Arts - Winter 2020

Bronzes for the Ages

The little-known genius of Bertoldo di Giovanni

By Ingrid D. Rowland | December 2, 2019
Bertoldo's largest bronze is a depiction of Roman soldiers battling barbarians-a chaotic swirl of humans and horses. (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence)
Bertoldo's largest bronze is a depiction of Roman soldiers battling barbarians-a chaotic swirl of humans and horses. (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence)

New York City’s Frick Collection famously gathers beautiful artworks in a range of sizes, from monumental wall paintings to smaller works such as Limoges enamels, medals, and miniature statues, the kinds of objects that were crafted to be held as well as seen. This tiny, intimate scale was the one at which the Florentine sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni (c. 1440–1491) excelled. Virtually unknown today except to specialists, he was eclipsed in his own lifetime by more epic figures like his teacher Donatello, his contemporary Andrea del Verrocchio, and above all by a young man who haunted the Medici family gardens where Bertoldo served as caretaker: Michelangelo Buonarroti. Bertoldo, in other words, spent his days among some of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance, in the Florence of Lorenzo de’ Medici. The Frick, which owns one of Bertoldo’s bronze miniatures, a Shield Bearer, has now dedicated an entire exhibition, the first of its kind, to an artist who richly rewards a closer look. With quiet insistence, Bertoldo’s beguiling little masterpieces invite us to feel our way back into the texture of life in 15th-century Florence, with its bustling commerce, its vicious feuds, and the gossamer dreams its residents spun of worlds beyond their Tuscan cityscape and their daily pursuit of money.

Bertoldo cast those dreams in metal, carved them in wood, and modeled them in clay and stucco, producing Arcadian visions of gods, nymphs, and shepherds who never toiled for a living, sculpting Old Testament heroes and virtuous Christian saints, turning ordinary Florentines into knights and ladies from a mythic age of chivalry. The Frick exhibition’s big, beautifully illustrated catalog would make Bertoldo proud—except, perhaps, for Lorenz Böninger’s essay, “Housing Problems of a Renaissance Artist,” which exposes the sculptor’s repeated failure to pay the rent on real estate too grand for his earnings. Fifteenth-century Tuscans loved nothing more than a good lawsuit, and Bertoldo eventually attracted a small army of landlords who pursued him in court until Lorenzo de’ Medici, who ended up paying most of Bertoldo’s legal settlements, took him in as a familiare, a member of il Magnifico’s extensive household.

That paper trail of documents in the Florentine archives is more precious than usual in Bertoldo’s case. He makes two fleeting cameo appearances in our usual sourcebook for Renaissance artistic biographies, Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (first published in 1550 and revised in 1568). Vasari describes Bertoldo as Donatello’s “foster child,” an apt description for someone who probably began his apprenticeship as a young boy. After more than a decade of close association, however, Bertoldo had learned to imitate his master’s style so closely that he took over the workshop when Donatello died in 1466 and finished its outstanding commissions. Vasari reports that the similarity of their technique “can be seen in a bronze battle among horsemen, very beautiful,” which Bertoldo executed for Lorenzo de’ Medici, and in the bronze pulpits for the church of San Lorenzo. We, too, can still see the pulpits in exactly the same place today, no less glorious now than they were more than 450 years before our time.

The “bronze battle among horsemen,” once a private possession of the Medici, is normally on public view at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, but it has traveled to the Frick. This writhing tangle of handsome men and handsome horses was inspired by the marble relief decoration on an ancient Roman sarcophagus. Vasari’s assessment of the work as molto bello is a rare compliment from an exacting critic, and Scott Nethersole’s catalog essay reveals just how clever this Battle is. Rather than copying a well-preserved marble, Bertoldo studied a wreck of an ancient sarcophagus, which gave him greater freedom to compose his own design in its same spirit. Thus with an unerring sense for composition, he turned a battered battle of Romans and barbarians, many of them with their heads knocked off, into a showcase for anatomy, male and female (two sinuous winged victories in clinging dresses and a nearly nude personification survey the deadly struggle with godlike indifference), human and equine, ingeniously contorted forms in three dimensions, compressed improbably into a space less than two inches deep.

