Italian Art – Early Renaissance Sculpture

Historic Sketch

THE earliest dawn of modern feeling for nature and of interest in ancient sculpture as an assistance to its study is found with Nicolo of Pisa and in his pulpit made for the Baptistery in Pisa about the year 1260. His son Giovanni carried this feeling and this interest into the fourteenth century and headed a school of artists whose works are found in many parts of Italy.* Among these one of the most important is the pair of bronze doors made for the Florence Baptistery by Andrea Pisano with panel compositions from the life of John the Baptist. The designs of Giotto for reliefs on the Florence Campanile (bell-tower of the Cathedral), are also works of great power and interest. In the main, however, fresco painting had absorbed the activity of fourteenth century Italian art. The best comparison for the average Italian sculpture in relief during the fourteenth century with that now to be considered, is offered by an illustration quoted in foot-note for the works of Giovanni Pisano and scholars at Orvieto. For statues the “Madonna” by Giovanni Pisano at Prato, quoted in foot-note, offers a similar typical contrast which will hold good for other works.

In our detailed account of fifteenth century Italian sculpture we begin with the opening of the century and the first pair of bronze doors made by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Baptistery in Florence (1403-1424).

The pictorial beauty and more realistic details of the second pair of doors by the same artist, have tended to obscure the importance of these earlier ones.

They are often over-looked by travelers and by illustrators.

No cast of them can be seen in this country; but the power of the compositions is at least equal, if not superior, to those subsequently made.

The compositions are simpler, more circumscribed and more concentrated. For the designs of ” Christ and the Money Changers” and ” Christ and Peter Walking on the Water,” our illustrations will speak, and speak eloquently. It would be difficult to mention more powerful compositions in the whole range of Christian art.

The commission for the second and more famous pair of bronze doors was undertaken in 1425 and completed in 1452, so that fifty years’ labor was altogether devoted to these two works of art.

Should the question arise as to a comparison between our modern artists and Ghiberti, it would be unfair to judge the former until some modern city or national government is willing to allot an equal amount of time and proportion-ate payment for the creation of similar works of art. The willingness to wait twenty-seven years for the completion of one commission and to pay large yearly stipends for that length of time both to Ghiberti and to his numerous assist-ants tells the whole story of the perfection of early Renaissance art.

The general appearance of the panels and surrounding borders of the second pair of bronze doors is best explained by the illustrations. In these panels are represented important events of Old Testament history the Creation, story of Cain and Abel, story of Noah, story of Abraham, etc. For the great beauty of the compositions in these panels, for instance in the story of Jacob and Esau or the story of Joseph, we can scarcely find parallels outside the much later works of Raphael. For the pose and designs of single figures (story of Abraham, story of Noah), we are not less at a loss for parallels even when the sixteenth century is admitted to the comparison (Figs. 132, 133, 134, 135).

The marvel begins to fully reveal itself only when we consider the dates and look for parallels in the art of Ghiberti’s own time.

The art of sculpture logically precedes that of painting, for the form must be conceived as a solid before it can be transferred in outline to a flat surface. No doubt the whole fifteenth century sculpture is superior to the contemporary painting, but again the marvel is that Ghiberti should, as the first among moderns, have reached a point of perfection in his figure compositions which the nineteenth century has not rivaled.

We have seen that the frescoes of Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel date between 1423 and 1428, but in the compositions for the first Ghiberti doors we go back to 1403. The more we know of preceding fourteenth century art, the more the wonder grows in spite of various connecting links which here and there can be established.

We know, however, of a competition of designs as having been held for the selection of the artist of the first bronze doors in question, and that three artists besides Ghiberti entered this contest. The competitive design of Brunellesco, whom we shall remember as the first great architect of the Renaissance (p. 72), is still preserved in Florence beside the prize design of Ghiberti; both subjects from the Sacrifice of Isaac.

The story goes that the judges were unable to decide until Brunellesco himself gave judgment against himself and retired from the competition (Figs. 130, 131).

Later criticism has universally conceded the superior dignity and beauty of the panel by Ghiberti. Still we see that he was by no means absolutely isolated in the perfection of his art at the beginning of the fifteenth century.

Remembering Brunellesco as the first great reviver of ancient forms in architecture, it is interesting to notice in Ghiberti’s designs (story of Joseph, story of Jacob and Esau) the classic details of the buildings and to relate the spirit which copied them to that which had such perception for nature and for beauty and such science in re-creating them. The double character of the Renaissance, enthusiasm for antiquity and enthusiasm for visible nature, thus appears in this one work. The influence of ancient art is also seen in the pose and draping of the figures. Those especially of the allegorical figures of the borders, as being of somewhat larger size than the figures of the panel compositions, offer clear illustration of this point (Figs. 133,).

