Sunday, November 17, 2019

Bertoldo di Giovanni

The Frick Collection in New York has continued its series of wonderful shows on renaissance bronzes.   This exhibition, Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence, is the  first to be devoted this sculptor who lived ca. 1440–1491.  He was the student of one of the most famous sculptors of that or any other period, Donatello, and went on to be a teacher of Michelangelo.  To top that off he was a great favorite of Lorenzo “il Magnifico” de’ Medici, the most important collector and patron of the period. I believe this is so significant because if the greatest patron of the arts at the time was a huge fan, the artist must have been doing something right.

The “excuse” for the show, as if one is needed, is the Frick’s own bronze, “Shield Bearer” which is the only known work by the Bertoldo outside of Europe.  It is as well a wonderful example of the artist’s work, being very detailed and tight.  Note the hair on this figure’s head and beard.

Monographic exhibitions are put together for a number of reasons, often depending on the taste of the curator.  These days, however, Museums will not lend on a whim, but want to see that the show will advance art history .  One of the most frequent reasons being that if we see these works of art all in the same place, we can make distinctions and draw references.  Here they have brought together more than 20 examples representing the majority of Bertoldo’s work. Also, these shows give the opportunity to reunite objects that were created together but have been separated.  For instance, Liechtenstein: The Princely Collections in Vaduz-Vienna lent their Shield Bearer, which offered a prime opportunity for comparison with the Frick’s. At first it appears to be the mirror image but if you look closely you will find many differences. 

The exhibition opens with Bertoldo's largest bronze. It is an incredibly complicated relief that is an adaptation of an ancient sarcophagus that depicts a battle between Roman soldiers and barbarians. The bronze was lent by the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, with whom the Frick collaborated on the show.

One of my favorite pieces is Hercules on Horseback lent by the Gallerie Estensi, Modena.  It was probably made for the Duke Ercole I d'Este, who associated himself with his namesake.  Ercole even rode through Ferrara in antique costume, bringing flowering branches to the city's most beautiful women.

Being close to life size, the most impressive sculpture is a full-length figure of St. Jerome,  in wood, gesso and paint, ca. 1465–66. The startling realism comes from a great period of innovation.  It was lent to the show by the Pinacoteca Comunale, Faenza. Today’s scholars propose it was begun by Donatello at the end of his life and completed by his student, Bertoldo. Who am I to dispute that? If you look closely you can see the blood dripping from the wound caused by St. Jerome beating himself with the stone he holds.  It is thought that it was meant to go on a plinth where the blood would be better seen from below.

Bertoldo was an innovator in the field of medals but I will leave that for you to discover.

The fully illustrated catalog accompanying the show is the most substantial text on Bertoldo ever produced.  Why is this important?  Because Bertoldo is the direct link between the two greatest names in Renaissance Sculpture, Donatello and Michelangelo.  The latter having the ego that went along with his talent made himself out to have been self-taught and did not mention the instruction from Bertoldo.  An issue for Bertoldo was that he did not have his own studio and relied on other artists to work with him. Artists did work together sometimes! Also, If art historians think that something is just too good to be Bertoldo it gets attributed to Michelangelo.  Many great names are buried by history.

I, for one, am delighted that the Frick has done this exhibition which runs until January 12, 2020. I am only disappointed that it is not travelling in this country.  The show was organized by Aimee NG, Curator, Alexander J. Noelle, Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow and Xavier F. Solomon, Peter J. Sharp Chief Curator with the assistance of Julia Day, Conservator. Listing all those credited with contributing scholarship would take a couple of Missives, however special credit is given to our old friend James Draper, a former Metropolitan Museum of Art curator, who was the first to devote scholarly attention to Bertoldo and wrote the catalog raisonnĂ© published in 1992.  Sadly he passed away 3 days ago.

Aside from the exhibition catalog, the Frick’s website has a great deal of material and I urge you to watch the 5-minute video where you will not only learn more, but be able to see much of the show that I have not even touched on.

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