Three of history’s greatest military leaders have taken up a commanding position in the V&A’s Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, where they will stay for the next two years. The life-size portraits by Leone Leoni, among the most important Renaissance bronze sculptures in existence, have been generously loaned from the Royal Collection by Her Majesty The Queen.
They portray two of the most ruthless European rulers of the 16th century – Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor, his son Philip II of Spain, who married Mary Tudor, and the Captain-General of the Imperial army, the Duke of Alba.
The busts were commissioned by the Duke of Alba from Leoni, court sculptor to Emperor Charles V. If they leave the onlooker feeling fearful, this was exactly the artist’s intention. These were turbulent times. Europe was almost always at war – and the Habsburgs were looking to expand their empire, by whatever means necessary.
The sculptures entered the Royal Collection in 1825, when George IV purchased them on the London art market. They had been removed from the Duke of Alba’s castle by an unknown French officer, perhaps following the French defeat of Spanish forces at Alba de Tormes in 1809. George IV was happy to capitalise on the turmoil sweeping Europe. The misfortunes of the French aristocracy and collectors gave him the opportunity to enhance his own art collection – and demonstrate Britain’s enduring power.
Jonathan Marsden, Director of the Royal Collection, explains, ‘For George IV, these portraits took on the status of martial trophies. They are normally to be found in the Guard Chamber at Windsor Castle, surrounded by other arms. Just as victorious Romans piled up the armour of their enemies as offerings to the gods, George IV turned these symbols of power into trophies of war. It is a neat reversal.’