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Italian Sculpture : 15th century

Italian Sculpture : 15th century

Italian Sculpture
15th century.

(a) Central Italy.
During the Renaissance the sculptor's repertory was increased by the revival of the bronze statuette. Ancient Greek, Roman or Etruscan votive figures of deities and animals showed how attractive and durable such small bronze figurines could be, as well as providing a source of imagery and showing how the nude could be rendered. The only things akin to such statuettes in the Middle Ages had been figures that were integral components of religious precious metalwork (e.g. images of the Virgin and St John to flank crucifixes), and so their early history is tentative: statuettes gradually emerged from such quasi-architectural contexts as small niches on shrines to become free-standing objects of art in their own right. They adorned the desks and libraries of such humanists as Cosimo de' Medici and Piero I de' Medici and were made for practical purposes (e.g. as paperweights) or to adorn lamps or inkstands or simply as miniature representations of things dear to the owner-famous antiquities, patron saints, handsome men and women or horses.

The attraction of the small-scale and domestic commission for artist and patron alike was that pagan subjects and Classical nudity were acceptable (which they were not at this stage in monumental, and therefore public, sculpture). The earliest datable examples come from the workshop of Donatello and Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, probably being cast by Maso di Bartolommeo. None, however, is by the hand of the master, although works attached to a feature in an architectural context, for example the putti on the font in Siena Cathedral (c. 1416-31; in situ), prove that Donatello was perfectly capable of making statuettes. His followers all over Italy, however, rapidly made up for his omission: Bertoldo di Giovanni and Antonio Pollaiuolo are famed for this type of work, each producing masterpieces on a miniature scale (e.g. the former's Bellerophon and Pegasus, c. 1483; Vienna, Ksthist. Mus.; see Bertoldo di giovanni; and the latter's Hercules and Antaeus, c. 1475-80; Florence, Bargello.

Specialists in statuettes also emerged to meet the increasing demand for these artefacts (e.g. Adriano Fiorentino and Desiderio da Firenze). Andrea del Verrocchio's Putto and Dolphin (late 1460s-early 1470s; Florence, Pal. Vecchio), though not quite a statuette (h. 670 mm), inspired generations of sculptors who specialized in statuettes (e.g. Giambologna). In Siena, following Donatello's two periods of activity there, such sculptors as Vecchietta and Francesco di Giorgio Martini also worked on a small scale in bronze. While as early as the 1440s in Rome, Antonio Filarete made an important contribution with his splendidly modelled reduction (1440-45; Dresden, Skulpsamml.) of the Classical equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius and another showing Hector (c. 1458-60; Madrid, Mus. Arqueol. N.), also on horseback.

(b) North Italy.
Bronze statuettes seem first to have been produced in the north of Italy to supplement the antiquities that were then being excavated and avidly collected. The mania for collecting seems to have been strongest in this region, inspired by the humanism of the University of Padua, and perhaps because antiquities from the Byzantine Empire were available through the maritime network of Venice, especially after the fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1452. The genuinely Renaissance statuette evolved out of this minor industry of copying or faking, hence the penchant for subjects from Classical mythology; nevertheless, the work of the earliest true specialist in statuettes, Bartolomeo Bellano, is predominantly religious in its subject-matter, for example David with the Head of Goliath (version, New York, Met.) or St Jerome with the Lion (Paris, Louvre).

Bellano encouraged such able pupils as Andrea Riccio and, perhaps, Severo da Ravenna. Severo was the next great sculptor specializing in bronze in Padua; his repertory extended from figures to domestic artefacts, and his oeuvre has now been disentangled from that of Riccio: most famous are Severo's group of Neptune and a Dragon (New York, Frick) and a variety of satyrs, but he also produced statuettes of saints (e.g. St John the Baptist, Oxford, Ashmolean; and St Sebastian, Paris, Louvre). Riccio, arguably the most gifted exponent of the statuette in the whole Renaissance, recreated for his intensely intellectual patrons in the University of Padua a series of Classical nymphs, satyrs, handsome nude shepherd boys, animals and monsters, as well as weirdly shaped lamps, grotesque masks and even erotica. All were imbued with a nervous vivacity, conveyed by his subtle modelling in the wax, conscientious chasing of every detail and hammering of every exposed surface.

The Paschal Candlestick (1507-16; Padua, S Antonio; is Riccio's masterpiece, and the repertory that it provides, even-surprisingly-of mythological figures, enables the attribution to this artist of many other similar independent statuettes that are neither signed nor documented. Andrea Riccio's style is quite unlike the angular, agonized style of Bellano and reverts to a canon of slim, well-proportioned figures, normally of calm, Classical demeanour, very intellectually conceived and deeply spiritual.

A completely different interpretation of antiquity had meanwhile appeared in Mantua, at the court of the Gonzaga, introduced by the bronze sculptor Piero Jacopo Alari, nicknamed 'Antico' from his penchant for direct copies of Classical statuary, by contrast with Riccio's free variations. Antico burnished the surfaces of his nude figures to a high polish, blackened and then partially gilded them, sometimes even inlaying their eyes with silver. These luxury products appealed to such demanding, princely patrons as Ludovico Gonzaga and Isabella d'Este.