Donatello’s mastery of bas-relief was one of the greatest legacies he passed on to Bertoldo, who created bronze reliefs on Christian themes to guide private prayer as well as classical scenes to excite other kinds of imagination. Donatello was one of the first sculptors to produce plaquettes, bronze miniatures designed to suit customers who, like Bertoldo himself, struggled to balance high-flying tastes with middling incomes. And, as Vasari reminds us, Bertoldo “cleaned up” Donatello’s magnificent pulpits for the Medici-sponsored church of San Lorenzo, designed by Donatello’s friend Filippo Brunelleschi (a friend who nonetheless had Donatello cast into debtor’s prison in 1412, as we learn from Böninger’s essay on Bertoldo’s scrapes with the law).

“Cleaned up” is a revealing phrase: a Renaissance sculptor’s work was nowhere near done when a cast bronze was freed from its mold. The metal still needed to be chiseled, chased (that is, pushed into shape), polished, patinated, and often colored, and the traces of that meticulous process are as evident in a statuette as they are in a colossus. Bertoldo, as Julia Day makes clear in the title of her catalog essay, was often quite literally a “Carver in Bronze,” and he seemed to gravitate to that medium the way other members of Donatello’s workshop were drawn to marble. It is irresistible to wonder whether his parents—immigrants from Germany, the home of the foremost metalworkers in Europe—had something to do with this preference. His father, Giovanni di Bertoldo, and his mother, Barbara, were weavers by profession, attracted to Florence by the city’s deliberate efforts to recruit skilled cloth workers from abroad (not just from foreign countries but also from neighboring city-states such as Siena). In Florence, the family joined other German immigrants in Oltrarno, the section of Florence “across the river,” and Bertoldo would continue to favor German neighborhoods as an adult, perhaps to please his mother, who lived with him after her husband’s death.

But Bertoldo’s bronze work also had a tantalizing local pedigree. Florentines were well aware that their city had been founded as a Roman military camp; the rectangular blocks of the ancient street plan survived in the centermost part of the city, and ancient Roman artifacts were a familiar sight: marble sarcophagi, coins, gems, vases, statues in bronze and marble, and bronze miniatures. Even more intriguing to Florentine eyes were the Etruscans, the people who gave their name to the region of Tuscany and once ruled much of what is now central Italy before the Romans subdued them. In the 15th century, when the population of Florence greatly exceeded that of Rome, the Etruscans provided an ideal rallying point for Tuscan patriotism, in pointed contrast to the imperial Roman symbolism of the papal state. Lorenzo de’ Medici therefore sought out Etruscan antiquities to display alongside works of ancient Roman art in every shape, size, and medium. Many of the artists he fostered, like Bertoldo and Michelangelo, were evidently captivated by Etruscan bronze figurines, with their wiry physiques and exotic poses, just as Alberto Giacometti would be several centuries later.

The Etruscans nourished a special devotion to the Greco-Roman hero Hercules, whom they called Hercle, and so did the people of Florence. The city happened to adopt two ancient heroes as its mascots, Hercle from the classical world, and David from the Bible—both of them, like Florence, small but mighty. (Hercules/Hercle also had a special association with cattle, and with those huge slabs of sizzling meat now known as Florentine beefsteak.) Bertoldo’s statuette of Hercules on Horseback draws inspiration from ancient bronze figurines, but like his battle relief, it sets out to better the ancients at their own artistic game. Normally, Hercules carries a club and dresses in a lion skin. He may herd cattle on Greek vases, but he is never shown doing something as sophisticated as riding a horse; in addition to being small, he was not very bright. But Bertoldo’s Hercules is entitled to an extra degree of refinement; rather than the rough-and-ready, dimwitted strongman of classical myth, this rather un-brawny hero commands the obedience of his magnificent horse by force of character and intelligence—the horse has neither bridle nor reins, and Hercules is looking back over his left shoulder as his mount prances ahead. The skin of the slain Nemean Lion is knotted by its paws around his neck, a typical detail, but this lion’s majestic head is something special. Portrayed in three dimensions rather than as a flattened skin, it rests on Hercules’s right thigh. The hero has turned his own head away from the lion’s pelt, but he knows where it is; his right hand rests inside the creature’s open jaws. With his left hand, Hercules grasps his club as usual, but also a garland of flowers and fruits, which is extraordinary. Another flower garland crowns his head, and despite his wild hair, both his beard and his luxuriant mustache are carefully trimmed.

