Gripping a thin-bladed knife, Apollo leans forward and tears a ribbon of skin from the arm of Marsyas, a satyr who writhes in agony and struggles to wrench free of the ropes that bind him to a stunted tree. Crowned by a wreath of laurel leaves, Apollo, the Greek god of the sun and music, is extracting his revenge on a goat-legged rival who foolishly challenged the god to a flute competition and lost. According to legend, Marsyas' punishment was to be flayed alive.

"It's never smart to challenge a god at what he does best," said Eike Schmidt, sculpture curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where the gruesome encounter is depicted in a stunning 2-foot-tall bronze sculpture by G.B. Foggini on display through May 15. The dramatic sculpture is on loan from New York architect/collector Peter Marino, along with more than two dozen other bronzes dating from about 1550 to 1750, all depicting Greco-Roman gods and goddesses or Christian religious scenes.

A flamboyant character who favors black-leather biker gear, Marino is known for his trophy art and luxe showroom designs for Chanel, Dior, Louis Vuitton and other high-end retailers. He assembled his multimillion-dollar collection over the past 30 years, buying mostly at auction in Paris or New York.

Marvels of detail and design, Marino's bronzes were conceived at a time when the best artisans in Europe were turning out such figures for aristocratic and royal patrons. Unlike 19th- and 20th-century bronzes, which often were produced in large editions, most of these sculptures are unique, or nearly so. There are just two other casts of "Apollo and Marsyas," in Munich and London, and each differs from the Marino piece in significant ways.

"These have not been shown in public before, and once this exhibition ends, they will go back to a Manhattan apartment," said Schmidt. He declined to say what the museum paid to bring the show to Minneapolis after its debut last year in London and San Marino, Calif., but noted that it was only affordable because it came from a single source. Because bronzes are heavy to ship, expensive to insure and widely dispersed, "it would have cost 20 times more to do this show if we had to borrow them from a lot of different museums," he said.

Life-and-death themes

The show opens with a 15-inch-tall version of the "Laocoön" displayed on a gilded, marble-topped table as it might have been shown in Rome, where it was cast in the mid-1600s. A small version of a famous antique marble, it depicts a Trojan priest and his two sons being strangled by sea serpents, a motif that inspired centuries of sculptures including the twisted torso of Marsyas.

Dramatic life-and-death subjects were particularly well suited to the dusky, burnished tones of bronze. Among the show's standout pieces is a pair of mounted hunters from about 1650, one on a galloping horse spearing a fallen bull, the other on a rearing steed confronting a charging lion. Diana, goddess of the hunt, is a frequent inspiration, too, most eloquently in a graceful 1730 sculpture by Antonio Montauti, who depicts her as a lithe figure in a rippling, flame-like gown, striding through an invisible forest with her lean greyhound at her side.

The familiar biblical tale of "David Triumphant Over Goliath" inspired another original design by the Florentine sculptor Foggini. Crouching on the supine torso of the fallen giant, David holds his foe's severed head in his right hand and raises his left arm toward heaven as if in supplication or thanks to God for the deliverance of his people, the Israelites. Every detail in the unusual pyramidal composition, from Goliath's ornate shield to David's swirling robe, adds to the harmonious effect of the whole.

The show's piece de resistance, though, is a striking over-life-sized bronze figure of a man poised as if hurtling a javelin. The sculpture is not owned by Marino, but is on loan from another anonymous American collector. According to curator Schmidt, the sculpture was discovered last year in a French castle by an art dealer who traced it back more than 300 years. Its greenish patina suggests it was outdoors for some time, while its pose links it to the "Borghese Gladiator," an ancient marble sculpture now in the Louvre.

"This is the first time this bronze has been exhibited in public since it was made in the 1680s for a French nobleman who kept it in the vestibule of his Paris mansion until the early 1800s, when Napoleon's brother purchased the house and moved the sculpture to a chateau in the country," Schmidt said. "It's one of the most outstanding bronzes rediscovered in the past decade."

So how did it happen to show up in Minneapolis?

"It helped that I knew both the dealer and the collector," Schmidt said mysteriously.

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431