio Borghese (d.1800) and executed by the Rome-based silversmith and bronze-founder, Luigi Valadier. Valadier began working for the Borghese in 1759, when he took over the workshop of his father, Andrea. He worked in gold, silver, bronze and precious stones and marbles, producing both religious works at the patronage of the Pope Pius VI and the Vatican, and secular pieces for Italy’s noble families.

Figure 2

The present herm, although executed in a different marble, is made of almost identical, extremely fine bronze elements. The right shoulder bears a plaque, inscribed: G. Nisini – Roma, signifying the work of the Giovanni Nisini bronze foundry of Rome.  Nisini, whose showroom stood at 63 via del Babuino, won gold medals at the 1894 Antwerp Exhibition and the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The firm’s work included lost wax casts of sculptures from the ancient world, as well as important works from artists of the 18th through the 20th centuries.

The marble that forms the body of the herm is noteworthy in possessing unusual coloration and grain pattern. According to eminent British geologist Robin Sanderson, it is a reef limestone from the Devonian epoch, circa 380 million years ago, and was probably quarried in Wallonia, Belgium. Its structure is formed of fossil debris and remains of cementing calcareous algae. The deep blood red color attests to its high ferrous content. Considering the availability of rare decorative marbles in Italy in the 19th century, Nissini must have thought highly of this stone to have it transported from far away Belgium.

This herm formerly belonged to the collection at Rosenholm Castle in Jutland (figure 3), built in the Italian Renaissance style for Vice Chancellor Joergen Rosenkrantz and completed in 1570. In the 1740s the interior was remodeled in the Baroque style. The castle remains in the private ownership of the Rosenkrantz family and is acknowledged as one of the most beautiful and best preserved Renaissance castles in Europe. Figure 3