Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 15, 2014
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. 552 pp.; 406 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9788874611867)
Exhibition schedule: Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, March 23–August 18, 2013; Musée du Louvre, Paris, September 26, 2013–January 6, 2014
Lorenzo Ghiberti. The Sacrifice of Isaac (1401). Partly gilt bronze. 44 x 38 x 10.5 cm. Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, inv. 203 Bronzi. Photograph by Antonio Quattrone. By permission of Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali.

That sculpture was crucial to the development of the Renaissance has been recognized since 1436, when Leon Battista Alberti praised three sculptors in the prologue to his Tuscan treatise on painting (four, if one counts Filippo Brunelleschi, who trained and worked as a goldsmith) and only a single painter, Masaccio. The Springtime of the Renaissance exhibition celebrates the crucial role Florentine sculptors played in the stylistic revolution of the fifteenth century, demonstrating how the naturalism, classicism, and linear perspective associated with the period’s “new language and spirit” (25) appeared first in sculpture.

The exhibition comprises ten thematic sections, opening with “The Legacy of the Fathers” (249), a nod to the formative influence that thirteenth- and fourteenth-century artists, such as Nicola Pisano, his son Giovanni, Arnolfo di Cambio, Tino di Camaino, Giotto, and Andrea Pisano, had on the developments of the Renaissance. Fourteen Italian works were shown alongside a first-century Roman marble krater (formerly displayed in front of Pisa Cathedral) and two French statues of the Virgin and Child. These comparisons make clear that ancient art provided the strongest stimulus to Italian artists, even though some, Giovanni Pisano in particular, incorporated modern stylistic flourishes adopted from French Gothic models.

Despite recognizing the marked influence of antiquity on artists like Nicola Pisano, curators Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi and Marc Bormand perpetuate the view of the dugento and trecento as a “Pre-Renaissance,” a designation that serves to confuse more than clarify. While they correctly acknowledge the period’s classicism, Paolozzi Strozzi and Bormand separate these “fathers” from their fifteenth-century offspring. The works displayed, like Arnolfo’s Three Acolytes with Thurible, Incense Boat, and Ampulla from the Arca of San Domenico (ca. 1267) or Giovanni Pisano’s Madonna and Child tondo from Empoli (ca. 1270), as well as observations by other catalogue authors, belie the utility of labels such as “Gothic” (260) or “proto-Renaissance” (20) when discussing Italian art from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. As Marvin Trachtenberg first argued in 1991 (“Gothic/Italian ‘Gothic’: Toward a Redefinition,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 50, no. 1 [March 1991]: 22–37), the label “Gothic” fails to describe or explain the artistic developments of the period, an assertion with which Élisabeth Antoine and Pierre-Yves Le Pogam concur in their catalogue essay, even while utilizing “Italian Gothic” as a descriptor (45). Indeed, it seems well time to replace the labels “Late Gothic,” “Late Medieval,” and “Proto-Renaissance” in discussions of Italian art with “Early Renaissance” or “First-Generation Renaissance” to distinguish these “fathers” from their quattrocento “children,” thus following the lead of Giorgio Vasari who rightly celebrated these masters as the initiators, rather than, in Bromand’s words, the “‘precursor[s]’” (252), of the Italian Renaissance. Contrary to one of the exhibition’s primary arguments, the “origins of the Renaissance” (19) can be found, often outside of Florence, a century and a half prior to the Baptistery competition of 1401–2. Such insistence on placing the “dawn of the Renaissance” (69) at this later date suggests that Nicola, Arnolfo, and their contemporaries were in the dark, an implication proved false by the works in the first section of the show and in the catalogue essays on the importance of dugento Pisa (Stefano Bruni, 29–37) and trecento humanism (Patrick Gilli, 81–87) to the development of the Renaissance. Nevertheless, the exhibition succeeds in its efforts to demonstrate sculpture’s “role as the ‘vanguard’” (20) of the new style.

The show’s nine remaining sections explore the first seven decades of the fifteenth century: from the so-called “Dawn of the Renaissance” (281) with the Baptistery door competition, to its development at Orsanmichele and the Duomo, to its continuation in various genres developed for private patrons, including devotional works, portraits, and home decor. Among the more spectacular inclusions are the famed gilded bronze panels by Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi (1401), the only to survive from the seven-artist competition to create a second set of doors for the Florentine Baptistery. The ability to see the panels at close range under excellent light reveals not only the great depth of each relief (Brunelleschi’s at a little over three-and-a-half inches and Ghiberti’s at just over four) but also makes clear that Ghiberti thought of his design from many viewpoints, each as compelling as the next, while Brunelleschi’s composition reads most clearly from a fixed, frontal perspective. A marble version of the Roman Spinario or Boy with Thorn (first century BCE) adapted by Brunelleschi and a centaur’s torso (first century CE) echoed in Ghiberti’s Isaac show clearly how each artist responded to antiquity. Visitors can compare sculptures by additional competitors Jacopo della Quercia (Saint Ansanus, ca. 1410) and Francesco di Valdambrino (Saint Stephen, ca. 1409). Another counterpoint is offered by Piero di Giovanni Tedesco, who displays elements of classicism reminiscent of Nicola Pisano and Arnolfo in the marble figures carved for Florence Cathedral in the early 1390s. Complementing this section are catalogue essays on the fertile ground of the worksite at Florence Cathedral (Timothy Verdon), the nude in early Renaissance Florence (Francis Ames-Lewis), the “dawn” of the new style in the first decade of the fifteenth century (Laura Cavazzini), and Brunelleschi’s dome (Luigi Zangheri).

