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March 7, 2022
Amy R. Bloch and Daniel M. Zolli, eds. The Art of Sculpture in Fifteenth-Century Italy Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 454 pp.; 112 color ills. Cloth $99.99 (9781108428842)

This pathbreaking volume features nineteen substantial research studies that burrow deep into individual examples of the physical, geographical, aesthetic, philosophical, political, and historical circumstances that led to the creation, appreciation, alteration, destruction, restoration, reassembly, and constant reinterpretation of sculpture produced in fifteenth-century Italy. While these essays are all clearly addressed to fellow Renaissance scholars, a remarkable twentieth essay, the introduction by coeditors Amy R. Bloch and Daniel M. Zolli, provides an overview of the field that is so highly accessible and original in the range of media and topics addressed that it should become standard reading for both advanced undergraduates and specialists in other fields. 

Bloch’s and Zolli’s introduction begins not with large-scale stone sculpture or the famous bronze competition panels by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455) and Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446)  (as is nearly always the case in considerations of quattrocento sculpture) but with a small self-portrait medal by the much underrated and misunderstood Antonio Filarete (ca. 1400–ca. 1469), whose work at the Vatican is the subject of a penetrating study by Robert Glass later in the volume.  Bloch and Zolli remind the reader that sculpture (by their highly inclusive definition, essentially anything three dimensional) was fashioned in all shapes and sizes and in a staggering range of materials for private as well as public viewing and use.

In their introductory essay the editors explicitly chose not to provide a survey of sculptural production in fifteenth-century Italy nor summarize the essays and methodologies that follow, but Bloch and Zolli do identify a general theme of making and unmaking sculpture that informs their own work and many of the other studies. In other words, they think not only about what brought sculpture into being in fifteenth-century Italy but what preoccupations hung over sculptors and their patrons in terms of the fragility of their creations, which if in precious metal were highly likely to be melted down. Even works in stone, while notably more durable than painting, could be willfully disfigured or destroyed, a topic cogently explored by Megan Holmes with literary as well as documentary references in her contribution to the volume.

Bloch and Zolli commissioned all the chapters for this volume, providing a kind of survey of subjects and approaches currently popular in this field. But even with expanded geographical and interpretive boundaries that include Renaissance Rome, Naples, Milan, and the Veneto, the essays skew disproportionately to Tuscany. Perhaps in the future these resourceful scholars might consider assembling yet another team that would venture across the entire peninsula to produce the broad, pan-Italian survey that they were understandably reluctant to attempt at this moment. We live in an age more fascinated by trees than forests, more intrigued by variety and diversity than commonalities, rightfully wary of broad generalizations and supposedly unifying principles; but given the evidence provided by the essays in the current volume, the picture could be made even richer and more nuanced by rebalancing not only the made and unmade, as we see in this volume, but the so-called centers and peripheries.

Such an endeavor may be long in coming in part because the field of Renaissance sculptural studies is still so actively reinventing itself. This is painfully evident in the only substantial criticism I have to offer of this volume: the rather arbitrary and even quirky manner in which the essays are ordered and grouped. Section titles like “Sculptural Bodies: Created, Destroyed, and Re-Enchanted” (Part II) or “Sculptural Norms, Made and Unmade” (Part III) are simply pasted-on dividers without any explication by the editors; they obfuscate rather than clarify whether the essays that follow do or do not share a broader theme worth considering. Similarly, the editors chose to start with three chapters looking up close at sculptural surfaces; these contributions, while fascinating and illuminating in their own right (Una Roman D’Elia on considerations of white-pigmented areas of sculpture, Frank Fehrenbach on the surprising variety of tones and textures evident in so-called monochromatic stone, and Catherine Kupiec on the effects of illumination and luminosity on the glazed terracottas of Luca della Robbia, 1400–1482), left this reader disappointed by the fact that all three focused largely on Tuscan topics, a bias the editors otherwise actively seek to counter. What is more, claiming in the introduction that the essays explore their topics in progressively broader contexts as the volume unfolds simply does not hold water, if only because all are so richly conceived, documented, and argued.

As is usual with this sort of edited collection, then, it makes more sense to approach these essays by following a particular topic or theme of one’s own interest rather than expecting a book that unfolds to reveal a particular argument. There was no singular art of sculpture in fifteenth-century Italy, as the obviously marketing-oriented title of the volume might suggest. Still, in whatever manner one organizes or reads the essays, many fascinating subtopics and overlapping themes do appear. For essays that masterfully exploit issues of restoration and technical physical evidence, one can turn to the essay by Yvonne Elet on quattrocento experiments with stucco, Lauren Jacobi’s consideration of numismatic practices that went far beyond the Florentine mint, and Michael J. Waters’s close examination of the stacking and recombination of stone drums in the candelabra-columns of Como Cathedral, along with Lorenzo G. Buonanno’s consideration of the daring manner in which Tullio Lombardo (ca. 1455–1532) and Antonio Rizzo (ca. 1430–ca. 1499) excavated into their marble blocks. For extended discussions of the implications of unmaking sculpture, see the previously mentioned essay by Holmes and the theoretical implications identified by Adrian Randolph between Donatello and Nanni di Bartolo and the dual figure composition of their Abraham and Isaac (1421). Our appreciation of the aesthetics and audiences of relief sculpture is enriched through David J. Drogin’s meticulous comparative analysis of panels by Donatello (1384–1466), Jacopo della Quercia (1374–1438), and Ghiberti; Sarah Blake McHam’s revisionist examination of popular prints and devotion in relation to Bellano’s reliefs for the choir enclosure of the Santo in Padua; Henrike Christiane Lange’s consideration of Mantegna’s response to Donatello; and Glass’ previously mentioned essay on Filarete’s bronze doors for St. Peter’s Basilica.

Meanwhile, for theoretical and interpretive perspectives from which quattrocento viewers considered sculpture, see Zolli on how Neapolitans assumed a monumental horse head by Donatello into their ancient Virgilian legends; Peter Jonathan Bell’s essay on “freestandingness” as understood by Donatello, Alberti (1404–1472), and their contemporaries; and Joost Keizer on the documentary rather than aesthetic value of much ancient sculpture in quattrocento Rome. For the broad reintegration of sculpture into Sienese culture and lived experience, see Ashley Elston on the now truncated but originally full figures of enthroned patron saints that Francesco di Valdambrino (1375–1435) set in front of Duccio’s Maestà on the high altar of Siena Cathedral and also Bloch’s elegant essay, which attends to hydrology, iconography, style, and poetry to provide a fuller understanding of both the creation and interpretation of Jacopo della Quercia’s Fonte Gaia (1408-19). For questions of lighting and illumination, one can logically pair Morgan Ng’s physical and iconographic appreciation of the multimedia complex of the tomb of the Cardinal of Portugal at San Miniato with Kupiec’s previously mentioned essay on Luca della Robbia. Of course, it might be equally informative to read Bloch and Drogin together on Jacopo della Quercia; Bell, Drogin, Randolph, and Lange on Donatello; and many other combinations—all signs of how rich and revealing these studies are.

The production values Cambridge University Press brought to this publication are very high: crisp, clear black-and-white images and numerous plates that underscore the varying coloristic effects of the materials from which sculpture was carved or cast, their different surface treatments, and the dynamic and shifting effects of natural as well as artificial illumination. Sculpture in fifteenth-century Italy provided a full feast for the eye and mind, as this fine book and its many insightful essays confirm.

Gary Radke
Professor Emeritus of Art History, Syracuse University