Among the medallion heads of these borders are portraits of leading Florentine artists, Ghiberti’s own among them.

The outer framework of the door is a wonderful illustration of realistic science, while the details as placed in combination show an antique influence in arrangement. Casts of these details are still frequently used in schools of art as models for the modern student (Fig. 136).

It is habitual for critical writers to allude to the departure from relief style which Ghiberti allowed himself in these bronze doors. They undoubtedly show an amount of pictorial detail which goes beyond the theoretic limits proper for a solid material like bronze and for sculptured relief as practiced by the Greeks. It is hardly worth while, however, even to mention such a point. The significance of the work is pictorial. It illustrates the realism of the Renaissance and the precedence of Ghiberti in that realism. Its main influence was undoubtedly pictorial, and we should consider it the great landmark of the Renaissance art of design in general rather than confine our point of view to sculpture and the canons of Greek relief.

There is still something to be said of the Ghiberti doors. We notice in their panels a combination of episodes in one field. This is seen in the story of Joseph, the story of Jacob and Esau, the story of Abraham, the story of Noah. This combination occurs without indications of local di-vision, although the localities are conceived in all these cases, except the story of Joseph and story of Jacob, as various and distinct. In these last cases the episodes are also distinct in time, though not in place.

We have here a method which also constantly occurs in Italian fresco and which is an inheritance from the earliest Christian art an illustration of its ideal standpoint and of its independence of illusion even when realism had become a controlling interest. Such arrangement was obviously conducive to balanced composition in large panels, whether of frescoed walls or otherwise. It admitted brief and simple characterization of each special story and gave the work of art a comprehensive effect. We find this method continuing in the sixteenth century art. Raphael’s “Transfiguration” includes the double story of the possessed boy and of the Transfiguration itself; events locally separate but spiritually related, since the disciples could not cast out the devil in the absence of the Savior. Michael Angelo represented the ” Temptation and Expulsion from Eden” on one panel of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Countless parallel cases could be instanced.

For example, in the Sistine Madonna, by Raphael, we have actually represented the dream or vision of the pope who is kneeling in the picture.

Before leaving the bronze doors of Ghiberti we must allude to the curious fate which has given not only precedence in time, but an actually unique importance in the matter of parallel works to this single one. It did not happen that any similar commission was undertaken in any other Italian city within the limits of the great period. Other bronze doors, for instance of the Pisa Cathedral, belong to a time when overcrowded compositions and excess of small details had quite overpowered the sentiment for simplicity of effect. The doors of Ghiberti not only stand first, but they stand alone in their perfection for the given class of works.

We must place as next in time and importance to these works the colossal equestrian portrait statues executed by Donatello and Verocchio, both Florentines, and later contemporaries of Ghiberti and Brunellesco Donatello’s statue of the Venetian mercenary captain, GatGattamelata, is in Padua (1453). Verocchio’s statue of the Venetian captain, Colleoni, is in Venice (1476). These two equestrian figures are not only the first but also undoubtedly the greatest of modern history and are so generally considered; that of Verocchio is the inimitable masterpiece of all equestrian statues. For Donatello’s own masculine and sturdy character as well as for the noble quality of his art, the bust illustrated by Fig. 138 will also serve as an example. Donatello ranks in time and general significance as the most important sculptor preceding Michael Angelo, but the position claimed by the Florentine, Luca della Robbia and his nephew, Andrea, would seem to make them more fairly the subjects for representative illustration of Italian art at large during the same period.

Luca della Robbia was a successful artist both in bronze and marble. In the latter material are his well-known reliefs for the balustrade of the organ-loft of the Florence Cathedral which are now in Florence as museum exhibits. But it was in the glazed or enameled terra cotta reliefs in color, which he was the first to execute, that he won especial renown.

This art was practiced by several and successive members of his family and flourished till about 1525. It then died out and has never been rediscovered or revived. The peculiarly unpretentious and simple style of these works is beyond all praise. They were used for decoration of exterior brick architecture, as medallions between arches, as lunettes in the arched spaces over doorways, etc., and also for altar-pieces, tombs, and votive tablets. Considering the inadequate effect of photographs from paintings, there is no access to a knowledge of early Italian art like that conveyed by photographs of these reliefs (Figs. 122, 124, 125, 126).

In marble reliefs, mainly of Madonnas, a peculiarly lovely phase of early Florentine art is also illustrated. Mino da Fiesole, Desiderio da Settignano, and Benedetto da Majano were the representative artists for this class of work.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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