The remainder of the exhibition proceeds thematically, beginning with “Civic and Christian Romanitas” (293) as seen in illuminated manuscripts, bronzes, and marbles. Especially enlightening is the confrontation between the Dionysiac sarcophagus (ca. 150 CE) reputed to have been the object of a pilgrimage by Brunelleschi to Cortona and reliefs by Nanni di Banco and Michelozzo (ca. 1405–8; 1427–38). Also brilliant is the juxtaposition of a first-century BCE bronze head from Naples known as the Pseudo-Seneca with Donatello’s gilded bronze bust reliquary for Saint Rossore (ca. 1424–27) and his bronze head of a prophet (ca. 1440). This section culminates with the staggeringly beautiful presentation of two bronzes made for Orsanmichele: Ghiberti’s St. Matthew (1419–22) and Donatello’s St. Louis of Toulouse (1422–25), which in Paris was shown at the center of the gallery, allowing visitors to look at its back, a view that reveals Donatello’s unusual working methods. The classical theme is continued in section 4, which focuses on the popular spiritelli motif. Ancient reliefs and statues of chubby children are displayed to great effect alongside putti, both “sacred and profane” (341), by Donatello, Michelozzo, Luca della Robbia, and Maso di Bartolomeo. Fleshing out these themes are catalogue essays by Aldo Galli on the trope of “breathing statues” and the development of naturalism in Renaissance sculpture, Marco Collareta on the role of metalwork, Philippe Sénéchal on the revival of bronze casting, Riccardo Fubini on fifteenth-century humanism, Bormand on spiritelli, and Paolozzi Strozzi on the fifteenth-century trend of representing children.

The small fifth section takes up the revival of the equestrian portrait, interestingly achieved only in paint in early fifteenth-century Florence, but magnificently realized in bronze by Donatello in Naples and Padua. His stunning horse’s head from Naples known as the Carafa Protome (ca. 1455) confronts its likely model of the Greek bronze head owned by the Medici (mid-fourth century BCE). Further exploring “The Revival of Condottieri” (361) are a drawing for Paolo Uccello’s Hawkwood memorial in the Florentine Duomo (1436); a study, possibly by Benozzo Gozzoli, of the Roman Dioscuri (ca. 1447–49); Filarete’s bronze statuette of Marcus Aurelius (ca. 1440–45); and a painted plaster model for the head of Donatello’s Gattamelata (ca. 1447). Ilaria Ciseri’s catalogue essay (131–39) reminds readers that early Renaissance Florentines would have seen sculpted equestrian monuments in their city, including a statue believed to represent Mars that was moved from the Baptistery to the banks of the Arno, where the great flood of 1333 washed it away; reliefs on the Campanile and the tomb of Guillaume Bertrand de Durfort at Santissima Annunziata; and the monumental equestrian portrait that decorated the tomb of condottiere Piero Farnese in the cathedral, lost during nineteenth-century renovations. Armelle Fémelat’s contribution investigates Donatello as the inventor of the “modern” equestrian monument (141–49).

The second half of the exhibition examines the links between sculpture and related arts in the quattrocento. Section 6, “‘Sculptured Painting’” (377), and the complementary essays by Machtelt Israëls and Andrea De Marchi explore the use of polychrome sculpture alongside painters like Masaccio, Fra Filippo Lippi, and Andrea del Castagno who created solid, sculptural figures to enhance the illusion of three-dimensional form and space. Especially compelling are four of Andrea’s Uomini illustri from the Villa Carducci (1448–49) and his altarpiece from Santissima Annunziata showing Saints Jerome, Paula, and Eustochium adoring the Trinity (1454).

The seventh section takes up the issue of linear perspective with Donatello’s St. George and the Dragon from Orsanmichele, now in the Bargello (ca. 1417), reputed to be the first example after Brunelleschi’s lost demonstration panels. Other early adopters of perspective in relief and paint include Francesco d’Antonio, Masolino, Luca della Robbia, Agostino di Duccio, Desiderio da Settignano, and Uccello. In their contributions to the catalogue, Dominique Raynaud and Pietro Roccasecca investigate Renaissance theories of perspective and the importance of ancient and medieval texts to writers like Alberti and Piero della Francesca.

