Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mr. Vanderbilt's HOUSE and COLLECTION - Vestibule

***Photos and text from Mr. Vanderbilt's House and Collection, described by Edward Strahan pseudo Earl Shinn - the Holland Edition published in 1883.*** 

assing up the few broad and easy steps which measure the whole of the connecting structure forming the Vestibule, we enter from Fifth avenue. This structure, on which every imaginable grace of finish has been lavished, communicates by interior doors with each wing of the double edifice; at the left, or south, with the mansion which is our more particular study: at the right, with the house occupied by married children of the proprietor. It is by developing the communications to this hall that the double house can be thrown open on occasion to a family reception of the complestest kind, the avenues of ingress necessarily meeting here.

The Vestibule, entirely exposed, is a lofty chamber roofed with colored glass. It is lined and floored with choice marbles. No part of the architects' task has been performed in a manner so entirely grave and noble as this monumental chamber. It suggests ancient Roman building in the way it unites simplicity with enduring dignity. Every accessory is of a classical and almost Latin type, and it seems the realization of those modes of stately decoration of which the specimens survive in certain devastated chambers revealed by the spade of the excavator in Rome or Pompeii. From this room the collector's mania, the intrusion of magnificent trifles, has been rigorously kept out. Every object is adapted to last a thousand years. The mosaic frieze which runs below the cornice, by Pacchina, of Venice, represents classical children, or children posed in the classical manner, who stand or sit in encircling wreaths of ivy-plant; these figures, constructed of small marble dice of the appropriate colors, are inlaid upon a ground of gold mosaic, which lends an additional light to the portion of the wall most shadowed by the cornice and furthest from the eye. Of all contrivances for enriching an architectural lining or groundwork, nothing has been invented so satisfactorily splendid as this chequerwork of gold protected between two thicknesses of glass; the breaking-up of the surface into little cubes adds to the beauty, conferring a sort of warp and woof upon the flatness of a masonwork surface, and suggesting in distant effect a sort of velvet or tapestry executed in gold;  it is a very old device, perfectly well known to the Romans and even to the Assyrians, and revived in the present century with great acceptance. 

The floor of the hall is also executed in mosaic, by the same Venetian craftsman and his assistants, who have come to the United States and accepted American positions since its termination. Key-patterns and other rectilinear designs form this chequered floor, in very light colors.

The walls, of polished colored marble from the old Roman quarries in Africa, are perfectly flat from surbase to cornice, except for certain bosses of bronze which stud them at small intervals; three rows of these chiselled bronze studs are counted on the middle portion of the wall, while a series of large ones, each almost as broad as a shield, occupy a range below the mosaic frieze, spacing the divisions of an inlaid marble pattern. Lamps protrude from the walls overhead, enclosed in lanterns of bevelled crystal in square gold frames. There are tables set against the walls, of yellow marble or giallo antico, on griffin supports suggesting the often-imitated table in the House of Rufus in Pompeii. The marble bench against the west wall, facing the entrance, is of harmonizing design. These, with the central Vase next to be described, form the only furniture of this stone chamber.

