In Mr Cockerel’s judicious and learned observations on the Niobes, he follows Horace, and admits of only twelve statues, as constituting the number that forms the group. Some contend for fourteen, others for six-teen, many statues having been at different periods selected, as belonging to this celebrated family, and then rejected, as the Discobolus and Narcissus are at present. The truth is, that in a country where the youth delighted in all athletic exercises, and where their artists took their best designs from the Arena, it is difficult to determine what statue is individual, and what grouped. The placing of their statues has been as much a matter of hypothesis as their separate degrees of merit, or the meaning and intention of their artists. Mr Cockerel has displayed much ingenuity in his management of a subject so difficult. This distinguished artist has conceived the whole group placed in the tympanum of a Greek temple. The idea is luminous, and, with the exception of the dying youth, whom he supposes to be laid in the entrance, or threshold, of the tympanum, the whole arrangement is fine. This prostrate figure forms the centre of all that is most admirable and interesting in the group; and, unless it had been entirely displayed, the fable must have remained untold; placed in the situation in question, it would have been overshadowed by the cornice of the edifice, and being hid from the view of those who looked down on the standing figures, the horror and astonishment of the Niobes would be unexplained, and the whole effect lost.
The Niobes constitute the finest and most powerful group in the world, and ought to be lodged in a temple, or mausoleum, executed in a great and noble style. There are, especially, two points which may be regarded as of vital importance in producing effect, viz. grouping, and regulating the light. Planted, as they now are, in a circle, each on his separate pedestal, not only all illusion of design and composition is destroyed, but you are tempted to view and consider them individually as works of art, a test they will ill bear, many of them being of very inferior merit; and as it is an ascertained point, that they are not all by the hand of the same master, it may be concluded that they can hardly belong to the same group. It is remarkable that the general forms of the draped female figures are somewhat loaded, and rather too uniform.
The Hall of the Niobes is entered from one of the doors of the Gallery, which opens into the centre of the room. Imagine a large saloon, or hall, of an oval form, lighted from one side, painted in cold flat white, with a gilded ceiling; the statues forming a regular circle; the Mother of the Niobes placed in one end, and her off-spring disposed on each side, closing the oval opposite to her.
This statue of Niobe presents a large full figure, richly draped but her garments, instead of falling in careless easy folds, marking the bendings of the body, are heavy and cumbrous, like a profusion of gaudy colouring, which frequently only serves to cover bad drawing. Her youngest child is placed in her arms, and clings to the girdle round her waist; whilst the mother is looking up towards Heaven; by some thought to be in the act of flying, and by others in that of offering up a prayer for the preservation of her only remaining child. The idea excited is full of tenderness; but both the figures are want lips, the languor of the eyes, and the exquisite beauty of the face, are unequalled. The artist in this work presents no harrowing images to appal or terrify. As a statue it commands your highest admiration, and as a chaste and mournful picture of death, all your sympathy. A less able master would have sought by a display of the pectoral muscles, and all the strings and knots, such as you find in Donatello, and even in the talented John of Bologna, to remind you of science, when it is a much greater effort to recollect and to fancy nature. The left hand is most exquisite. The right arm, and part of the left leg, are restored. A mournful and beautiful little tale might be told, by selecting three of the figures among these I have described, viz. the kneeling youth, with the hand raised to avert the arrow; the weeping and lamenting sister, with the figure who gazes on the body in horror and amazement. Were these seen surrounding the prostrate body, the group would produce a fine effect.
This statue of the dead or dying youth bears every mark of being the work of a superior and gifted artist, perhaps Praxiteles himself. If it belongs to the Niobes, it must, as I have already observed, have formed the very centre of action and interest in the group.
Guido made the group of the Niobes his studyas much as Michael Angelo did the Torso. It is remarkable how much the intimate acquaintance this great ing in that beauty and elegance so necessary in statuary and painting, to excite and exalt the feelings. The artist has aimed at presenting an august matronly appearance, by an imposing size and bulk; but, though he has succeeded in filling the eye, he has entirely failed in producing grandeur or nobleness. The child in her arms is open to the same criticisms already offered in my observations on the Laocoon. Her figure is that of a diminutive woman, presenting delicate slender limbs, with a small nicely-rounded waist. The foreshortening of the hands, both in the mother and the child, is admirable, and the finest part of these figures.
The statue, which is believed by Fabroni to be Amphion, the father of the family, and by some others the Pedagogue, certainly bears a dubious origin, for it is difficult to pronounce with certainty what character the artist has intended he should fill; but the latter conclusion seems the most probable, as he has not in this figure attempted to describe either the grandeur of the hero, or the tenderness of the parent. The expression is stern, and the forms are coarse. The restored arms are very ill supplied. The artist has placed a sword in his hand. The head is suspected, but the bearded face is fine, the scraggy neck admirably in keeping with the figure, and the entangled straight locks, described by Juvenal as characteristic of the Pedagogue, are in a style on which a modern artist would hardly have ventured.
I must not take leave of the Hall of the Niobes with-out mentioning two of its most precious ornaments, the battle-pieces of Raphael. They are only sketches, yet, perhaps, deriving a heightened charm from this circumstance, as being a style particularly suiting a subject which exhibits scenes of hurry and confusion. The eye rests on the groups brought forward by brighter tints, while, by degrees, forsaking the more prominent objects. The imagination, insensibly wandering through the indistinct and dusky haze, enveloping the more sketchy parts, traces out new subjects with an increased interest. I visited these paintings frequently; and, captivated with the spirit, truth, and animation which live in their every character and expressio, always viewed them with increased admiration.