Section 8, “Disseminating Beauty” (423), explores the reproduction of popular images—most commonly the Virgin and Child—in a variety of media including clay, stucco, wood, stone, and bronze. Given their relative sameness and lack of documentation, these devotional images are often difficult to attribute to specific ateliers. The display includes the recently rediscovered and restored polychromed and gilded terra-cotta Virgin and Child now in Fiesole (ca. 1405–10, attributed to Brunelleschi or Nanni di Banco) and two variants from the Ghiberti workshop (ca. 1425–30); two versions of a terra-cotta Nativity (ca. 1420–30, attributed to the workshop of Donatello or Ghiberti); Donatello’s Pazzi Madonna in Berlin (ca. 1420–25) and a painted stucco variant from the Louvre (ca. 1450); and his Chellini Madonna now in London (ca. 1450). The section concludes with an extended look at Luca della Robbia and his “invention” of glazed terra cotta, further discussed in the catalogue by Giancarlo Gentilini (189–95). In his essay, Tommaso Mozzati explores how these seemingly simple images of the Virgin and Child not only provided opportunity for endless variations but also served to disseminate the new Florentine style (181–87).

The penultimate section focuses on commissions for charitable institutions. One of its highlights is the reunification of Dello Delli’s two terra-cotta overdoors from Sant’Egidio now in Florence and London (ca. 1420–24) with Bicci di Lorenzo’s fresco recording the church’s consecration by Pope Martin V (after 1424). Paolo Viti’s contribution to the catalogue reviews the events of the Council of 1439 and its impact on Florentine life, while Ludovica Sebregondi surveys the rise of confraternities and their impact on popular piety. The exhibition concludes with a series of objects to celebrate the “new” private patrons who brought the Renaissance style “From the City to the Palace” (475) through commissions for portrait medals and busts, devotional works, and majolica platters decorated with family coats of arms. Andrew Butterfield explains the phenomenon of the mid-century renewal of the sculpted portrait bust and accepts, along with Paolozzi Strozzi, the attribution of the polychromed bust of Niccolò da Uzzano as a work by Desiderio da Settignano around 1450 (218–89, 496). Luca Molà discusses the stimulus new palaces had on Florentine decorative arts, and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber explores the importance of religious works in domestic settings, while in the catalogue’s final essay Jean-René Gaborit looks at the range of sculptural embellishment found in the homes of Florence’s elite.

Almost all artworks shown in Florence traveled to Paris, and though the gallery configurations differed significantly, the objects were well installed in each location. The choice of blue-gray for the walls at the Palazzo Strozzi, which provided a serenely beautiful environment for viewing the sculpture on display, was unfortunately abandoned at the Louvre in favor of stark white or drab gray walls that washed out many of the reliefs, especially those in white marble. Each venue offered wall texts in both the venue’s mother tongue and in English.

The catalogue, produced in Italian, French, and English, is a mammoth tome with twenty-eight essays, some more closely linked to the show’s themes than others, and thirty additional authors helped to write individual entries for each object displayed. While the illustrations are of extremely high quality, the text suffers from a lack of cohesion and copyediting. An introductory essay that better explained the editors’ definition of the Renaissance—at times emphatically stated as starting in 1401; elsewhere said to have begun in the mid-thirteenth century—and that provided basic facts (the publication date of Alberti’s treatise on painting, the dates and circumstances of frequently referenced commissions) would have prevented contradictions and needless repetitions throughout the catalogue. While the editors should be commended for producing the volume in three editions, the English translation suffers from a lack of close copyediting by a native speaker, resulting in numerous awkward word choices, incorrect use of homonyms, stray prepositions, and the occasional baffling error like referring to Donatello as “Montello” (English version, 238)—errors absent from the Italian and French editions.

Despite disagreement over whether the dugento and trecento should be seen as the winter or the springtime of the Renaissance, the exhibition and its catalogue make clear why Alberti praised Ghiberti, Donatello, and Luca della Robbia in the prologue to his treatise on the art of painting. That their works are shown alongside lesser-known contemporaries as well as numerous painters testifies to the fertile ground found by Florentine artists in marble, bronze, and clay for innovation and inspiration. Springtime of the Renaissance joins a group of recent and forthcoming exhibitions on Florentine Renaissance sculpture, including shows on Ghiberti (2007–8 [click here for review]), Leonardo da Vinci and his circle (2009–10 [click here for review]), and Luca della Robbia (2014). Like its counterparts, Springtime makes a persuasive case for the “primacy” of sculpture as a driving force in Renaissance innovation that, as Marsilio Ficino would write at the close of the quattrocento, “brought back to light the liberal disciplines that were almost extinct . . . and all this took place in Florence” (27).

Anne Leader
Editor, IASblog, Italian Art Society