Michael Cole’s interesting and important new book examines the production of Florentine sculptors during the second half of the sixteenth century. The work offers a significant contribution to our knowledge of the arts in general during this period, but it takes as its principal subject the problems peculiar to sculptors. Giambologna is the hero of this study, though, as the title indicates, his work is seen in competition with his Florentine rivals, Bartolomeo Ammanati and Vincenzo Danti.
Cole’s project involves a revision of John Pope-Hennessy’s take on sixteenth-century sculpture, seen mostly through the lens of Michelangelo. In his landmark study of 1963, Pope-Hennessy actually expressed little interest in later sixteenth-century sculpture, which he roundly denigrates. But Michelangelo, as influential as he was, hardly exhausted sculptural possibilities. Cole attempts, as he says, to recover “the rules of the game,” to account for the complex sculptural discourse during these years. This he does without recourse to the rather outdated concept of “Mannerism” for which Giambologna has long been a standard bearer. The author draws from an impressive array of textual sources. There are expected voices such as that of Raffaello Borghini, whose rich dialogue sheds extensive light on Giambologna’s oeuvre. And there are many others, such as Vincenzo Danti’s own treatise that Cole mines to good effect.
The famous bending or twisting of Giambologna’s figures is treated in one section that sets the sculptor’s practice in the context of virtuoso approaches to articulating the body within the block of stone. Cole links these sculptural poses with practices in painting by Bronzino and others, which might earn criticism for unnecessary contortions. But Giambologna, of course, worked extensively in bronze. His unprecedented production of small, portable bronze statuettes as prime objects is discussed at some length – especially notable, since Giambologna was not trained as a goldsmith.
Among the themes in this book is the ambivalence felt by the leading sculptors toward manual labor, toward the physical effort necessary to craft their product. The appealing image of Vulcan as smith competed with the desire to claim sculpture as a liberal art. Another issue is that of careful finish as opposed to the “non finito” look of the roughly carved or cast, with interesting comments reported from Leone Leone, Filippo Baldinucci, Francesco Bocchi, and others. In addition to fashioning his figures with a smooth finish, Giambologna may have eliminated from his statues much ornamentation – the expected diadems and so forth – in an attempt to avoid the excessive decoration deplored by critics such as Bocchi.
There follow a series of close studies of specific commissions. An example is the Neptune Fountain in Bologna, a point of reference for years to come. And there is extensive discussion of Giambologna’s Mercury, his Equestrian Monument to Cosimo I de’ Medici, and his design and execution of the Salviati Chapel in San Marco.
This last project prompts Cole to address the problematic relation of sculpture to architecture, a consistent theme in the book. There seems to have been a long-standing insecurity among sculptors regarding architecture as a more serious art. Cellini’s text of the 1560s, “On Architecture,” goes so far as to claim the art of building as the “second daughter of sculpture” in what Cole suggests may be a defensive move. Cellini calls forth Brunelleschi, Antonio da Sangallo, and Michelangelo, all sculptor-architects, as demonstrations of the symbiotic relation between the arts. That said, Giambologna’s architectural practice seems, primarily, to have been the designing of façades. The Salviati Chapel is a closed space with highly articulated walls – strongly reminiscent of exterior design turned inward. This is not to detract from Giambologna’s achievement, but it might be pointed out that many sculptors and painters appropriated the more spectacular duties of the architect, fashioning the public face to buildings. They became masters in the use of the classical orders and established ornamental features. The erection of vaults and other structural concerns might be left to trained masons.
One issue particularly pertinent to readers of this Newsletter is the question of Giambologna’s nationality. He was born in Douai, then in the Flemish cultural orbit, and studied, we are told, with the eminent Jacques Dubroeucq in Mons. Dubrouecq, artist to the emperor, was the leading sculptor in the Low Countries during the 1540s. No works by Giambologna prior to his arrival in Italy are known. It is nonetheless true that he identified himself as “Belga” and helped train several Netherlandish sculptors. His studio was a port of call to traveling painters from the Low Countries, such as Hendrik Goltzius, Pieter de Witte, and Peter Paul Rubens. And he erected in the Soccorso Chapel of Santissima Annunziata in Florence a “tomb …for all of those who, coming from the Flemish nation, exercised in the beautiful departments of sculpture and architecture.” Cole acknowledges this identification in repeatedly calling Giambologna “the Fleming.” But can Giambologna be considered Netherlandish in an artistic sense? In his monograph on the sculptor (Giambologna, Moyer Bell, 1987), Charles Avery suggested that certain qualities in Giambologna’s output might betray his early training in the Low Countries. And I, too, wonder whether some of Giambologna’s female figures, such as the Architectura in the Barghello, may reveal his earlier northern experience. These figures, sleek and abstracted, with little articulation of joints or musculature, are quite different from works by Ammanati and others in Florence. They recall the few northern nudes such as Willem van den Broecke’s Venus and Amor of 1559 (private collection) and, perhaps, the stucco nudes designed by Primaticcio at Fontainebleau – which were very much in Netherlandish consciousness. Yet there is very little to go on.
It is interesting to note that an enormous number of talented sculptors emigrated from the Netherlands during the second half of the sixteenth century. Some, like Giambologna, traveled to Italy; others relocated in Spain, England, France, Germany, Austria, and Poland. In fact, the history of Netherlandish sculpture during this period plays out largely abroad, and a significant chapter arises from Giambologna’s tutelage. The twisting figures of Giambologna have no surviving precedents in the Low Countries, yet expatriate Netherlanders like Adriaen de Vries and Hubert Gerhard soon developed this feature into a continuing genre. The very “Netherlandishness” of these sculptors, who by and large avoided practicing in the Low Countries, becomes a problematic issue. Sculpture in the second half of the sixteenth century became increasingly pan-European, much as its aristocratic patrons came to adopt an international outlook. The great sculpture workshops like that of Giambologna mandated extensive collaboration of artists from varied backgrounds, whether in carving or casting. This was Willem van Tetrode’s route to Cellini’s workshop. And it was the way that the Netherlanders Pierre Franqueville, Hans van Mont, and Adriaen de Vries gained entrance to Giambologna’s studio.
Nor was this exclusively an Italian phenomenon. The contemporary Shrine to Moritz of Saxony in Freiberg, built from 1559-63, was commissioned from an equally heterogeneous assortment of artists. The brothers Gabriel and Benedikt de Thola from Brescia designed the imposing monument, which looks a bit like Michelangelo’s first project for the Tomb of Julius II. The effigy of Moritz was fashioned after a court portrait by the Dresden painter Hans Krel. The bronze griffins supporting the upper plinth were cast in Lübeck. And much of the fine alabaster carving of ancient warriors and muses was entrusted to Antonius van Zerroen of Antwerp. Projects such as these utterly defeat nationalist scholarship.
Ambitious Form is itself an ambitious work that has much to recommend it. Aided by sensitive formal analysis and textual interpretation, Cole offers insights into the elite sculptor’s brief. Multiple facets to Giambologna’s career are now clearer – his technical achievements in marble and bronze, his professional dialogue with compatriots, and his approach to architecture among others. The book is a significant contribution to our understanding of the arts of what might be called the later Renaissance.
Ethan Matt Kavaler
University of Toronto