Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 17, 2014
Yvonne Elet Italian Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture: Material, Manufacture, Meaning, and Movement
Conference at the University of Vermont, Burlington, October 18, 2013.

In the time since Sarah Blake McHam lamented the relative dearth of scholarship on Italian Renaissance sculpture in her introduction to Looking at Italian Renaissance Sculpture (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998) (click here for review), the field has been enriched by a number of voices and publications, as well as the application of new interpretive methodologies. The same period has also seen a striking number of international exhibitions devoted to Italian sculpture in marble, bronze, and terra cotta, so these extraordinarily heavy and unwieldy works have been transported and recontextualized, at least temporarily, as indeed frequently happened in early modern Europe.1 Fifteen years after McHam’s comment, Anthony Colantuono and Steven F. Ostrow highlighted new trends in sculpture research in Critical Perspectives on Roman Baroque Sculpture (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), while acknowledging the ongoing need to apply a range of approaches to the specific challenges of studying three-dimensional works of art.

The conference under review therefore provided a welcome sampling of current research and methodological approaches to early modern sculpture in many materials, in Italy and beyond. This one-day conference, organized by Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio at the University of Vermont in Burlington, presented ten stimulating presentations focused on the making and meaning of European Renaissance and Baroque sculpture.

Di Dio emphasized the practical aspects of artistic production in her opening talk, using case studies from her own research to present the rationale for the conference and introduce the four m’s of its title: material, manufacture, meaning, and movement. (“Movement” was discussed in the sense of transport, rather than dynamic sculpture, implied motion, or a moving spectator.) Di Dio drew from her work on Leone Leoni, many of whose sculptures were created in Italy for shipment to Spain, to show how practical considerations of transport could affect design decisions, and to refute traditional assessments that Italians exported second-rate works. She illustrated these points with documentary evidence about the shipment of multipart works in many crates, labor costs, taxes, boat and oxen-team transport, piracy, and diplomatic concerns. She discussed how marble sculpture intended for long transport engendered adjustments to design, such as more closed compositions or supporting struts left in place, to be removed after shipping; and she further noted that bronze, though more expensive to produce than marble, was less expensive and risky to ship, and thus was favored for state gifts, even monumental works.

Transport issues were also the basis for William Wallace’s paper, as he revisited the intended location of Michelangelo’s David (1501–4), hypothesizing that from the time he began carving, Michelangelo must not have intended to install the figure on a buttress of Florence Cathedral as traditionally understood. In collaboration with an engineering colleague, Wallace analyzed the practical implications of weight, transport, and support for this colossal figure, estimated to weigh between 6.38 and 8.5 tons, and the possibilities and requirements for hoisting it twenty-five meters to the buttress, concluding that this maneuver would have been technically possible, but astronomically expensive and hugely risky. He therefore proposed that Michelangelo may have been able to carve this novel work of art expressly because he was free of the constraints of installing it as a buttress figure. This proposal, which Wallace couched as a “wildly imaginative exercise,” will certainly engender further consideration and debate.

McHam discussed movement of a more circumscribed sort in her reconstruction of the original physical context for Donatello’s high altar of the Santo in Padua, considering it together with other decorative commissions in the basilica. She emphasized the extraordinary splendor of the many materials in the Santo—bronze figural and relief sculpture, limestone with inset stones, colored marbles, and gilded candelabra, all seen in shimmering candlelight—and she showed how the resulting visual approaches to the altar framed its meanings.

The leitmotif of materials reappeared in many talks that touched on practical or conceptual issues in the facture of sculpture in stone, marble, stucco, bronze, and wood. Emma Jones took a broad view of practical issues of stone and marble supply and transport in the Venetian lagoon during the hundred year period beginning around 1525. Using contracts and regulations of the stonemasons’ guild, she sought to understand how stone of differing quality—from Carrara marble to Istrian marble from Rovinj and Pula—was designated for particular tasks, from carving to making lime.

In a talk about the Gates of Paradise (1425–52), Amy Bloch noted that while Lorenzo Ghiberti did not address the subject of material in his Commentaries (ca. 1447–55), he did so in the doors themselves. Focusing on the Joshua panel, she showed how Ghiberti thematized the formation of stone and metal in the scene of the Hebrews as stone carriers, thereby commenting on the origins of stone, and of art. She further noted that the generative power of building is juxtaposed with the crumbling gates of Jericho, contrasting creation and destruction. Bloch suggested that Ghiberti anticipated tactile reactions of viewers, especially on this eye-level panel, and worked them into his design, which is partly an expression of the artist’s anxiety about the longevity of his work.

Wood was the subject of Christina Neilson’s paper, which collected rare known evidence for sculptors’ insertion of written notes into wooden figural sculpture in medieval and early modern Italy, Spain, Germany, and Norway. Neilson likened this practice to that of inserting notes into reliquaries, effectively blurring the line between reliquary and sculpture, and raising interesting questions about the function of the work and the role of the sculptor. She considered the conceptual implications of wood as a living material, often further enlivened by surface polychromy, and showed how the sculptor’s haptic experience of carving a wooden figure of Christ could itself be a spiritual enterprise.

