National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Florentine Sculpture of the 15th Century

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Carving busts of young boys became a specialty of Florentine sculptors from about 1450 until the end of the fifteenth century. Three fine examples of this art are on view in this tour. Together they give an idea not just of the appearance of different children but also of the various approaches that sculptors brought to the same artistic problem.

Some of these busts may be portraits of actual children. Others may be ideal images, made to be displayed in homes as constant reminders of virtuous children. Giovanni Dominici (about 1356-1419), a Florentine Dominican preacher and cardinal, wrote a treatise on family life in which he recommended that images of saintly children, especially Jesus and John the Baptist, be placed in the home to delight and instruct children as they grew up. These sculptured busts are exclusively of boys, although Dominici also suggested images of young virgins for girls to contemplate. Florentine parents may have considered these busts as an inspirational way to shape a son's character. At the same time, a bust of one's child, shown at his most beautiful and best behaved, could represent the promise of continuity of the family and the Florentine republic.

Techniques of Sculpture

Andrea del Verrocchio, Putto Poised on a Globe, probably 1480The Italian works in the Gallery's collection represent two distinct ways of making sculpture: by adding or removing material. In the first method, works are built up, or modeled, using clay, plaster, or wax. When fired, clay becomes durable terracotta (Italian for "baked earth"). In rare cases, objects made of unbaked clay, such as the Putto Poised on a Globe attributed to Verrocchio, have survived the centuries. Models made from plaster, unbaked clay, or wax could also be cast in bronze.

Bernardo Rossellino or Antonio Rossellino, The David of the Casa Martelli, c. 1461/1479In the second method, practiced in Italy since ancient times, sculpture is created by removing material, that is, by carving in wood or stone. To transform marble blocks into figures, a master sculptor and his assistants first removed the bulk of the rough stone with metal punches and flat chisels. Working from clay or wax models, drawings, or both, sculptors then refined the forms with toothed or clawed chisels. At the final stage, they smoothed and polished the work with files and abrasives such as pumice or emery. Sculptors sometimes drilled into the stone to create curls, decorative patterns, and deeply shadowed hollows for ears, nostrils, or eyes. Chisel marks are visible in the partially unfinished and recut David from the Casa Martelli. Extensive drill work produced ornamental patterns of the Alexander the Great relief.

Sculptors could also achieve remarkably subtle effects by carving marble in low relief. In stone barely one inch deep, they could suggest spacious environments replete with trees, clouds, buildings, and distant figures. This style of relief, pioneered by the fifteenth-century master Donatello, is called rilievo schiacciato, or flat relief. Examples may be seen in Domenico Gagini's Nativity, and in Desiderio da Settignano's Saint Jerome in the Desert.

Benedetto da Maiano, Saint John the Baptist, c. 1480A preference for vivid color on the surfaces of sculpture was prevalent during the medieval and Renaissance periods. Terracotta works were often painted and gilded, as is the standing Madonna and Child, or Benedetto da Maiano's bust of Saint John the Baptist. They could also be colored through the more complicated process of glazing. During the glazing process, a coating of metal oxides and colored ground glass was applied. The sculpture was then fired a second time, melting the glass to produce brilliant colors. The Della Robbia family of artists pioneered this type of sculpture.

A limited number of colors could be used Jacopo della Quercia, Madonna of Humility, c. 1400for glazing terracotta, but these could be skillfully modulated to create the illusion of grass or clouds. Even stone sculpture was often highlighted with color or gilding. Such treatment appears in the gilded hair and hems of Jacopo della Quercia's Madonna of Humility, and in the ornamental bands on the garments of the fourteenth-century Madonna and Child with Two Angels from Verona.

Using a practice widelyAndrea della Robbia, The Adoration of the Child, after 1477 Andrea della Robbia, Madonna and Child with Cherubim, c. 1485 accepted in the Renaissance, replicas of well-loved devotional sculptures were sometimes made using molds taken from a clay or stone model. Della Robbia works, like The Adoration of the Child and the Madonna and Child with Cherubim, exist in several versions. Such sculpture remind us that even a cast work could be highly refined through the skilled finishing of the master.

Renaissance Timeline

1396   Greek first taught in Florence, launching revival of classical learning
1401   Contest to design bronze doors for Florence Baptistry; Brunelleschi and Ghiberti introduce motifs from classical sculpture in their competition panels
1414-1418   Council of Constance ends Great Papal Schism
1418-1436   Brunelleschi constructs gigantic dome on the Florence Cathedral
1425-1427   Masaccio frescoes Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, Florence
1431   Joan of Arc executed during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453)
1435   Alberti writes treatise On Painting, describing a method for perspective drafting
1438-1445   Council of Ferrara-Florence attempts to reunite Catholic and Orthodox faiths
1452   Ghiberti installs bronze Gates of Paradise in east portal of Baptistry, Florence
1453   Donatello's monumental bronze Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata erected in Padua
    The first since antiquity, Mino da Fiesole re-invents the marble portrait bust with portraits of the brothers Piero and Giovanni de' Medici
    Johann Gutenberg prints 42-line Bible, using movable type; Constantinople conquered by Ottoman Turks, ending Byzantine Empire; Greek scholars and artists emigrate to Italy
1470s   Platonic Academy founded by Florentine scholars; about 1485 Botticelli paints Birth of Venus (Uffizi, Florence)
1486-1492   First printed edition of Vitruvius' ancient treatise On Architecture
1492   Verrocchio's bronze Equestrian Statue of Colleoni erected in Venice
1492-1504   Christopher Columbus' four voyages
1494   King Charles VIII of France invades Italy and attacks Florence
1494-1495   Albrecht Dürer makes first journey to Italy
1495-1498   Leonardo da Vinci paints Last Supper in Milan
1497-1500   Michelangelo carves Pietà for St. Peter's, Rome
1506   Bramante begins building new St. Peter's, Rome
1508-1512   Michelangelo frescoes Sistine Chapel ceiling, Rome
1510-1511   Raphael frescoes School of Athens in Papal Library, Rome
1512   Copernicus first proposes the earth revolves around the sun
1517   Martin Luther posts his 95 Theses in Wittenberg, attacking the papacy
1519-1522   Magellan's fleet circumnavigates the globe
1527   Rome sacked by Spanish and German mercenary armies of Emperor Charles V
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