His marvelous mixture of crudity and refinement makes him endlessly enigmatic, and the same is true for many of Bertoldo’s statuettes, from his dancing Orpheus, clad in socks and sandals as he twists in the ecstasy of playing his lira da braccio, to the two faunlike Shield Bearers, with their traces of gilding. The jaunty little goat tail on the Frick Shield Bearer is Bertoldo’s work, but the shields and clubs that give the figures their modern titles turn out to have been added in 1908 rather than the Renaissance.

Bertoldo was one of the first artists to create statuettes in the antique style, and his workmanship certainly lacks the supreme finesse of Benvenuto Cellini two generations later—but so do most of the ancient bronzes that served as his models. Like Donatello and Verrocchio, Bertoldo was a pioneer, eager to express new forms in new media. He was also evidently inspired by the contrast between wildness and civilization. His Hercules on Horseback is almost a gentleman, whereas his Shield Bearers, for all their grace, are still untamed forces of nature, wrapped in vines with unkempt hair, and his Battle depicts the struggle that turns men into savages.

One of the most savage events in Bertoldo’s own lifetime took place in Florence Cathedral on April 26, 1478, when several members of the Pazzi family, a rival clan to the Medici, conspired to assassinate Lorenzo de’ Medici and his brother Giuliano during Sunday Mass. The plot had covert support from Pope Sixtus IV in Rome, one reason that the signal for the conspirators to pounce on their intended prey (at least according to some accounts) was the moment in the liturgy when the officiating priest, the Pope’s nephew, raised the host to signify its transformation into the body of Christ. Lorenzo was wounded but managed to escape into the cathedral sacristy, but handsome, popular Giuliano was butchered on the spot. The attack only served to consolidate Lorenzo’s command over Florence, and to reinforce that command, he commissioned a medal. One side, labeled salus publica (the public safety), shows only Lorenzo’s head, facing right, rising above a vivid portrayal of his brush with death. The other, with the motto luctus publicus (public mourning), has Giuliano’s head, facing left, above a crowd of swordsmen converging on his prostrate body and a second scene showing his body carried aloft out of the cathedral. The medal is roughly two and a half inches in diameter, and its two sides are, like so much of Bertoldo’s work, quirky and original, remarkable for their convincing portrayal in miniature of violent action within an architectural space.

Bertoldo was no less ingenious when he worked in plaster and clay. Art historians now believe that he executed the plaster roundels that decorate the courtyard of Palazzo Medici, each one of them bearing a scene from one of Lorenzo’s collection of ancient cut gems and cameos (many of them inscribed with his name). His life-size statue of a stark naked Saint Jerome was carved in wood and then modeled in gesso (a type of plaster) before he painted it, a startlingly vivid presence with piercing brown eyes that until recently were buried under a layer of plaster from a subsequent restoration. Along with ascetic saints, Florentines loved images of chubby winged babies, which they called spiritelli, little sprites. Bertoldo was a masterly crafter of fat baby thighs in bronze, painted plaster, and terracotta, this last a medium in which the Etruscans had been masters in antiquity.

The Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano outside Florence was designed in a 15th-century version of Etruscan style, with a pedimented temple front drawn from the description of Etruscan temples supplied by the ancient Roman architectural writer Vitruvius, with a terracotta frieze of white-painted figures on a blue background, somewhere between a marble relief and a giant cameo. The frieze, removed from its original site in the 1960s and replaced by a copy, has traveled to New York, where we can admire a whole succession of ancient divinities, including a hook-nosed character with a hammer drawn straight from an Etruscan tomb. He may be the deity Demogorgon, who was not a real Etruscan god but rather an invention of the writer Giovanni Boccaccio, the author not only of the ribald stories of the Decameron but also of a Genealogy of the Gods. These primeval immortals, designed for one of the most refined patrons of the Renaissance, are the perfect terrain for Bertoldo’s particular genius, and it is a rare privilege to see them in the company of so many other examples of his irresistible art.

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