Making it

Nicholas Penny

  • The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino by Bruce Boucher
    Yale, 304 pp, £95.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 300 04759 2
  • Giambattista and Lorenzo Bregno: Venetian Sculpture in the High Renaissance by Anne Markham Schulz
    Cambridge, 564 pp, £85.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 521 38406 0

Each day, hundreds of people visit the world’s finest collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but thousands come to see the superb, though less comprehensive and extraordinary, collection of Italian Renaissance painting in the National Gallery nearly two miles away. When they were made, the paintings were no more highly esteemed than the sculptures – nor were the two separated from each other. In Florence especially, they were very close. Reliefs of stucco, terracotta and papier mâché were often coloured by painters. Donatello and Ghiberti, the leading Florentine sculptors of the early 15th century, began to pursue pictorial effects – effects of linear and aerial perspective which were also novel in painting. Yet these were not imitated from paintings. It was the sculptors who led the way.

Two of the most successful artists in Florence during the 1470s, Andrea Verrocchio and Antonio Pollaiuolo, were sculptors who also ran painting workshops. Verrocchio’s pupil Leonardo da Vinci was a sculptor as well as a painter (although all that remains of his three-dimensional work is the remarkable bronze of a horse and rider in the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts). Michelangelo was trained by a painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio. But in Florence it was also part of the painter’s business to study sculpture, and the short step from drawing it to making it was irresistible. When the young Raphael arrived in Florence in 1504 – and he went there ‘to study’ – he paid as much attention to the sculpture of Donatello and Michelangelo as to the paintings by Leonardo and Fra Bartolommeo.

By the time Raphael had reached Rome, in 1508, it was just as important for a serious painter as for a serious sculptor to be a student of Antiquity – that is, of antique Roman sculpture (for hardly any ancient painting was known). Soon after the great Laocoön group was unearthed, a competition was organised for a wax model which would serve as an accurate record of the group and a guide for its restoration. Raphael was the judge and he gave the prize to a young Florentine, Jacopo Tatti, later to be named Sansovino (after his master, Andrea Sansovino).

Raphael’s own master, Perugino, paid Sansovino an even greater tribute by commissioning wax models to be used for his own paintings. Perugino would certainly have realised that his paintings would benefit from the study of nude figures inspired by the antique – at least if he wanted to continue to attract connoisseurs. Perhaps, however, he was not really earnest in wishing to change his style, but hoped to improve his image by sponsoring a rising star. Miraculously, what is very likely to be one of the fragile models made for Perugino, a Descent from the Cross, has survived and can be admired in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It consists of wax figures about six inches high, together with wooden crosses and ladders, and is set on a wooden stage with a painted background. Bruce Boucher in his book on Sansovino discusses in detail its origin and purpose but supplies little information on technique. ‘Covered with gold leaf’ is a misleading description of the gold paint which obscures much of the modelling and surely cannot be original (moreover, I suspect that, in addition to wax and wood, textile was employed). The gold may explain the survival: it transformed a painter’s model into a work of miniature sculpture attractive to the collector.

After his return to Florence in 1510 Sansovino was commissioned to carve a half life-size marble Bacchus for a garden. He created the astonishing statue now in the Bargello in Florence, which represents the god in an excited yet graceful attitude, holding a cup aloft. The subject of this sculpture is not discussed by Boucher – nor, I think, by anyone else – but surely Sansovino wished to portray the invention of wine. In any case, the god seems to be marvelling at something new. It is hard now not to compare the sculpture with Michelangelo’s tipsy Bacchus, which happens also to be in the Bargello and was also made in emulation of ancient Roman sculpture, though Boucher rightly cautions us against the assumption that Sansovino intended his work as an echo or a reply. Comparisons with Michelangelo must have been unavoidable, however, when Sansovino was given the commission for the colossal statue of St James – one of the series of 12 Apostles that Michelangelo had agreed to carve eight years before for the Cathedral of Florence, but abandoned after having only started to carve the St Matthew.

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