Renowned for his fine bronze statuettes after the antique, Francesco Righetti was highly sought after amongst Grand Tourists in late 18th century Rome. Examples include the English banker Henry Hope (1753-1811), who commissioned a set of twelve lead replicas of statues after antique and Renaissance masters, and Frederick Hervey (1730-1803), 4th Earl of Bristol, who had two elaborate candlesticks cast by the artist. Significantly too, Catherine the Great of Russia (1729-1796), commissioned Righetti a marble and bronze model of Mount Parnassus, and in 1805 Pope Pius VII (1742-1823) appointed him director of the Vatican foundry, succeeding Giuseppe Valadier (1762-1839).
The present bronze is a very fine cast of the celebrated Écorché Horse model, an anatomical representation of a horse – with its skin removed so as to display the superficial muscles – that was once believed to be a study by Giambologna (1529-1608) for the equestrian statue of Cosimo I de’ Medici. Whilst evidence to support such a theory has not to this day come to light, the pose of the Écorché certainly recalls the Flemish master’s famed Pacing Horse, and an engraving in Carlo Ruini’s treaty Anatomia del Cavallo features an Écorché closely comparable to the present model. These considerations strongly point towards a 16th century prime composition, possibly to be identified with the so-called Mattei Horse now in Palazzo Vecchio, Florence (92.5 cm high), documented in the Mattei collection in Rome from 1703 and subsequently in the possession of Cardinal Fesch (1763-1839), until sold in his estate’s 1814 sale. A celebrated work already at the beginning of the 18th century, when Pope Clement XIV had forbidden its sale, at the end of the century the Mattei Horse was cast in bronze by Luigi and Giuseppe Valadier. The former was Righetti’s master, which explains the sculptor’s familiarity with this composition and its presence in the catalogue of works offered by Righetti’s studio published in 1794.
A fascinating visual testimony to the close connections between art and science throughout the ages, the Écorché is at once a detailed anatomical study and a painstaking artistic tour de force, in which the animal’s every muscle is finely outlined to reveal both the beauty of nature and the sculptor’s bravura.
F. Righetti, Aux Amateurs de l’Antiquite et des Beaux Arts, Rome, 1794, p. 3, as ‘Chéval ecorchè de Mattei’