by Roderick Conway Morris

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In Florence, Revelations in Stone

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE, Italy 13 August 2011
Bargello, Florence
Detail of the statue of Juno,
from the recreation of the Sala Grande fountain,
by Bartolomeo Ammannati, 1556-61



Bartolomeo Ammannati was born into a family of masons in Settignano, a stone-cutters' town near Florence, where Michelangelo had also been raised as an infant, imbibing, as he told Giorgio Vasari, 'hammers and chisels with my mother's milk.'

The dominance of Michelangelo has tended to distort the story of Florentine sculpture, our knowledge of which has been significantly expanded by a series of exhibitions staged at the Bargello National Museum in recent years, notably of Desiderio di Settignano, Giovanni Francesco Rustici and Giambologna. For Ammannati in particular, Michelangelo was an inspiration, a promoter and, ironically, an obstacle.

In 1555, after working in Venice, Naples, Rome and Urbino, Ammannati came back to Florence. Through the good offices of Vasari, who returned at the same time, he received the first of a series of important commissions from Duke Cosimo I de' Medici. The artist's initial task was to produce a monumental fountain for the Sala Grande in the Palazzo Vecchio, the great hall in the ducal residence, to celebrate Cosimo's bringing clear running water for the first time into the center of the city via aqueducts from springs in the hills on the other side of the Arno.

Ammannati responded by designing a glorious composition of marble river gods and other allegorical figures, presided over by Juno, stylishly ensconced on an overarching stone rainbow, flanked by two peacocks. But this witty, brilliantly executed tour de force - hailed by Michelangelo as 'una bella fantasia' - was never installed. After being displayed outdoors at the Boboli Gardens, its components were dispersed around the park.

This was because, on Michelangelo's death, Cosimo unexpectedly obtained from his Florence studio Michelangelo's 'Victory,' which was then put in the position previously ordained for Ammannati's Sala Grande Fountain.

But Ammannati's masterpiece can now be seen reunified in its entirety for the first time since the 17th century. It has been installed in the courtyard of the Bargello for the revelatory show, 'Water, Stone, Fire: Bartolomeo Ammannati, Sculptor.' Curated by Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi and Dimitrios Zikos, the exhibition celebrates the 500th anniversary of the artist's birth.

An orphan at the age of 12, Ammannati was apprenticed to the studio of Baccio Bandinelli, a sculptor with certain skills but a limited range. Wisely, Ammannati looked more to Michelangelo's works for guidance. The precociously assured young artist's 'Leda and the Swan,' at the beginning of the exhibition, was inspired by a now lost painting by Michelangelo that was itself based on an ancient onyx cameo belonging to Lorenzo de' Medici.

Ammannati was exposed to other vital formative influences, working alongside Jacopo Sansovino during his two extended stays in Venice, where he would also have had the opportunity to study the great Grimani collections, which included original Greek marbles not to be found elsewhere in Italy.

The artist's first commission for a monumental sculpture was for the tomb of Mario Nari in the Annunziata Basilica here. This elegiac composition has a quiet grace and dignity, the reclining figure of Nari in ancient Roman armor recalling the mysterious sleeping figures in the paintings of Giorgione.

Unhappily, a controversy arose, stirred up by Bandinelli - who had become jealous of his gifted student - about the suitability of such a memorial in a prominent church because Nari had been killed in a duel. The monument was dismantled and dispersed, and its components were only brought together again at the Bargello in the 1970s.

The debacle encouraged Ammannati to return to Venice, where he collaborated with Sansovino in carving river gods and lions' heads for the façade of Sansovino's new Marciana Library on Piazza San Marco.

The young Florentine also made a marble Neptune to stand on the building's rooftop balustrade. The statue became ensnared with a rope bearing carnival decorations in about 1740 and was irreparably shattered when it crashed to the ground.

Nearby Padua yielded a major commission from the humanist and antiquarian Marco Mantova Benavides. This gave Ammannati the chance to prove his abilities to work on a grand scale.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023