Florentine Sculpture of the 15th Century
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
The 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.
Techniques of Sculpture
In 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.
Techniques of Sculpture
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.
Techniques of Sculpture
A 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 this 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.
Techniques of Sculpture
A limited number of colors could be used for 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.
Techniques of Sculpture
Using a practice widely 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.
This bust of an infant, without any attributes to identify him as a religious figure, may have been created as a portrait of an actual child. Carved of pure white marble, it presents its young subject with a solemn but relaxed expression. The eyes, with uncarved irises and pupils, possess a timeless, classical character, while the slight asymmetry and skillful handling of the marble create a sense of life and movement. The deeply cut mouth falls open. Soft wisps of hair fall loosely over the ears and forehead. The sensitive carving of the stone to convey the resilience of young flesh and the silky texture of a child's hair is characteristic of Desiderio's best work.
Desiderio was born in the quarry town of Settignano, where his father was a stone cutter. Perhaps trained in the Florentine studio of Bernardo Rossellino, Desiderio had established himself as an independent master in that city by 1453. His work, like that of the Rossellino brothers Antonio and Bernardo, filled a vigorous demand for portraits, religious images, and church furnishings. During his short career, Desiderio was celebrated for his skill in creating marble busts of women and young children.
In contrast to the wide-eyed innocence of A Little Boy, also by Desiderio, this bust shows an alert, impish child eager to interact with his world. His thick hair flows in flamelike waving tufts. The irises and pupils of his eyes are carved as if to sparkle. With his chin tucked under and his lips pressed together, this holy child seems barely able to control his smile.
From sometime before 1756 until 1940, this bust was installed above a doorway next to the high altar in the Oratory of San Francesco of the Vanchettoni in Florence. Antonio Rossellino's Young Saint John the Baptist of about 1470, was displayed above an opposite door. The backs of both busts were flattened so that they could be attached to the wall. Each had a small hole drilled in the crown of its head to hold a metal halo. This evidence suggests that Desiderio's boy was intended to be an image of the Christ child. It is equally possible that the bust originated as a portrait of a Florentine child and was given sacred identity at a later date.
Clearly Desiderio had learned much from the low-relief techniques of Donatello. The sculptor invented a rocky, wilderness landscape with a cloud-streaked sky and tall, pointed cypress trees receding into the distance among the cliffs. In the foreground, Saint Jerome kneels in penitential prayer before a crucifix. He wears only a few crumpled wisps of drapery, and his gaunt face tells of fervent, ascetic devotion. On the right, in particularly fine low relief, suggesting he is some distance in the background, a terrified boy flees from the lions that emerge from the rocks on the left behind the cross.
According to legend, Jerome tamed a lion by removing a thorn from its paw, and the lion therefore often appears as his attribute in art. The lions here, clearly no threat to the saint, suggest his harmonious relationship with nature, achieved through solitary meditation, prayer, and penance.
Like Desiderio, Antonio Rossellino probably came from Settignano. He was the most accomplished sculptor among five brothers, all trained in the important workshop led by the eldest brother Bernardo. Widespread admiration for Antonio's skill may explain why his nickname Rossellino, "little redhead," came to be attached to all his brothers, replacing the family name Gambarelli.
John the Baptist, portrayed by Antonio in this graceful bust, was a patron saint of the city of Florence and a favorite figure in Florentine painting and sculpture, where legends were cherished of his youth and he was often represented as a child or (as here) as near to adolescence. His richly waving curls and the fine curving lines of his lips suggest the beauty of a young classical god. The Florentine theologian, Cardinal Giovanni Dominici, recommended around 1410 that parents display images of the Christ Child and the young John together in their homes, as religious and moral examples for their children. When it was first made, this bust may have served just such a purpose in a Florentine home. But for at least the 180 years before 1940, it was in a Florentine religious building, the Oratory of San Francesco of the Vanchettoni, together with Desiderio da Settignano's bust of the Christ Child. The Desiderio boy is considerably younger, with plump cheeks and silky hair.
Confidently focusing his attention upward, David stands triumphant with his chin high, hand on hip, and a foot on the severed head of Goliath. In his right hand, his sling is already reloaded, poised for battle should any Philistines dare return. Powerful in spirit and mind but not physically intimidating, the shepherd boy David was often used as a symbol in fifteenth-century Florence. Tucked into the hills of Tuscany, this small republic built its prosperity upon a textile industry and financial astuteness. As it grew in political importance, it became intent upon governing itself. Nearly every major Florentine sculptor, in response to the high demand from patrons, put his tools to a David triumphing over Goliath.