The enormous Demidoff Vase, of malachite, stands in the centre. With its pedestal, it is eight feet four inches high. It is one of a pair made in 1819, and the other stands in the palace of the Czar of Russia. This historic vase is the principal trophy secured with several others by the proprietor at the Demidoflf sale, in 1880. The last owner, the grandson of Nicolas Demidoff who served with distinction as aide-de-camp to Potemkin in the war of the Russians against the Turks, dispersed in  that year the treasures of the family palace of San Donato, situated near the promenade of the Casino, outside Florence.  His uncle Anatole  had sold  the pictures of the gallery in 1870. Whatever doubt attaches objects whispered to have been introduced into the sale by Paris dealers, cannot affect this Vase, nor the treasures of  Austrian porcelain also secured for  the present collection. The malachite Vase adorned the antechamber of  the San Donato palace,  called the Gallery of Canova, where it was    surrounded  by such statues as  Chaudet's Napoleon as a  Roman Legislator, and Canovas seated figure Madame  Laetitia Bonaparte in attitude of the antique Agrippina. Like all malachite work, the surface is made up of an inlay of pieces of the gem, which are naturally innumerable in so large an object, but whose exquisite green veinings connect harmoniously as they thread the general design. The Vase itself is four feet six inches high, on a pedestal of three feet ten inches. It is mounted with various mouldings in fire-gilt bronze, by Thomere the father, who excelled in such work under the first Napoleon. No succeeding fabrication of or molu has approached the specimens of this period in sharpness of chiseling and accuracy of finish, qualities which make them a positive jewelry. On each side, in guise of handles, Thomere has applied a flying figure of Fame, whose wings and feet touch the Vase; these figures are perched upon trophies of armor, and hold two curved trumpets, in act to blow into them. The rim is finished with an egg-and-dart moulding, under which, in the shadow of the lip, an applied wreath of laurel-leaves and berries encircles the upper portion. A more solid wreath, of oak-leaves, forms the base. Here is engraved the artists signature - "Thomere, k Paris, 1819." This imposing object rests upon a cubical pedestal of green bronze panelled and bordered with gold in the same perfection of chiselling as the ornaments above. The enormous object has been transported to its distant resting-place without a particle of injury. It may sigh sometimes, after the manner of Theophile Gautier's twin obelisk, for its sister in Russia, but its present environment is thoroughly congenial and appropriate.

This Vase, in the catalogue of the Demidoff sale, was called the "Medici Vase." There was no justification for this, except that the Demidoff estates near Florence were Medici property once. The Prince's country-seat of the Pratolino, in the vicinity of the city, is an ancient resting-place of the Medici, in whose ground is seen the colossal figure executed for them by John of Hologna, and representing the Appenines.

In the southern wall of the Vestibule open the Ghiberti Gates, cast in bronze from the originals at Florence, and overlaid with gold. The subjects on these famous Gates may be considered as historical rather than religious, and as not interfering, therefore, with the classical rule so severely applied to the apartment.

The old Florentine sculptor never had the chance to see how his inimitable design would look in the precious metal. He would scarcely have been afraid of the added splendor, considering the luxurious taste then beginning to creep into Italy, and would probably have been apt to demand the gilding of his Gates, in order that they might glow with hardly a diminution of glory even when Giotto's bell-tower swept them with its shadow. Except for this enhancement of the surface, we have here a copy of Ghiberti's work, strict and complete, comprising even the fruit-garlands on the jambs, and being even improved in altitude by a modest addition of blank panels at the base. A projecting cornice over them, necessary for the architects purpose, is a rich maze of non-committal geometric ornament, throwing back the bas-reliefs into perspective without venturing to add any definite architectural order to the conception of Ghiberti. The "Gates of Paradise," so called from Michael Angelo's exclamation, "Son tanto belle che starebon bene alle porte del Paradiso," were executed from 1427 to 1447, by Lorenzo Ghiberti. The ten panels, whose subjects were selected by the famous Leonardo Bruni, are all taken from the Old Testament. The borders which frame these panels contain in little niches twenty-four statues of prophets and other Bible personages. These statues are separated from each other by twenty-four disks encircling as many heads of larger scale and incomparable spirit, mostly portraits of eminent personages of the artist's time. Ghiberti represents among them his father-in-law Bartoluccio, and also, in one of them, his own likeness.
The four and twenty Heads of the Ghiberti Gates in fact attract all artists with special interest, because their scale is larger than anything else in the design, and the sculptural fingers move with all their freedom. The third head in ascending at the right hand, for instance, attracts particular notice because it is of perfect classical style, fit to go beside that of the Belvedere Apollo for elegance and purity. It is extraordinary to find sculpture emancipating itself from medieval trammels almost a century before painting. Here Ghiberti, even as Nicolo on the baptismal font at Pisa, is seen putting to such good use the antique models dug up on Italian soil, that he is able to model a carved Greek head, while his friends the painters could only draw in a style of almost Byzantine stiffness. This single head, smiling over at the Campanile of Giotto - of Giotto whose best work still feels the medieval bondage - is enough to show how far the sculptors were in advance of the painters in introducing the renaissance; it looks over, in a full daylight of art, to the contemporary Giotto, who only had a sunrise on his forehead.

