Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 14, 2017
Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio, ed. Making and Moving Sculpture in Early Modern Italy Burlington: Ashgate, 2015. 254 pp.; 4 color ills.; 76 b/w ills. Cloth $120.00 (9781472460905)

Making and Moving Sculpture in Early Modern Italy addresses important issues concerning the material and economic history of sculpture, and explores the ways in which mobility, physicality, materiality, collaborations, costs of materials, and technologies had an impact on how the works were conceived and made by their authors and perceived by the public. As editor Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio articulates in the introduction, “practical issues as durability and modes of transport were of enormous importance” (1), and artists had to deal with the limitations of materials and scale, often taking such issues into account while making formal and stylistic choices.

This collection of ten essays tackles a field that has become increasingly popular over the past two decades, as Helmstutler Di Dio thoroughly explains in the introduction, especially with regard to studies devoted to the history of sculpture. As several essays in the volume highlight, mobility intersects with art markets, and with the practicality of transporting raw materials—such as marble—from the quarry to the artist’s studio, while the attention to the process, techniques, and technologies of the making sheds light on many decisions made by the sculptors during their creative process. Organized in chronological order from fifteenth- to seventeenth-century sculpture, with a coda on contemporary art, the essays address a variety of problems revolving around and articulating these ideas, from a rich variety of perspectives and with diverse methodologies and agendas.

In the opening contribution, Sarah Blake McHam discusses movement in a very focused and spatially limited context: the choir at the Santo in Padua. She reveals how the original physical context affected some iconographical and stylistic decisions made by Donatello and his collaborators, and then shows how the subsequent transformations of the area have changed the way viewers appreciate the monument. Next is an essay by Shelley Sturman, Katherine May, and Alison Luchs on a bronze statuette of a Rearing Horse and Mounted Warrior (late sixteenth century) at the Szépművészeti Museum in Budapest. Their study—combining the methodologies of art historians and conservators—engages with a thorough analysis of the physical and technical qualities of the object in an effort to determine its possible status as a cast preserving a lost model and its relations to designs by Leonardo da Vinci.

Problems of making and moving are at the core of the subsequent essay, devoted by William E. Wallace to Michelangelo’s David (1501–4). Bringing to the fore the scale and weight of the marble block, Wallace convincingly argues that Michelangelo was perfectly aware of the technological impossibility of lifting the statue to a buttress of the cathedral in Florence, and this circumstance had an influence on the formal qualities of the work: indeed, the statue was not feasible in its originally intended location. Wallace’s interest in the interpretive potential of weight while discussing sculpture is particularly intriguing, especially as it adds new materials to recent important contributions on the topic, such as Matters of Weight: Force, Gravity, and Aesthetics in the Early Modern Period, edited by David Young Kim (Emsdetten, Germany: Edition Imorde, 2013).

The theme of moving marble blocks is further investigated by Amy R. Bloch in her examination of Michelangelo’s Atlas Slave (1520s), arguing that the unfinished work enabled the artist to reflect and visually conceptualize the movement of stone, represented by the large block of roughly carved marble that the statue seems to carry. Bloch traces iconographical precedents in Donatello’s and Lorenzo Ghiberti’s oeuvres, and then moves to a more literary discourse, where some speculations on how the unfinished portion of marble block pressing down on the figure’s head and shoulders might be connected to Cantos 10 and 11 in Dante’s Purgatory. This last section of the essay seems a bit far-fetched, especially considering the original destination and unfinished status of the work. The two subsequent essays, respectively by Victoria Avery and Emma Jones, shift the focus from Florence back to northern Italy, addressing material problems such as Alessandro Vittoria’s workshop organization and its relation to the marble trade and transportation of sculpture, and revealing interesting archival materials on the supply and cost of marble and other stones in sixteenth-century Venice.

C. D. Dickerson III brings the reader’s attention back to the materials with a persuasive study that investigates how Camillo Mariani, in early seventeenth-century Rome, chose stucco for his work because of the possibilities offered by this very material. Helmstutler Di Dio, in her essay on shipping sculptures from Italy to Spain, addresses how the mobility of sculpture—especially monumental works—helped shape diplomacy. Her discussion of the routes of transportation and her attention to the theme of fragility—especially with regard to Cristoforo Stati’s Samson and the Lion (1605–7)—are, to this reader, the most astute and compelling points. The subsequent contribution by Karen J. Lloyd addresses the career of Giacomo Borzacchi, a rather minor collaborator of Bernini’s who achieved some popularity in France when he accompanied the equestrian statue of Louis XIV to France in 1685. Deep archival research is of pivotal importance to the essays by Lloyd, Helmstutler Di Dio, Jones, and Avery, showing how this methodology is particularly crucial in uncovering new evidence otherwise difficult to trace while studying technical, material, and economic histories of sculpture.

An interview with Richard Erdman, a sculptor based in Vermont who has collaborators in Carrara, concludes the volume and shows how many of the practical problems related to transportation, procurement of marble, and collaboration are still very similar to those of the early modern period, despite the technological innovations that provide opportunities to perform tasks that were impossible for Renaissance sculptors (to paraphrase the title of Wallace’s essay).

The breadth of topics emerging from the variety of case studies discussed in this volume shows how scholarship based on the material history of sculpture can be productive and can reveal significant aspects of the works that would otherwise remain understudied. This is exceptionally important for sculpture, as this discipline is inherently connected to, and influenced by, the materiality of the object—once again: its weight, the physical qualities of the materials, the problems of transportation of the raw materials and the finished works to their destination, as well as the major role of collaborators in the making of the works. Such themes emerge vividly from the pages of this book; they pervade the history of sculpture in a variety of the centers it explores—Florence, Venice, Rome, Paris—and persist throughout an impressively large chronological span, as the interview with Erdman demonstrates. To this reader, the evidence revealed by the case studies could have been more thoroughly framed, either in the essays themselves or in the introduction. For example, how does archival evidence on the marble trade, sculpture transportation, and workshop collaboration in Venice compare to other centers in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century? The volume discusses ample archival materials, but does not address this question, despite seminal studies by Jennifer Montagu—whose work has paved the way for the material history of sculpture that this volume brilliantly addresses—as well as abundant subsequent scholarship on early modern sculpture, which provides copious information for discussion.

Nonetheless, Making and Moving Sculpture in Early Modern Italy is certainly an important addition to the growing field of studies on the mobility and materiality of sculpture, and it offers new insights on many aspects of the history of sculpture that will certainly have a lasting impact on the field and provide materials for further studies and reflections on the variety of themes addressed. The wealth of new evidence and ideas emerging from this book makes it a mandatory addition to the library of any scholar interested in sculpture.

Francesco Freddolini
Associate Professor of Art History, Luther College, University of Regina

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