7 - 27/06/2013 1st THURSDAY 1
THURSDAY, JUNE 27, 2013 |
THE GLOBAL EDITION OF THE NEW YORK TIMES
The path to the Renaissance
sculpture’s role in
development of artists
BY RODERICK CONWAY MORRIS
Leon Battista Alberti dedicated his
Italian version of ‘‘On Painting’’ not to
a painter but to Filippo Brunelleschi, an
architect and sculptor. Alberti’s translation of his Latin original was issued in
1436, the year of the completion of the
A RT R E V I E W
great dome of Florence’s Duomo, which
was designed by Brunelleschi and had
taken 20 years to build.
Of the four other major artists that
Alberti mentions in his prologue —
Donatello, Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia
and Masaccio — three were sculptors.
That sculpture led the way in the revival that was later to be called the
Renaissance is hardly surprising. Italy
was still littered with visible Roman remains and new examples of statuary
were constantly being unearthed,
whereas there were few known examples of Roman painting until Nero’s
Golden House in Rome began to be excavated in the late 15th century. It was
not until the discovery of Pompeii in the
18th century that a much fuller picture
of Roman painting became available.
Nonetheless, the revival in sculpture
in the first half of the 15th century was
soon paralleled by a rebirth in painting
and the decorative arts. So, whereas
pride of place is inevitably given to
sculpture in this extraordinarily beautiful, intelligent and immaculately
presented exhibition, during its course
visitors also learn a great deal about the
development of painting and the other
arts in Florence during this period.
The show is curated by Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, director of the Bargello
Museum in Florence, and Marc Bormand, curator in chief of sculpture at
the Louvre, who have also edited the
scholarly yet eminently readable catalog, with compact, enlightening essays
by nearly 30 contributors.
The 140 pieces on display are of a consistently high, often dazzling quality,
and every important contemporary
ANTJE VOIGT/STAATLICHE MUSEEN BERLIN; LORENZO MENNONNA/MINISTERO PER I BENI E LE ATTIVITA CULTURALI (BRUNELLESCHI); ANTONIO QUATTRONE/MINISTERO PER I BENI E LE ATTIVITA CULTURALI (CASTAGNO)
From top left
Brunelleschi’s gilded bronze ‘‘The
Sacrifice of Isaac,’’
from 1401; Andrea
del Castagno’s detached fresco
part of an unfinished equestrian
statue by Donatello (c. 1455).
Ghiberti’s second set of Baptistery
doors and was already receiving prestigious commissions for statuary for the
Duomo when he was in his early 20s.
The next section of the show unfolds
the emergence of the greatest Italian
sculptor of the 15th century, who was to
go on to create the first marble shallow
reliefs employing scientific perspective
(of which he was a pioneer), the first
bronze equestrian statue (of the condottiere Gattamelata) and the first lifesized bronze male nude (of David)
Florence’s Orsanmichele building
was second only to the Duomo as an
arena for the display of artistic ambition and talent. The city’s leading guilds
were assigned niches on the exterior of
the edifice in which to place statues of
their patron saints, each commission
aiming to outdo its predecessor in
artistic excellence. The first of these
was Andrea Pisano’s ‘‘St. Stephen’’ of
1340. Among the last, Ghiberti’s ‘‘St.
Matthew’’ and Donatello’s gilded ‘‘St.
Louis of Toulouse’’ were installed
nearly a century later in the 1420s. The
latter two appear here side by side in
one of the show’s many fascinating juxtapositions, along with other major
works by Donatello, Ghiberti, Michelozzo, Nanni di Banco and Alberti.
‘‘Spiritelli,’’ or little spirits, was the
contemporary name given to those
playful putti whose origins went back to
By combining the
sculpture and Byzantine painted imagery Florence’s
works intended for
rather than public
Luca della Robbia’s ‘‘St. Peter’s
LUCIANO PEDICINI/ARCHIVIO DELL’ARTE FOR MINISTERO PER I BENI E LE ATTIVITA CULTURALI
genre is covered, from images of the Virgin, saints, prophets and Old Testament
scenes to secular portrait reliefs and
busts of leading citizens and children.
The ease with which Florence’s
artists could move between different
guilds, according to how their careers
developed and the projects they pursued, appears to have been an important factor in assisting the flowering
and cross-fertilization of all the visual
arts in the city at this time.
Both Ghiberti and Donatello were registered at one time or another as ‘‘painters.’’ Luca della Robbia was a member
successively of the wool merchants’,
sculptors’ and painters’ guilds. And an
early 16th-century work recorded that
Donatello was wont to say that he could
teach his students ‘‘the whole art of
sculpture with a single word: ‘Draw!’’’
