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.

Sansovino worked on the St James between 1511 and 1517, taking immense care over the details of the carving. The saint could easily have been depicted grasping the Gospel firmly with his left hand but by having him merely press it with his fingertips a more nervous energy is suggested. The sculptor demonstrated his astonishing technical virtuosity by carving the underside of each finger. But the greatest feats of undercutting are in the drapery, and Boucher points out that here Sansovino reveals skills which he must have learnt from his master. Sansovino would have intended this statue as his masterpiece. That it represents his name-saint cannot be a coincidence and Boucher argues persuasively that it may also be a self-portrait. At present the lighting on the statue creates numerous shadows that the sculptor cannot have intended, dust has darkened the salient portions (meant to be the lightest) and the baton held in the saint’s right hand has not been extended with a length of painted wood or metal to make the staff which the sculptor must have intended and the composition demands.

After Sansovino had carved a statue of a male nude and another larger, elaborately draped male figure, one might have advised him to demonstrate his range by tackling a Virgin and Child. This is precisely what he did on his return to Rome, where, between 1518 and 1521, he carved the Madonna del Parto for Santa Maria del Pepolo – perhaps the most monumental of all the sculptures of this subject created in the Renaissance, not excepting those by Michelangelo, whose Virgins in Bruges and in the Medici Chapel are more vulnerable in mood and intimate in conception. At the same time, as Boucher observes, Sansovino’s sculpture owes much to Michelangelo. For all its majestic grandeur it is highly accessible – and indeed it became the focus of distracting popular devotion. Unlike the St James, the Virgin may have suffered from too much attention on the part of curators. The brown stain which is especially marked in Christ’s flesh is not natural to the Carrara marble of which it was carved. Boucher speculates that it may be due to wax polish which has darkened but the phenomenon occurs in many Renaissance marbles in museums, and others have attributed it to the cleaning methods favoured earlier in this century.

While engaged on this sequence of major commissions Sansovino also made smaller sculptures – we know, for instance, that his patron Giovanni Gaddi owned a swan and a Venus, both carved in marble, of which no trace remains. No less significant is the fact that Gaddi owned a ‘boy of tow’ by Sansovino. Tow was one of the materials used for modelling in clay and plaster. This sculpture must have been a rough thing, but collectors were by then anxious to obtain artists’ models (as well as painters’ preparatory cartoons). The Florentine banker and connoisseur Bindo Altoviti, whose portrait was painted by Raphael and modelled by Cellini, owned the clay model for the St James.

The influence which Sansovino exercised on Fra Bartolommeo and Andrea del Sarto, the leading Florentine painters, is an important indication of the great esteem in which he was held by the artistic community. The influence was probably transmitted chiefly through the sculptor’s models. The wood and wax model of the Descent from the Cross has already been mentioned, but another model from this later period may also have survived: a wooden figure of the Virgin and Child with drapery of linen stiffened in gesso. The attribution of this figure, now in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, to Sansovino rests on its strong resemblance to paintings by Andrea del Sarto rather than any very close connection with Sansovino’s documented sculpture. This is, however, legitimate, for we know from Vasari that Sarto, who shared Sansovino’s studio, used his models and in particular that the great figure of St John the Evangelist in Sarin’s Madonna of the Harpies commemorates a model Sansovino made for a competition.

The personifications of Justice and Charity which were painted by Sarto in the Chiostro dello Scalzo are also, Boucher argues, likely to reflect models by his friend. Interesting support for this claim is supplied by a curious Florentine portrait in Christ Church picture gallery in Oxford of a man holding two gilt statuettes. One of these is identical in pose to the personification of Hope painted by Sarto in the Scalzo. The other may have originated in one of the figures for a model of the façade of the Duomo in Florence which Sansovino and Sarto made together as part of the ephemeral decorations for the triumphal entry into Florence of the Medici Pope Leo X.

Had Sansovino died in the Sack of Rome in 1527, he would be accepted as the third greatest sculptor, after Michelangelo and Giambologna, to have worked in Italy in the 16th century, but he escaped from Rome and settled in Venice where, while continuing his work as a sculptor, he became one of the greatest architects of his time. His work as an architect has been admirably studied in a book by Deborah Howard (also published by Yale and still in print) and it is only touched on by Boucher. His most successful buildings are among the best known in the world – the Mint, the Library and the Loggetta around St Mark’s. They have a plasticity, a richness of modelling and relief, which were without precedent in Renaissance architecture. The wall is replaced by swelling columns and ornamental friezes, while figures sprawl in the spandrels and crown the cornice. In the case of the Loggetta there are also statues in niches, and relief tablets. This type of sculptural architecture derives from the model for the Duomo façade, but in Florence, where the only white stone suitable for exterior sculpture was marble, which was reserved for sacred architecture, it would never have been possible to create ornate secular buildings such as Sansovino built in the city of Venice, which owned the quarries of white limestone at Istria.

