Renaissance Sculpture – Later Styles And Decadence

No SKETCH of Italian art could pass, without mention, the name of Benvenuto Cellini, the goldsmith and sculptor, the Perseus in Florence. Cellini was born in 1500, a quarter of a century after Michael Angelo. H is statue dates from the middle of the sixteenth century, but the traditions and style of the great period still survive in this work. The art of sculpture in Italy at this time had otherwise generally sunk into relative affectation and mannerism.

In France we can quote serious and beautiful work from the hands of Goujon, Pilon, and others. A certain elongation of the figure and somewhat dainty elegance of conception which are visible in their works reflect the Italian style of the same day (Fig. 150).

We also notice the twisting of the figure as a trait constantly repeated in later art and borrowed originally from Michael Angelo. To an illustration of some of Goujon’s beautiful relief designs for a fountain in Paris, we must add a renewed reference to some preceding pictures of French Renaissance tomb sculpture and architectural statuary, all of which will assist the reader to understand the Italian quality, and origin of French and other modern sculpture (Figs. 3, 10, 18).

It is difficult in a rapid summary to avoid oversights of fine survivals of the better and earlier Italian Renaissance style in later north European Renaissance art, but we must not entirely forget the fine Renaissance wood carvings of Belgium (Fig. 153). The tomb of Queen Elizabeth in Westminster Abbey would also show how far the Italian style had traveled and how universal it had become.

In the early sixteenth century Germany boasted the important names of Adam Krafft, whose most famous works are the reliefs known as the Seven Stations of the Cross, at Nuremberg, and Peter Vischer, whose magnificent bronze tomb of St. Sebaldus is in the church of the same name, also at Nuremberg. Out-side of Nuremberg the most important works of German Renaissance sculpture are at Innspruck, where the tomb of the Emperor Maximilian fills an entire church with the bronze figures of his ancestors and of the legendary heroes of medieval history. Many German sculptors were employed on this colossal monument whose execution was in process during the whole sixteenth century. One of the statues illustrated was probably a work by Peter Vischer.

For the later sculpture of Renaissance Europe down to the middle of the eighteenth century, I have selected five examples, not suggesting that anything but the broadest facts are indicated by them. One of the latest of these, being the most obviously exaggerated and over-strained conception, may be first considered (Fig. 157).

It is a general rule of art criticism first distinctly formulated and explained by the German critic Lessing, in his “Essay on Laocoön” that a work of art should not exhaust its subject or so treat it that the extreme and ultimate pitch of emotion is made visible to the eye.

Moments of extreme tension are not lasting in their nature, and when perpetuated in solid form they finally become tedious; for the double reason that they present a contradiction between the momentary duration in nature and the permanence in art, and for the reason that in exhausting the subject they leave nothing to the imagination.

In the myth of Prometheus, for instance, we are told the story of a perpetual torture, but there is no existing Greek statue of this subject, nor would any resembling our illustration have been possible for Greek views of art. The given statue violates every rule of good taste, according to our present training in criticism. It is vulgar, theatrical, tawdry, and weak; but this is the style of sculpture which ruled Europe down to the middle of the eighteenth century, as an inheritance from the seventeenth century and this again had been led toward the downward road through the influence of the later sixteenth century.

From Michael Angelo on we become aware of an ever-increasing straining of attitudes, an ever-increasing choice of theatrical motives and sentimental subjects. The great master of this style was the seventeenth century Italian, Bernini, a man of great genius and great science, but a thorough man of his time; that is to say, absolutely destitute of the sentiment of the statuesque.

Let us also choose our next illustration from the eighteenth century, and consider its lessons (Fig. 156).

It is a fundamental rule of art that its tools are means to an end. Whatever exalts the instrument belittles the aim. Hence works of art which are made for the sake of conquering those difficulties which affect the use of tools have no real cause of being.

In our given illustration from a work in Naples, the subject was chosen because it gave the sculptor an opportunity of making a net in marble an exceedingly difficult thing to do, but not worth doing. Probably this group offers the most remarkable example in statuary of the conquest of a technical difficulty, yet we feel that the entire subject has been manufactured in order to create this difficulty. As regards the ostensible subject matter, an allegory representing the “Escape from Error,” it does not touch either our interests, our sympathies, or our convictions. Its only possible claim to interest is the dexterity displayed in the use of a chisel, and in artistic value it is comparable to the Chinese carvings of ivory balls, contained one within the other.

This work, then, may once more illustrate a general defect of taste in statuary in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the tendency to exalt the mechanics of art while serious thought and conception were deficient.

In our illustration from the Cathedral of Brussels we have an indication of the prodigality and luxury of sculpture decoration in the important Catholic churches of the seventeenth century (Fig. 155). It was a time when the multiplication of statues and carvings had no end; in many cases, as here in the case of the pulpit, extorting our admiration in spite of our better judgment; or, as also here, with re-deeming traits when we consider the material used for we cannot ask of wood carving the severity and simplicity which are demanded by the intractability, weight, and hardness of stone. We could not say that the Fall of Man has been seriously conceived in this pulpit, or that clouds and drapery hangings are a proper matter even for wood carving, and still the ingenuity and thought with which the subject has been wrought out stand for a great deal.

Conceding much merit and interest to this work, we shall also conclude from it and from its surroundings that the pompous display of material wealth in art was a ruling trait of the time. The affected style and attitudes of the statues on the adjacent columns of the church are characteristic for the whole Renaissance sculpture of the seventeenth century.

Finally we have an illustration (Fig. 154) to represent the existence of the artist, viz., Bernini, who of all men of his century combined the greatest genius and talent with the most pronounced display of the traits we have enumerated, over-wrought or complicated subjects, the substitution of mechanical dexterity for thought, and the exaltation of costly material at the expense of subject matter. Bernini was also a decorator and architect of distinction, the designer of the colonnade surrounding the large oval place in front of St. Peter’s, of its interior colossal bronze shrine, and of many churches.

The whole later Renaissance was at its best in portrait sculpture, especially of busts. Both French and Italian sculptors were eminent in this specialty. Puget was the greatest French sculptor of this era, the age of Louis XIV., who himself employed Bernini in Paris while Puget was also active in Italy and at Rome.

As an illustration of the portrait sculpture of the late Renaissance and of the eighteenth century, I have chosen a statue of the French king, Louis XV., whose pose exhibits the theatrical quality characteristic of the time.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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