Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 5, 2008
Doris Carl Benedetto da Maiano: A Florentine Sculptor at the Threshold of the High Renaissance Turnhout: Brepols, 2006. 847 pp.; 33 color ills.; 495 b/w ills. Cloth $219.00 (9782503524597)

Doris Carl’s monograph on Benedetto da Maiano is a monumental achievement, the culmination of decades of research on the artist. Some of her findings were previewed in a series of articles she wrote on specific aspects of Benedetto’s career, but their integration into the unpublished material presented in the book creates a comprehensive assessment of the sculptor’s entire production. The result is a wholly new understanding of the artist as a major figure in late fifteenth-century Italian art.

Carl’s analysis forces a total revision of the estimation of Benedetto as a secondary artist that prevailed throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As she points out, scholars have focused on the Florentine sculptors active in the first half of the fifteenth century, and, more generally, on realism, to the neglect of the alternative idealizing current seen in Ghiberti, Jacopo della Quercia, Luca della Robbia, and their successor, Benedetto. The former three figures have nevertheless been the subject of serious analysis, but Carl’s book is the first comprehensive reappraisal of Benedetto’s career in eighty years. She buttresses her conclusions with a scholarly apparatus that dwarfs the ones provided in previous books on the artist, including more than two hundred documents, the majority of them previously unpublished, and a wealth of new photographs made especially for the volume, including many that reveal Benedetto’s sculptures after recent restorations.

The scope of Carl’s investigation is wide. She situates Benedetto’s career within the contexts of those of his father, the woodworker Nardo, his brothers, Giovanni and Giuliano (who became best known as an architect), and his nephew and heir, Leonardo del Tasso (their familial relationship was her discovery). She traces the patronage networks that gained Benedetto commissions in Tuscany, at Loreto, and in south Italy, and explains his interpretations of secular and religious subject matter in terms of their typological traditions and political and social meanings. To accomplish these diverse goals, she wisely organizes the book into two sections. The shorter first part provides an overview of Benedetto’s stylistic development structured by the categories of sculptural types on which he worked. The second section offers a detailed discussion of each commission in terms of its patronage, function, site, meanings, date, and, where appropriate, wider significance to the understanding of Italian Renaissance art. Carl addresses the types of problems each object or complex presents in a consistent sequence, making it easy for the reader to find specific information; she also provides regular summaries that recapitulate major discoveries and arguments. There is minimal overlap between the book’s two sections even though Benedetto’s commissions are reviewed twice; the different methodologies allow the reader a choice of how to approach the artist—and this large book.

As her title indicates, Carl stresses the previously misunderstood role of Benedetto in the formation of the High Renaissance style, primarily by arguing his influence on the young Michelangelo. Previous scholars have made some part of her case but concluded that the relationship between the two was defined by the consequences of Benedetto’s exposure to Michelangelo. Carl agrees with scholars who claim that Michelangelo was trained as a marble sculptor by Benedetto and that he carved the putto atop the upper-right corner of Benedetto’s Annunciation (1488–9) altarpiece in S. Anna dei Lombardi, Naples. She contends that a tendency toward idealizing monumentality was present in Benedetto’s earliest sculptures and that he learned it from the study of ancient sculpture and the early Quattrocento sculptors mentioned above. She builds on her theory to reverse the common interpretation of the flow of influence between Benedetto and Michelangelo. Whereas most earlier writers called the younger sculptor Benedetto’s muse, she sees Michelangelo following his former teacher. As a result, she deems sculptures like Benedetto’s terra-cotta enthroned Madonna and Child groups (Cathedral, Prato (1480); Bode Museum, Berlin [ca. 1485]; Misericordia Confraternity, Florence [1490s; unfinished]) instrumental in Michelangelo’s conception of the St. Peter’s Pietà (1498–1500), the Bruges Madonna (ca. 1504–6), and even the much later Medici Madonna (1520s; unfinished). She furthermore establishes Benedetto’s St. Sebastian (Misericordia Confraternity, Florence [1490s; unfinished]) as an important source for Michelangelo’s Bacchus (1496–8).

