Fece di scoltura di legname e colorì

Fece di scoltura di legname e colorì. 15TH CENTURY PAINTED WOODEN SCULPTURE IN FLORENCE.
Galleria delle Statue e delle Pitture degli Uffizi. Florence 22 March – 28 August 2016.

The Galleria delle Statue e delle Pitture degli Uffizi is to host a temporary exhibition, running from 21 March to 28 August 2016, showcasing roughly fifty works of art and inviting the public for the very first time to explore painted wooden sculpture of the 15th century in Florence, a theme studied in depth by Margrit Lisner and Alessandro Parronchi but still considered something of a niche and known almost solely to experts, despite the enormous artistic merit of many of the works involved.

Painted sculpture in 15th century Florence, reflecting the artistic primacy of sculpture in general, was an inescapable model of expression for artists in every field. The theme of the body suffering on the cross, modelled with a profound new naturalism in the crucifixes of Donatello and Brunelleschi, was to become a precious reference model for whole generations of later artists.
The production of these splendid crucifixes went hand in hand with the carving of statues of the Madonna, of saints and hermits whose bodies could be gnarled and tortured or else miraculously oblivious to pain, of portrait busts, of statues for placing at the centre of mixed polyptychs and of statues for use as liturgical accoutrements.

Donatello and Brunelleschi not only modelled their own work but also presumably painted it, because polychromy was considered as crucial a factor as carving in achieving the total naturalism that they pursued in their art, two outstanding examples of which are the superb Crucifixes of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella.
But bumerous sculptors outsourced their work to professional painters to have it coloured. Neri di Bicci, who ran a busy workshop in Via Porta Rossa in Florence, was one of the most popular painters hired for that purpose: he painted busts carved by Desiderio da Settignano and crucifixes modelled by Benedetto da Maiano, and he forged an especially close bond with a sculptor-cum-monk named Don Romualdo da Candeli. Neri describes their relationship in his “Ricordanze”, and that relationship is exemplified in the exhibition by a Magadalen from the Museo della Collegiata di Sant’Andrea a Empoli.

Thanks to the statue of the Magdalen carved by Donatello and now in Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, the saint was to become a favourite theme with sculptors and is illustrated in the exhibition by Desiderio da Settignano’s attractive Magdalen from the church of Santa Trinita, completed by Verrocchio’s pupil Giovanni d’Andrea, and by the Magdalen carved by Francesco da Sangallo now in the Museo diocesano di Santo Stefano al Ponte. The Santa Trinita Magdalen is a perfect example of the recourse to multiple materials which Donatello adopted for his Magdalen and which was subsequently revived in its technical and expressive values by Pollaiolo and by Verrocchio. The Santa Trinita statue, of which Vasari says “the beauty of this figure is beyond the power of words to express”, is not made of wood alone, because although it was carved from the trunk of a willow tree, the rear part of the statue is in cork and the hair is modelled in plaster.

The exhibition also shows how certain large family-run workshops responded to market demand in the last quarter of the 15th century by specialising in the production of crucifixes not only for churches but also for private devotion and for convents. In fact, this kind of work predominated in the output of the leading masters of the Florentine wood-carving tradition, men such as the brothers Giuliano and Benedetto da Maiano, the Sangallo family (Giuliano, Antonio the Elder and Francesco), the Del Tasso family – Francesco and Leonardo – and Baccio da Montelupo. The more outstanding examples on display in the exhibition include Giuliano da Sangallo’s Crucifix for the basilica of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence, Benedetto da Maiano’s Crucifix in the Museo Civico di San Gimignano painted by the painter Cosimo Rosselli, and a Crucifix from the convent of San Marco carved by Baccio da Montelupo which once belonged to Savonarola.

The Doni Tondo, which is part of the exhibition circuit, is one of the most celebrated instances of cooperation between a painter, in this case Michelangelo, and an exponent of the loftiest Florentine wood-carving tradition, Francesco del Tasso, who carved the frame with its grotesque decoration, its imaginative vine tendrils and its human heads, almost certainly to a design by Michelangelo himself.

Another area in which there was close cooperation between painters and sculptors was the production of mixed polyptychs, large altarpieces with a wooden statue in the centre and painted panels on either side. The beauty of these theatrical compositions, which stood out on the liturgical stage, is illustrated in the exhibition by a statue of St. Anthony the Abbot (Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi, Lucca), the central figure in the now dismantled Bernardi polyptych carved by Benedetto da Maiano and originally flanked by two panels by Filippino Lippi each depicting two saints (now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena), and by the Tabernacle of St. Sebastian (church of Sant’Ambrogio, Florence) carved by Leonardo del Tasso and painted by Filippino Lippi.

The story of painted sculpture would not be complete without a few examples of carvings by “foreigners” in Florence. A mysterious sculptor named Giovanni Teutonico is recorded as working in the city in 1457. This peripatetic artist who, while in Florence, carved such works as the Crucifix from the church of Sant’Jacopo Soprarno which is on display in the exhibition, brought with him to Italy a northern European approach that used naturalism to convey a crude, theatrical idea of man’s dramatic existence, different from the naturalism of Donatello yet inspired by the same truthful approach to our shared humanity.

The exhibition also showcases the St. Roch from the Santissima Annunziata by Veit Stoss, another highly appreciated northern European sculptor. Vasari calls the piece a “miracle in wood carving (…) free from any covering of colour or painting”, because in 16th century classical thought, wooden sculpture was now called on to display its raw material rather than to conceal it beneath a polychrome disguise.

With this exhibition, “thanks to new studies or to chance discoveries, marvellous statues have been freed from centuries of segregation in the murky depths of chapels, others have donned new clothes after meticulous restoration, and yet others have found firmer ground for their attribution. We have discovered that Tuscan sculpture was far more cosmopolitan than people think. It absorbed the most interesting innovations from northern Europe and the Iberian peninsula, and borrowed the adornments of the goldsmith’s art from France. In the exhibition and the catalogue the works can interact once again in a living reality, as almost half a millennium later we can almost hear the noise of hammer and chisel, pestle and mortar, the cries of the apprentices as they lug sacks of plaster, mash pigments or tidy up the workshop, their masters imparting orders in the background – the whole feverish, fantastic, bustling creativity of the Renaissance workshop”. (Eike D. Schmidt).

The exhibition is curated and the catalogue (published by Giunti) is edited by Alfredo Bellandi, and it is promoted by the Ministero dei beni e delle attività culturali e del turismo in conjunction with the Gallerie degli Uffizi, the Galleria delle Statue e delle Pitture degli Uffizi and Firenze Musei.

Félix José Hernández.

Hispanista revivido.