Antonio Rizzo was one of the leading figures in early Renaissance Venice. Originally from Verona, where no trace remains of his earliest work, he established himself in Venice after several stays in Padua, where he admired Donatello’s sculptures in the basilica of the Santo and Mantegna’s frescoes in the church of the Eremitani. He also must have visited Florence, where he would have seen the work of Luca della Robbia and Desiderio da Settignano. In 1465 the doge Cristoforo Moro commissioned Antonio Rizzo to build three altars in St. Mark’s basilica.
In 1469 he took over from Niccolò di Giovanni Fiorentino as head sculptor on the Arco Foscari, on the side facing the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace.
The statue portraying Mars, currently undergoing conservation, was one of the first sculptures carved by Rizzo to complete the Arco Foscari in 1470, and still demonstrates the impact of Donatello and Mantegna on Rizzo. The influence that Antonio Pollaiuolo had on Rizzo is evident in the Adam and Eve sculpted by Rizzo, also undergoing conservation. This strengthens the hypothesis that the sculptor went to Florence a second time around 1470, where he would have seen the classical sculpture of the Venus Pudicas, which inspired his Eve. In 1474 and 1478 Rizzo took part in the defence of Shkodra in Albania, at the time under Venetian rule, besieged by the Ottomans. Rizzo distinguished himself with his bravery and was wounded in battle. In 1479 Venice had to leave the Albanian city and some of its Aegean islands, and shortly after the painter Gentile Bellini and the sculptor Bartolomeo Bellano were invited to the court of Mohammed II in Constantinople as a sign of peace.
Between 1476 and 1480 Rizzo sculpted the funerary monument of the doge Niccolò Tron in the basilica dei Frari, the most grandiose funeral monument of fifteenth-century Venice, carved in a fully Renaissance style.
In 1484 Rizzo became Proto, the highest office given by the Venetian Republic to an architect.
Rizzo rebuilt the eastern wing of the Doge’s Palace, abutting St. Mark’s basilica, which had been destroyed by fire in 1483. He carried out the subsequent stone decoration of the façade facing the rio della Canonica and the façade facing the inner courtyard, and he built the monumental staircase known as the Scala dei Giganti, named after the statues of Mars and Neptune installed there by Jacopo Sansovino in 1567.
Rizzo retained the office of Proto until 1496, when he was accused of having falsified the accounts for the reconstruction of the Doge’s Palace. Warned that an inquiry under way, Rizzo sold his properties in Venice and fled to Romagna. In 1498 he was in Cesena. In May 1499 records show that the sculptor was still alive, but nothing more of his life is known.
The statues of Adam and Eve originally occupied the niches in the eastern façade of the Arco Foscari, facing the Scala dei Giganti, also by Antonio Rizzo, in the Doge’s Palace courtyard.
The sculptures are in white Carrara marble, a Tuscan stone that was highly prized at the time and used for the construction of important works. At the start of the 20th the marble surface of the sculptures was in a poor state of conservation due to erosion caused by atmospheric pollutants.
In 1926 the sculptures were fortunately moved inside the Doge’s Palace and bronze copies were installed in their place.
The extensive blackening of their surfaces, evident in photographs taken at the beginning of the 20th century when they were still in their original location, was caused by pollution, white areas were caused by the wash of rainwater. At some point in the past washes of a dark, fatty pigment was applied to all the statues, probably with the intention of giving uniformity to the surfaces. Numerous linear scratches can also be seen on them, caused by the iron blades used to produce the plaster moulds made to create the casts of the statues.
The statue of Mars was also replaced by a bronze copy and moved inside the Doge’s Palace between 1960 and 1963.