The Victoria & Albert Museum has raised the money to acquire four important bronze angels by a Renaissance Florentine sculptor, originally designed for the tomb of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, chief advisor to King Henry VIII and one of the most powerful men in England.
The four bronze angels were commissioned in 1524 from the Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano as part of a magnificent tomb in the Renaissance style, to reflect Cardinal Wolsey’s wealth and statesmanship.
Rovezzano, a contemporary of Michelangelo, was described by Giorgio Vasari as “…among our most excellent craftsmen.” One of his early commissions, in 1508, was to finish Michelangelo’s bronze sculpture of David (now lost), indicating his metalworking skills were much in demand. He worked in England between 1519 and 1543, where his major patron became Cardinal Wolsey.
The angels, each measuring around a meter in height, were created between 1524 and 1529. In those years, Henry VIII was seeking to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey tried to persuade the Pope, but to no avail. He eventually fell from power; when he died in 1530, most of the tomb including the angels was appropriated by Henry VIII, who intended to use it for himself. Benedetto was commissioned to complete the tomb for the king and moved to Westminster. However, the tomb was never finished. When the monarch died, each of his children expressed the intention to complete the memorial, but failed to do so.
The bronze figures were sold during the English Civil War, separated and eventually lost. In 1994, two of them reappeared at an auction. In 2008, the remaining pair were discovered at Harrowden Hall, a country house in Northamptonshire where all four angels once stood on top of the gateposts.
The pieces were brought together at the V&A’s Medieval & Renaissance Galleries for the duration of the museum's fundraising campaign to acquire them. They will now undergo conservation treatment before going back on display.
Martin Roth, V&A Director, said: “The Wolsey Angels are a vital part of our national history and artistic heritage. We are very grateful to everyone who contributed to our fundraising appeal to ensure these outstanding sculptures, which were thought to be lost, are reunited and preserved at the V&A for future generations.”
Because of their high profile, they are expected to attract many visitors.