The balance of carving and modeling by the same sculptor was a central issue in several talks. Victoria Avery considered the carving career of Alessandro Vittoria, who fashioned himself as the Venetian heir to Michelangelo, noting how Vittoria progressed from modeling stucco to carving marble, contrary to the example of his teacher, Jacopo Sansovino. Avery used Vittoria’s payment books, ricordanze, and will to create a portrait of his working practice, tracing his source of materials, delegation to assistants, and use of models, molds, and drawings, which he termed “precious and important things.” C. D. Dickerson III considered the Vicentine sculptor Camillo Mariani, who would “vanquish Phidias and Praxiteles with stucco and chisel,” as a contemporary poet claimed in 1625. Dickerson focused on Mariani’s cycle of stucco portraits in the Villa Cornaro at Piombino Dese (1588–95) and his stucco saints commissioned by Caterina Sforza in S. Bernardo alle Terme in Rome (ca. 1599–1602), noting that Mariani was more accomplished as a modeler of stucco than a marble carver, and considering the different environments of the Veneto and Rome.

Turning to a consideration of marble block and niche, Michael Cole presented a formal, contextual, and theoretical analysis of Francesco Mochi’s works, showing how they encapsulated new attitudes to sculpture in the late cinquecento. (Cole’s arguments are presented in greater depth in his essay “Francesco Mochi: Stone and Scale” in Colantuono and Ostrow, as above.) Focusing on Mochi’s Saint Martha (begun 1609) in the Barberini Chapel of Sant’Andrea della Valle and the Veronica (1629–32) in St. Peter’s, Cole noted that both figures fill their niches, but are composed in bent-over poses. In these figures and in contemporary writings, he locates the visual topos of the figure that would grow even larger if it stood upright—a strategy used earlier by Giambologna and Vincenzo Danti. Thus, although Mochi’s works were carved from blocks the same size as those of rival sculptors, his figures out-scaled those of his competitors, including Gian Lorenzo Bernini at St. Peter’s. Cole further considered changing cinquecento attitudes toward the colossal monolith, observing that the monolithic marble figure that had been a potent demonstration of skill for Michelangelo fell from favor later in the century. One reason Cole proposed for this shift was an interest in stucco figural sculpture, which was cheaper and faster to make and which accompanied the separation of modeler and carver. Another reason was the discovery of ancient works observed to have been created in pieces, such as the Laocöon and the Farnese Bull.

The challenge of the monolith was once again a proving ground for the final speaker, Richard Erdman, a Burlington-based sculptor, who presented an epilogue to the day’s historical talks, discussing his 1985 sculpture Passage as the largest work ever created from a single block. He described the quarrying, carving, and transport of this sixteen-by-twenty-five-foot monolith from the quarries of Tivoli, Italy, to the Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens in Westchester, New York, highlighting the tools and techniques used, both traditional and modern, and vividly illustrating many of the practical issues that historians had pieced together for earlier works.

The wide-ranging talks raised larger issues, many of which were addressed in Peta Motture’s thoughtful concluding remarks and in the brief closing discussion. Motture assessed the range of themes and ideas treated in the papers, drawing attention to materials, properties, surfaces, treatments, and techniques discussed. She rightly stressed the transformation of materials as a measure of artistic ingenuity, and she discussed various factors that could affect the choices of materials used, from cost to requirements of the patron or guild. She noted that the talks supported traditional ideas about the hierarchy of materials, cheaper masquerading as richer, although she pointed out that terra cotta, one important material absent from the agenda, was as highly prized as bronze in areas such as Padua (and one might note its importance in Emilia Romagna and Lombardy, too). As she noted, the discussion of modeling and carving engaged theoretical distinctions between additive and subtractive techniques; one might also distinguish how certain issues played out differently in figural and relief sculpture in additive media. Some discussion of quattrocento experiments by Donatello and other sculptors to create “White Colossi”—painted terra-cotta figures for the problematic buttress locations on the Florence Duomo—would have provided an interesting complement to Wallace’s talk and to discussions of figural sculpture modeled in plastic media; the quest for visible, lightweight sculpture that could be incorporated into architecture was long one of the driving concerns of early modern sculptors.

Di Dio and all the speakers are to be commended for an excellent group of mutually illuminating talks; both in theme and in detail, speakers engaged each others’ topics, making for an unusually rich and cohesive conference.

Yvonne Elet
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Vassar College

1 A selected list suggests the range of artists, materials, and approaches these exhibitions and their catalogues have encompassed. See Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, Cristina Acidini Luchinat, James David Draper, and Nicholas Penny, La Giovinezza di Michelangelo, exh. cat., Milan: Skira, 1999; Bruce Boucher, ed., Earth and Fire: Italian Terracotta Sculpture from Donatello to Canova, exh. cat., New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001 (click here for review); Penelope Curtis, ed., Depth of Field: The Place of Relief in the Time of Donatello, exh. cat., Leeds: Henry Moore Institute, in conjunction with Victoria and Albert Museum, 2004 (click here for review); Martina Droth and Penelope Curtis, eds., Bronze: the Power of Life and Death, exh. cat., Leeds: Henry Moore Institute, 2005; Denise Allen and Peta Motture, eds., Andrea Riccio: Renaissance Master of Bronze, exh. cat., London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2008; Alison Luchs, Tullio Lombardo and Venetian High Renaissance Sculpture, exh. cat., Washington, DC, and New Haven: National Gallery of Art in association with Yale University Press, 2009 (click here for review); Elenora Luciano, Denise Allen, and Claudia Kryza-Gersch, Antico: The Golden Age of Renaissance Bronzes, exh. cat., Washington, DC, and New York: National Gallery of Art and Frick Collection, 2011; Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi and Marc Bormand, eds., The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence 1400–60, exh. cat., Florence: Mandragora, 2013 (click here for review); C. D. Dickerson III, Anthony Sigel, and Ian Wardropper, Bernini: Sculpting in Clay, New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012 (click here for review).

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