Another major consequence of Carl’s research is the reconstruction of Benedetto’s career in south Italy, which she convincingly evaluates as equally important to that in Tuscany. She speculates that one of his Florentine patrons, Filippo Strozzi, who had spent decades in Naples during his exile from Florence, introduced Benedetto to Count Marino Curiale of Terranova, the longtime majordomo of Queen Giovanna. The count commissioned him to do the Annunciation altarpiece in S. Anna dei Lombardi for his family chapel. While that altarpiece is well-known to art historians, few are familiar with another altarpiece Benedetto carved for S. Caterina di Terranova, a convent in the count’s hometown. Before Carl’s investigations, first reported in 1997 and 1998 (“Die Madonna von Nicotera und ihre Kopien. Vier unerkannte Madonnenstatuen des Benedetto da Maiano in Kalabrien und Sizilien,” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 41 (1997): 93–118; “Zwei weitere Madonnenstatuen des Benedetto da Maiano in Kalabrien. Ergänzungen zu: Die Madonna von Nicotera und ihre Kopien,” ibid., 42 (1998): 489–98), no one realized that the count’s mediation with other members of the Neapolitan court led to Benedetto’s creating a half-dozen life-size statues of the Virgin and Child for churches in Calabria and Sicily, all deliberate recreations of the standing Madonna in Trapani, one of south Italy’s most venerated icons. Furthermore, no one appreciated the fact that this activity resulted in the sculptor’s being slated to play a significant role in the patronage of King Alfonso II. Benedetto’s major commission for the king was barely underway when it was aborted, in 1495, by the French invasion and Alfonso’s forced abdication. Benedetto had reached only the initial stages of carving fifteen figures for the cycle of more than eighty enacting the king’s coronation and triumphal procession. The sculptures, which, in Carl’s opinion, were to decorate the portals of the Castel Capuana, remained in Benedetto’s studio according to an inventory done at his death in 1497. Their dusty remnants are overlooked by most visitors passing through the courtyard of the Bargello. On the basis of this substantial corpus of sculptures, Carl justly considers Benedetto the key figure in the dissemination of Renaissance style in south Italy.

These are her most far-reaching conclusions because they change our estimation of Benedetto’s artistic importance. However, Carl’s research offers many other valuable contributions. Her documentation of procedures in the family workshop, especially of the partnership between Giuliano and Benedetto, provides useful data concerning how a dynastic clan functioned. A specific aspect of their collaboration, Benedetto’s creation of the sculptures required in Giuliano’s architectural commissions, leads to Carl’s attribution to him of a series of imperial busts on the façade of the Palazzo Spannocchi in Siena. Her tracking of patronage networks results in the recognition that Spannocchi, the long-standing papal treasurer, recommended the da Maiano brothers to Cardinal Girolamo Basso della Rovere, the overseer at Loreto. As a result, Giuliano was commissioned to do the Santa Casa’s architecture, and Benedetto, some of the church’s liturgical furnishings. Her new theory that Benedetto trained with Desiderio da Settignano, and then briefly worked with Antonio Rossellino on the Cardinal of Portugal Tomb, modifies the traditional understanding of master-pupil genealogies in the mid-fifteenth century. Her documentary discoveries change the dating of such well-known monuments as the marble portals of the Sala dei Gigli and Udienza in the Palazzo della Signoria and the pulpit in Santa Croce. She also demonstrates that changes to the pulpit’s iconography, in response to papal canonization of the Franciscans martyred in Morocco, led to the decision to exclude the scene of the Dream of Innocent III (with its covert anti-papal details) from the pulpit’s cycle. Previously historians had thought that the narrative, recorded in a terra-cotta model (Bode Museum, Berlin [prior to August 1481]), had been omitted because the pulpit’s size was reduced.

The book has only one minor failing. There are a number of typographical errors, almost all concentrated in the preface, which seem to have been caused by its hurried translation. They do little to mar the experience of the reader who enters into a text that is full of new and significant findings of interest to anyone who cares about Italian Renaissance art.

Sarah Blake McHam
Professor, Department of Art History, Rutgers University