Leader who called himself ‘King of England’ moves to V&A

Thursday, 6 October 2011

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, will give the lecture Portrait as Trophy: Three Imperial Portrait Busts by Leone Leoni from the Royal Collection, at the V&A on 12 October at 1pm, at the Hochhauser Auditorium, Sackler Centre.  He 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.’

Philip II and the Duke of Alba presented an impressive show of strength when they came to England to celebrate Philip’s wedding to Queen Mary in 1554.  They arrived at Winchester Cathedral with 6,000 men.  Philip II spent a year in England following his wedding.  According to Jonathan Marsden, ‘The story of the portraits touches many exciting aspects of our history.  The bust of Philip II is inscribed “Philipus Rex Angliae” (King of England).  Philip would only have used that title for about 18 months between 1554, when he married Mary, and 1556, when he succeeded his father to the Spanish throne.’

The Royal Family’s association with the V&A dates back to the institution’s foundation as the Museum of Manufactures in 1852, following the success of the Great Exhibition the previous year.  In 1899 the museum was renamed the Victoria and Albert Museum in recognition of the enthusiastic support it had received from Prince Albert.

Martin Roth, V&A Director, said, ‘We are delighted to have these magnificent 16th-century busts on loan from the Royal Collection for the next two years.  The V&A houses the most important collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture outside Italy and together the three busts will form the centrepiece of the gallery exploring international relationships in art and design during the Renaissance.  It is wonderful to be able to view the busts in this context.’

Jonathan Marsden added, ‘The Leoni busts are the latest in a long history of loans from the Royal Collection to the V&A, most notable among which are the Raphael Cartoons, on loan to the museum since 1865.  Arrangements of this kind are one of the ways we can ensure that important works in the Royal Collection are seen by as many people as possible.’