The revival of classical styles of sculpture during the 13th century had its origins not in Florence but in southern
Italy and Pisa, where fine examples of
ancient marbles, notably sarcophagi,
were preserved and admired. The exhi-
The revival in sculpture was
soon paralleled by a rebirth in
painting and decorative arts.
bition opens with striking statuary from
this Pisan school by Nicola Pisano, his
son Giovanni, his pupil Arnolfo di Cambio and their artistic heir Andrea Pisano.
The migration to Florence of ‘‘Pisan’’
artists (though their founding father was
from Puglia and Pisan by adoption) was
of incalculable importance in revolutionizing Florence’s sculptural scene. Richly
emblematic of the influence of these
artists is the hexagonal panel from the
1330s by Andrea Pisano, representing
‘‘Sculpture’’ in the form of a bearded ancient practitioner of the art in his workshop carving a classical nude figure.
The panel once formed part of the decorative scheme of Giotto’s campanile beside the Duomo. And it was the refashioning of the Duomo and the adornment
of the Baptistery that gave the new generation of young artists their chance to
make their mark on a monumental scale.
The next section of the show,
‘‘Florence 1401: The Dawn of the
Renaissance,’’ displays three objects
whose historical significance exceeds
by far their modest size. These are the
two bronze panels of ‘‘The Sacrifice of
Isaac,’’ submitted by Ghiberti and
Brunelleschi in the competition to find
an artist to design and cast a second set
of doors for the Baptistery, and
Brunelleschi’s wooden model for the
dome of the Duomo, which was to rise,
in Alberti’s words, ‘‘high into the skies,
vast enough to cover the entire Tuscan
population with its shadow.’’
The adjudicators of the competition
for the Baptistery doors had been at a
loss to decide between the two finalists
and suggested they work together on
them. But when Brunelleschi rejected
that option, Ghiberti was awarded the
commission and Brunelleschi turned
his attention to architecture, in due
course putting his own imprint on
Florence’s cityscape on a massive scale.
Donatello worked as an assistant on
Roman art and were found especially
on sarcophagi. The Sienese artist Jacopo della Quercia was a crucial figure in
their revival and reinterpretation, embellishing his monument to Ilaria del
Carretto in Lucca with reliefs of them
and decorating the baptismal font below Siena’s Duomo with the first
Renaissance putti cast in the round.
But, as is delightfully illustrated in an
entire section here, it was above all
Donatello who unleashed this riotous
tribe on Western art, these chubby
carved and painted infants becoming
equally popular in works sacred and
profane. Donatello used them as decorative elements in places as diverse as
his choir loft in the Duomo, the pulpit in
Prato’s Cathedral, on the bishop’s crozier of ‘‘St. Louis’’ and on Gattamelata’s
saddle and armor.
And while Donatello’s creation of the
equestrian statue of the mercenary general Gattamelata (still in situ in Padua)
was both artistically and technically an
epoch-making event, Uccello’s brilliant,
illusionistically sculptural painting of
the mounted condottiere John Hawkwood on the wall of the Duomo predated Donatello’s monument by over a
decade — almost throwing down a challenge to sculptors to make such a threedimensional image in bronze.
The constant interchange between
sculpture and painting is further illuminated in the subsequent section,
‘‘Sculpted Paintings,’’ with telling examples by Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Uccello and Andrea del Castagno.
This was also the era that saw the rebirth and reinterpretation of Byzantine
icons of the Madonna and Child. By
combining the lessons learned from
classical sculpture and Byzantine
painted imagery Florence’s sculptors,
led by Donatello, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi
and Nanni di Banco created in marble
and painted terracotta enchanting
works intended for private devotion
rather than public display.
There is a superb line-up here of
pieces by these artists, including Donatello’s famous Pazzi Madonna, and
some exquisite examples in painted and
glazed terracotta by Luca della Robbia
and a lovely panel by Filippo Lippi — an
early example of countless such painted
images of the Madonna and Child that
were to follow in the centuries to come.
The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence 1400-1460.
Palazzo Strozzi, Florence. Through Aug. 18.
The Louvre, Paris. Sept. 26 through Jan. 6.
ONLINE: ART IN THE ARCHIVES
ANTONIO QUATTRONE/MINISTERO PER I BENI E LE ATTIVITA CULTURALI
More articles by Roderick Conway
Morris at global.nytimes.com/arts