The "Gates of Paradise" are not only an extraordinary anticipation of all that decorative sculpture has found out since, but they have never been approached in merit in our own time.

The treatment of bas-relief, alto-relief and detached sculpture all together, so that each scene has the effect of a rich picture in full aerial perspective, was an innovation of this ancient artist's, executed with such overmastering good taste as to make itself a canon of art. Before his time, and in any other man's hands, it would have been a fault thus to combine the planes of distance in sculpture.  But Lorenzo succeeded, and broadened by his audacity the liberties of his art.    No ancient example gave him warrant for this peculiar combination. He created a style, in these magnificent subjects, by studying what remained of Roman sarcophagi, and embroidering, behind the detached figures so suggested, backgrounds in which he not only merely absorbed all suggestions of the painting-schools in his day, but distanced and surpassed them.   The panels have been called "pictures," by some never-satisfied purists of the modeler's art.    Let them be so, and what "pictures" can be found of Ghiberti's date which approach them in opulence, grace and Composition ?    In every way, these wonderful Gates are worthy of the most humble and prolonged study.    Besides their purely sculptural grandeur, the decorative composition is a concentration of all that the renaissance discovered in arrangement and selection.   The borders with the niches catch the light in three different degrees, for the protruded heads, for the niched figures, and for the flat ornaments; enriching with three kinds of emphasis and variety of shadow the mere plan of the ornament, which of itself would make a most beautiful drawing.    Every portion is a marvel of invention and thinking, even to the external fruit-festoon, increasing in relief from the flat plants at the bottom to the projecting fruits and birds with entirely detached wings which seek the less perfect light at the cornice.   The Ghiberti Gates here installed, a masterpiece of Barbedienne's casting, were exhibited at Paris, with so many other wonders, in 1878.



***Click HERE to view the introduction to this book.***


  1. Aside from the monumental urn finding is way to the Metropolitan when the home was demolished, during its earlier renovation is there any mention of where the doors, mosaics, skylight panels ended up? All works of art themselves.

  2. Sorry for the delay in responding. The timeline 640 went thru seems to foretell most of the "hard" features of the structure were destroyed. After George of Biltmore inherited 640 he became frustrated with New York City life(politics) and basically never occupied the place. He took certain movable features like the hanging lamps from the Vestibule with him to Biltmore. The stained glass from the stair landing was moved also. In future posts I'll have links to examples of some small bronzes that could have come from 640's Atrium. When Frick rented place(1905-1906) he moved entrance to the front, the Vestibule now becoming the exclusive use of 2 West 57Th. The Ghiberti Door was probably removed then, no mention of its fate. In 1926 2 West 57Th was demolished and at that time GraceV had Trumbauer move the entrance back to the side. The vestibule would have been demolished then. It appears none of it was saved - which is amazing and sad!

  3. Anonymous and HPHS. The bronze entrance doors were donated to the University of Nevada at Reno, where they still stand. I've no idea whether this was a sentimental gesture on Junior's part, as so many of his wives divorced him in Reno, but I believe it was he who persuaded his mother to send them there. By Junior's own account, Hollywood bought many interior fittings, and indeed, the library paneling may be seen in the Tyrone Power version of Razor's edge. For some reason, so far back in my memory that I cannot pull up the source, I think that the 18th century Directoire paneling of the breakfast room wound up in the hands of French & Company, a firm that used to specialize in 18th century woodwork.

  4. UCCSN Board of Regents' Meeting Minutes

    October 29-30, 1948

    "President Moseley read a letter addressed to Mrs. Robert Zeimer Hawkins written by an agent for Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt asking if the University of Nevada would accept as a gift the bronze doors from the Vanderbilt home which
    are a copy of the famous "Ghiberti Gates" of Florence, Italy.

    Motion of Mr. Hilliard passed unanimously that President Moseley be instructed to secure the doors for the University and to inquire about transporting them to Reno."

  5. Thanks for the update.

    Its in the library today -

    Close-up -

  6. So who knew? The University of Nevada at Reno is a veritable repository of the Gilded Age---in addition to the Vanderbilt Gates, there is a library donated by Wm Clark Jr. in honor of his father, a statue of John Mackay donated by his son, etc etc.----and of course, all their children went to Reno for their divorces later on.