This David, which once stood in the courtyard of the palace of the Martelli family in Florence, appears in Agnolo Bronzino's painting Ugolino Martelli (c. 1540). Loyal to the Medici, the Martelli were a politically ambitious family of bankers with modest wealth. They were also significant patrons of the arts. Roberto Martelli, one of the more munificent Martelli family fathers, commissioned several works from Donatello; this David, once attributed to Donatello, may well be based on his model.
Dressed in fanciful armor, Alexander here exemplifies the powerful leader capable of controlling several regions and cultures in a vast expanding empire. A relief of Alexander, reportedly done in metal, and a pendant relief of his adversary Darius were presented to King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary in 1480 as a diplomatic gift from Lorenzo de' Medici. The reliefs, flattering gifts from one great humanist patron to another, sought to equate Alexander's campaigns with those of Corvinus, who was engaged in driving back an invading Ottoman army. Lorenzo was aware that successful resistance to the Ottoman invasions would protect the rest of Europe, including Florence, from the ever-present Ottoman threat. During the few decades of Corvinus' reign, the Hungarian court rivaled those of Italy in its artistic patronage.
Designing Alexander's armor in an ancient style, Verrocchio also embellished it to his own fancy. Certainly the winged head screaming in fury was indicative of the commander's military ferocity, while the elaborate dragon helmet with ribbon was fitting for his status as a king. Any allegorical meaning is hard to derive, because Verrocchio and his contemporaries often designed such rich and fantastic armor for Florentines to wear in jousts.
Verrocchio's portrait bust of Giuliano de' Medici, Lorenzo the Magnificent's younger brother by four years, may have been made in conjunction with the joust organized for his coming of age in 1475. In terms of intention and effect, it provides a telling contrast to the National Gallery's bust of Lorenzo. The two portraits were executed at different times for different purposes, but they illuminate the brothers well. Giuliano stiffly holds his head high in a confident and proud demeanor expected of a young man from a distinguished Florentine family. Outfitted in elegant armor decorated with a ferocious, winged head grimacing in passionate rage, Giuliano's figure commands obedience and compliance to his will.
Unfortunately for the Medici, other noble families of Florence were growing tired of their leadership. Inspired to unseat them, the Pazzi conspiracy unraveled during high mass in the Florentine Duomo on April 26, 1478. As originally conceived, the plan was to assassinate both brothers the evening before at a party in Lorenzo's villa. Yet Giuliano had remained home to nurse a leg wound. Wanting to avoid a possible escape by Giuliano, the conspirators postponed their assault until Sunday when both brothers would surely be at the morning service. There, the Pazzi henchmen waited for the signal—the priest raising the Host—before attacking. Lorenzo survived, escaping with only minor injuries, but Giuliano was instantly killed. To revenge his brother, Lorenzo strangled the last bit of power out of his enemies, murdered the Pazzi men, banished their women, and imprisoned their relatives.
Lorenzo de' Medici, head of the family that dominated Florence, survived a 1478 assassination plot that took the life of his younger brother Giuliano. To commemorate these events and offer public thanksgiving for his salvation, wax statues of Lorenzo were placed in several churches—one version dressed in the very garments Lorenzo was wearing on the day he was attacked. Andrea del Verrocchio, a favorite Medici sculptor, supervised the production of the statues by a wax specialist, Orsino Benintendi. This terracotta bust may perpetuate one of them in a more permanent material.
This portrait expresses power as much as individual personality. Although the costume is that of an ordinary Florentine citizen, the forms of this portrait bust are monumental: massive, simple, and over-life-size. Lorenzo's overhanging brows and grimly set mouth suggest a man who has survived the worst attack his enemies could mount and warns them not to try again. A cleaning of the sculpture completed in 2006 removed a dull brown coating of dirt and overpaint, revealing its original naturalistic details: Lorenzo's cheeks and lips have rosy pink touches, his eyebrows are dark, and there are delicate traces of beard stubble painted around his mouth. The bust has thus regained the immediacy that must have greeted its Renaissance audience.