Mantuan 15th Century. ‘The Entombment,’ c. 1470 - 1480 bronze with gilding and silvering (Courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Kunstkammer)

The National Gallery of Art’s new Antico exhibit, which displays more than three-quarters of the Mantuan bronze master’s surviving small statues, busts and medals, is in the same East Wing gallery space that recently featured the paintings of Gabriel Metsu. The ceilings are a bit low, and the whole of the Antico show fits in two modest-size rooms. But given the size of the statuettes, most of them one to two feet tall, the domestic scale of the gallery works well.

More than most works of art, these bronze figures want to be indoors, enclosed and contained. Several of the most exquisite were made for the studiolo, or scholarly cabinet or study, of Isabella d’Este, one of the most renowned and finicky of the great Renaissance art patrons. All are based on classical precedents, but they are a polished form of classical homage, domesticated, delicate and inward.

Antico was the nickname of Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, born near the mid-15th century, the son of a butcher. His skill as a student and restorer of antiquities, an expert artist and meticulous bronze caster earned him insider status in the court of the Gonzaga family, which made Mantua a haven for artists and intellectuals during the Renaissance.

Antico died relatively wealthy in 1528, having aligned his passion for ancient art with the collecting passion of members of the Gonzaga clan. They sought Antico’s exquisite replicas and reinterpretations of classical figures such as the Apollo Belvedere, a standing nude that was for centuries the most admired relic of antiquity, and the Spinario, a figure of a boy pulling a thorn from his heel.

In his career, Antico made only a handful of works that weren’t based on classical pieces, including some early medals struck to honor contemporary patrons and a small-scale figure of John the Baptist as a 3-year-old. Everything else looked back to the pagan golden age of the Greeks and Romans, including a bust of Cleopatra and statuette of pretty-boy Paris, rendered nude and holding a gilded apple. This has led to the unfair belief that Antico was just a miniaturist, producing what we might dismissively call figurines or collectibles.

Antico. ‘Hercules,’ model created by 1496, cast possibly by 1496 bronze with gilding and silvering (Michael Bodycomb; Copyright The Frick Collection/MICHAEL BODYCOMB)

It’s hard, at first, to get all of the post-Antico antique-shop dreck out of mind when encountering his work. Some of his most striking figures were ebulliently gilded, creating a contrast between the dark patination of their bronze bodies and their brilliantly glowing hair, cloaks and drapery. This was a fashionable look for art nouveau collectibles, too, and for an endless parade of table-size nymphs, mantel clocks and other decorative pieces throughout the 19th century.

The National Gallery exhibit is arguing that there is far more to Antico than miniaturism. Certainly he was an essential first transmitter of classical forms that were thrillingly new to the Renaissance mind. The Apollo Belvedere, now in the Vatican Museum, was rediscovered only in 1489, in a vineyard in Rome. Antico made a sweet-tempered version of it almost immediately thereafter.

But Antico wasn’t merely scaling down the classical statuary being dug up in Italy at the time. In some cases — including four round plaques depicting the labors of Hercules, each more than a foot in diameter — he was scaling up motifs taken from ancient coins.

In many cases, he was also “completing” antique precedents. Few statues emerged from the earth after centuries of oblivion without missing limbs and heads, and Antico’s works are as much about re-imagination and improvement as they are exercises in replication. Antico is so confident in his ability to channel the spirit of the classical world that he isn’t afraid to invent what would have been very odd objects if seen by ancient eyes, including a bust of the god Bacchus. Busts, for the Romans, were limited to portraiture of humans, not gods.

The excitement of this show, amplified by the side-by-side display of two ancient pieces with the Antico works they inspired, is in the elusiveness of Antico’s exact relation to the past. In some cases, it seems as if his creativity is rather like the efforts of the period-instruments movement over the past century, a scholarly attempt to know the rules so well that the performer can create authentic improvisations in the old style. But there are Antico works, such as an elegant statue of the Greek hero Meleager, in which one senses the artist self-consciously domesticating antiquity, as if Meleager had mastered the niceties of the Renaissance courtier.

“Antico is a major player in making the Renaissance,” says Eleonora Luciano, who organized the show. The word “making” is key, underscoring the degree to which the Renaissance was an invention of antiquity rather than a transparent re-creation of it.

Equally important to understanding these works is the role they played in the self-fashioning of the patrons who commissioned and collected them. Many of Antico’s pieces were made for rooms, such as Isabella’s famed studiolo, that mixed the functions of a library, gallery and study.

Antico. Gianfrancesco Gonzaga di Ròdigo [obverse], Trinacria [reverse], c.1486-1490 bronze (Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC )

The studiolos flourished during one of those rare periods in history in which scholarship afforded genuine social mobility and prestige, letting artists such as Antico leave the butcher’s stall behind and retire in comfort, and enabling second-tier aristocrats such as the Gonzagas of Mantua to survive surrounded by first-tier power players in Rome and Venice. The studiolo was the essential room for self-invention, for the display of a carefully calculated persona of the Renaissance elite.

Antico’s figures feel self-consciously cultivated, scaled down but dressed up for the studiolo. They speak with their indoor voices, and it’s difficult, sometimes, not to think of them as precious, with its dual meanings of highly valuable and too affected. The exhibition is yet another reminder that the Renaissance is not what we think it was, that it is more like a decorative screen than a window between us and the ancients.

Antico: The Golden Age
of Renaissance Bronzes

is on view at the National Gallery of Art through April 8. For information,