Sansovino’s Venetian sculpture is much more difficult to assess than his earlier work in Florence and Rome. The statue of John the Baptist carved for a font in the Frari soon after he arrived in Venice is exquisitely finished but it is now damaged and (more important) can only be seen from a position much lower than Sansovino had in mind. Much of his other work was executed by assistants. This is unsurprising in the case of the colossal marble Mars and Neptune in the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace – the giganti – which fail to achieve the awe-inspiring ceremonial effect that was intended.

His most ambitious composition in marble must be the Miracle of the Maiden Carilla, one of a series of narrative reliefs with life-size figures surrounding the shrine of St Antony in the Church of the Santo in Padua. The sculptor worked on this for more than twenty years (payments were made between 1536 and 1557), continually distracted by pressure of other business. Boucher cites both Alberti and Leonardo in order to explain the mingling of old and young, and male and female among the witnesses of the miracle. But the prominence of the old crone in the foreground remains a problem: grotesque features are hard facts, far more easily softened in a painting. There are other problems too: above all, an unhappy transition from high to low relief, especially when compared with the Miracle of the Youth at Lisbon beside it, carved by Girolamo Campagna later in the century.

The Miracle of the Maiden Carilla isn’t the only work of Sansovino’s to have suffered from his inability to give it his whole attention. It is the case, too, with the tomb of Galesio Nichesola in Verona Cathedral, where the figurative and architectural components gain nothing from each other, and the head of the recumbent effigy collides painfully with the statue above it. The tomb of the Doge Francesco Venier in S. Salvadore in Venice is a far more ambitious work made at the end of the sculptor’s life. Here a large portion of the sculpture was subcontracted to Sansovino’s former pupil Alessandro Vittoria, but two virtues, Hope and Charity, are chiselled with Sansovino’s name. In the case of Charity ‘component parts of Sansovinesque models have been dutifully if dryly assembled to form a large-scale statue’, and Boucher is surely right that it was designed as well as executed by the workshop. However, Hope is a splendid figure with the ample and accessible grandeur of Veronese’s women – a comparison which struck Burckhardt in the last century.

It is noteworthy that these two statues on the Venier tomb are not – or seem not to be – highly finished: ‘claw chisel marks are visible across both figures as are drill holes in the hair and folds of drapery. But because they were never meant to be seen close at hand, Sansovino let them leave his studio in this state.’ We do not find quite this lack of finish in other similarly elevated works by Sansovino or his associates, however. Another possible explanation derives from the fact that the figures were carved out of Istrian stone. This bleaches when weathered, so that the buildings of Venice appear as white as marble against a blue sky but, inside, the same stone is grey (polishing turns it pale yellow). It is cheaper than marble, but this seems an unlikely explanation for its being used in the Venier tomb, which incorporated monoliths of Marmara marble and veneer of verde antico. Might not the figures have been intended to be polychrome – like the papier-mâché reliefs which were cast from models made by Sansovino at this date? If so, a gesso ground would have been necessary, with the roughened surface serving as a key. Support for this hypothesis is supplied by the discovery that some other 16th-century Venetian tomb sculpture has certainly had its colour stripped off. Portions of the effigy and the architecture retain the original gilding, which would have looked far more brilliant contrasted with colour than it does next to the dull stone.

Whatever reservations we may have about the sculpture in stone and marble made by Sansovino after his move to Venice do not apply when we consider his sculpture in bronze: the four gods in the niches of the Loggetta, the Evangelists on the balustrade of the sanctuary of St Mark’s, the six reliefs of the miracles and ministry of St Mark for the tribune of the same basilica, and the sacristy door with its playful children, its sprawling prophets, its portrait heads, and its reliefs of the Entombment and the Resurrection. Sansovino’s role in the making of these bronzes must have consisted chiefly in preparing preliminary models of wax or clay; specialist craftsmen then took moulds from the models and made wax casts which would have been reworked either by Sansovino or under his supervision. Finally, the process of bronze casting would have been left to founders.

A bronze can be considered technically superlative either by virtue of the filing, chiselling, punching, engraving and polishing which it receives after casting, or because of the precision with which it reproduces the wax. Sansovino’s bronze reliefs belong largely to the latter category. We can see this clearly enough from some of the plates in Boucher’s book – in the detail of the swooning Virgin from the Entombment with all its miniature irregularities of surface and its casting crack, or on the borders of the framework of the door, where the foliate pattern shows none of the crisp edges which come from chiselling (one ‘Menico intagliatore’ was paid for work on frames, but this is unlikely to have entailed work on the metal, as Boucher proposes).

