Renaissance Sculpture In Italy
( Originally Published 1896 )
THE EARLY RENAISSANCE, 1400-1500.
POLITICAL AND SOCIAL CONDITIONS. The transition from feudalism to monarchy, which occurred in Spain, France, Germany, and England, had no precise parallel in Italy. Feudalism was a northern, not a southern, institution, and was foreign to the Italian spirit. A variety of political conditions existed in Italy during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
There were the Duchies of Savoy and of Milan, the Republics of Genoa, Venice, Florence, and Siena; a large portion of Central Italy was comprised in the States of the Church; and the whole of Southern Italy and Sicily belonged to the Kingdom of Naples. Nevertheless, a tendency toward monarchy prevailed. Petty provinces were subjected by the stronger, and families and individuals acquired power superior to that of the commune. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the patron-age of the arts came largely from families like the Visconti and Sforza at Milan, the Gonzaga family at Mantua, the Montefeltro at Urbino, the Malatesta at Rimini, the Este at Ferrara and Modena, the Bentivoglio at Bologna, and the Medici at Florence. The same furtherance of the arts was shown by the popes of Rome, especially by Sixtus IV. and Julius II.
A similar transformation took place in the status of the artist. The committee in charge of the construction of the Duomo of Florence yielded to an individual architectóBrunelleschi. Similarly, the habit of consigning the construction of baptistery and sacristy doors, high altars and pulpits, to two or more sculptors passed away, and greater recognition was given to the result of a single mind. In fact, the history of all the arts at this period becomes less and less a history of schools, and is more and more concerned with the works of individual artists. If individualism be an important feature of Renaissance civilization, a no less striking characteristic is its natural-ism. The growth of physical and historical science, the cultivation of classical literature, the increase of comfort and pleasure in all forms of social life, are witnesses to a new spirit. This is seen in sculpture in the increase of contemporary subjects as well as in the change from a conventional to a more naturalistic treatment of proportions, anatomical structure, drapery, and perspective.
A third characteristic, implied in the name Renaissance, was a revival of classical subjects, methods, and forms. Through-out the Middle Ages, Italy never wholly lost the remembrance of Greek and Roman art, but its power was seriously checked by German and Lombard and Frankish influences. The return to classical forms in sculpture may be said to have begun at the time of Niccola Pisano, and, though checked in the fourteenth century, it continued in the fifteenth century. Through a greater part of the fifteenth century Gothic traditions survived in many directions, but usually assumed something of a classic garb. The classic spirit did not have an all-controlling influence until the early sixteenth century.
SUBJECTS. The demand for sculpture in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries remained chiefly ecclesiastical. The exteriors of churches were decorated with sculptures, not only around and over the portals, but sometimes the entire facade was covered with statues in niches and reliefs of figured or decorative design. In the interiors were sculptured altar-pieces, pulpits, choirs, galleries, fonts, ciboria, tabernacles, candlesticks, single statues of saints and angels, crucifixes, Madonnas, and sometimes large groups of statues. Cathedral, baptistery, and sacristy doors were frequently cast in bronze and adorned with reliefs ; while the choir stalls were ornamented with figured carvings and inlaid pictures of variegated woods. On the interior walls of Renaissance churches were large architectural tombs, commemorating not merely ecclesiastical rulers, but also generals, statesmen, poets, and mere private individuals. The sepulchral slab on the church floor was not infrequently carved in relief, with the figure projecting sometimes above the floor or set upon a raised base.
Palaces and private houses were provided with sculptural ornament about their portals, with friezes and chimney pieces, carved or moulded ceilings, decorative furniture, portrait statues and busts, statuettes, and a host of useful objects which were carved or beaten or moulded into beautiful forms. Open squares and private gardens were adorned with statues and fountains and vases, executed by the most distinguished sculptors. Even the country highways had their shrines, with crucifixes or reliefs of Madonnas or saints, frequently a reproduction in terracotta or stucco of the work of a master.
The subjects of ecclesiastical sculpture were naturally selected from the Old and New Testament and from the lives of the saints. The Madonna with the Child is the most universal and characteristic subject during the Early Renaissance. Later she appears frequently accompanied by saints. Legends from the life of Christ, of the Madonna, of St. Francis or of special patron saints, were common in sculpture as in painting. Decorative motives of classic origin were freely introduced into ecclesiastical sculpture, but mythological subjects more rarely.
Amorini, or Cupids, were, however, used so frequently as to render the putto, or child, a characteristic figure in Early Renaissance sculpture. By the middle of the fifteenth century such subjects as Leda and the Swan and Jupiter and Ganymede were introduced upon the very portals of St. Peter's in Rome.
In sculpture of a civic or a domestic character, classic themes were frequently employed. Ancient myths were retranslated into sculpture; ancient gems and coins and medals and statues, which were now being collected by wealthy patrons of art, and sometimes by artists them-selves, became an important source of inspiration both for subjects and for forms.
MATERIALS AND TECHNIQUE. The precious metals, gold and silver, played a less important role than in the Gothic period. The goldsmith's atelier continued for a time to be the art school from which issued architects, sculptors, and painters. But his influence was gradually restricted to work in the precious metals, and the arts became more independent of each other. Bronze now assumed a more important role, being used for reliefs first, then for statues, busts, candelabra, and minor objects. It was a favorite material with Renaissance artists, not only on account of its durability and ductility, but also because of its brilliant effect when gilded. Considerable difficulty was experienced at first in bronze-casting. The form was crude, and the chisel had to be used freely in finishing. The early bronzes were not highly polished. In time these difficulties vanished, and a high degree of technical perfection was reached in the sixteenth century.
In stone sculpture the growing demand for delicate and refined form, notably in decorative detail, led to an extensive use of marble and the finer calcareous stones, such as the pietra d' Istria, and the finer sandstones, such as the pietra serena. The white Carrara marble was extensively used for monumental sculpture, but was softened in color by the use of wax. Details such as the hair, angels' wings, ornaments of robes, and architectural mouldings were usually gilded. The background, when not sculptured, was commonly colored a grayish blue. Highly polychromatic marble sculpture was rare.
The sphere of sculpture was considerably enlarged by the use of terracotta. This afforded a cheap substitute for marble, and when glazed was equally durable. Coloring beneath the glaze received also a permanent polychromatic character. Altar-pieces, pulpits, fonts, tabernacles, and coats of arms, in this material, became widely scattered, reaching the remotest country towns. A still cheaper material was found in a fine stucco, composed of marble dust and sand. Reproductions of the works of master sculptors were thus placed in the hands of the common people.. Sculpture in wood was confined chiefly to thickly wooded districts.
In technical execution the methods of classic sculptors were largely employed. Similar implements were used and many of the same conventions followed. But the spirit of the Renaissance was more pictorial. Designs upon paper were regarded by many as fundamental ; perspective, the multiplication of the planes, the use of all gradations of relief, were common. Preliminary studies, and models in clay, wax, or wood, were sometimes carried far enough by the artist to permit of the execution of the work in bronze or marble by an artisan.