Boucher is especially perceptive in his discussion of these reliefs, comparing the Entombment with Donatello’s reliefs for their densely packed and highly agitated figures, but also noting how the composition was adapted by Sansovino’s friend Titian for the painting of the Entombment which is now in the Prado. The blending of the figures with each other and with the setting – Mary melting into her companions, Joseph of Arimathea clinging to the body of Christ, the outstretched arms of the Magdalene so eloquently related to the lines of the hills – has a unifying effect often found in painting of this period, but rare in sculpture, and this owes much to the softness of the modelling. So, too, does the distant landscape where the transitions are not only immensely subtle, but the entire surface seems still to record the delicate imprint of the modeller’s fingertips. ‘The distant views of countryside in low relief made in the manner of painting’ were commended by Sansovino’s son in his guide to Venice of 1581. Indeed, this is the most remarkable composition in aerial perspective to be attempted in low relief since the work of Donatello and Ghiberti over a century before in Florence.

The most extraordinary relief which Sansovino executed in this mode must be his Triumph of the Redeemer, in which the risen Christ appears amid baby clouds and baby angels – the former obviously shaped with a spatula, the latter largely modelled with the fingers. The pictorial relief (significantly, it was adapted by Lorenzo Lotto for a painting) makes the angels seem a part of the sky, compounded of clouds and light, as they are in Titian’s Assunta or his late version of the Annunciation. The finest version is in Berlin; a variant in the Bargello is extended rather weakly at the edges in a manner which gives a far less commanding position to Christ. Boucher, like many other scholars, prefers the Bargello version, however, and believes that the one in Berlin was cut down.

This is one of the few occasions on which I disagree with him, though I sometimes feel that more technical discussion is needed. His assessment of Sansovino’s achievement is both judicious and highly sympathetic. The text is supplemented with an anthology of documents, many of which have never been published, and an admirable catalogue. Boucher’s discursive approach in the text is especially valuable. For example, he doesn’t merely examine Sansovino’s relief in the Santo but looks into the history of this extraordinary scheme (providing a convincing theory as to its origin); and in his discussion of the giganti he reviews the Renaissance fascination with colossal sculpture. The Sculpture of Jacopo Sansovino is a major contribution to the study of Italian Renaissance sculpture, as well as an excellent monograph.

There has been intense scholarly interest recently in the sculptors who were active in Venice in the decades before Sansovino settled there, but very little public awareness of it, and the Lombardi (Pietro, Tullio and Antonio), who were the dominant figures in the late 15th century enjoy none of the fame of the dynasties of painters – the Bellini or even the Vivarini. It is, however, undeniable that the ‘major artistic undertakings’ of the later 15th and early 16th century in Venice, ‘judged not by their novelty and beauty, but by their size and cost, by the length of time and number of craftsmen required for their execution, were not paintings at all, but rather sculptural ensembles made for public sites’. Anne Markham Schulz, having made this observation, proceeds to note that the most successful sculptors in Venice ‘during the brief term of their careers’ – that is, during the first two decades of the 16th century – ‘were Giambattista and Lorenzo Bregno’.

Schulz’s book on these sculptors represents one of the most commendable reconstructions of an artist’s work undertaken in recent decades. Most of the 340 illustrations are new photographs of high quality, made under her careful direction from scaffolds erected in 13 separate sites in both Venice and the Veneto, at the expense of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Giambattista Bregno’s existence has long been acknowledged but before Schulz’s publications no works were known to be by him. On the other hand, quite a few were attributed to his brother Lorenzo, although hardly any of them were in fact by him. She has done a great deal of work in the archives and has examined all of the sculpture, which she discusses with extraordinary care, tracing neglected evidence of their original colouring (in the nostril of Neptune on the tomb of Benedetto Pesaro in the Frari, for example). Her powers of analysis and her visual memory are exceptionally acute. Pausing in front of the finest of the six bronze female figures who circle the sarcophagus of Cardinal Zen in his chapel in St Mark’s, she observes how the ‘ruffled border’ of the mantle, the tousled folds of the more than full-length skirt’ which ‘flurry about her feet’, and the ‘thin quavering fold’ falling to the waist from the prominent nipple of the right breast can all be matched in the figure of the Virgin in the altarpiece of the Visitation, which Giambattista Bregno made for the Duomo in Treviso. Not that it’s as simple as that. Schulz wonders whether the figure wasn’t partly an invention of Antonio Lombardo’s, which Giambattista modified. It is exhilarating to be in the company of a scholar with an open mind and open eyes, who writes so vividly about sculpture which has been ignored or disparaged.