by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Great Rustici Emerges From the Shadows

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE. Italy 13 December 2010
Baptistery of St. John, Florence
from 'The Preaching of St. John the Baptist'
monumental sculpture group
for the Baptistery of Florence's Cathedral,



By the time Giovanfrancesco Rustici's bronzes for the Baptistery of Florence's cathedral were being cast at the end of 1509, Leonardo da Vinci had left the city forever, never to return.

Vasari declared the bronzes 'the most perfect and harmonious by a modern master' and nothing to rival them was made in Florence until the arrival in the city of Giambologna nearly half a century later. Rustici's 'Preaching of St. John the Baptist,' hoisted into position over the Baptistery's north door in 1511, was reputed to be the result of some form of collaboration with Leonardo, the exact nature of which remains uncertain.

Rustici was one of the great Renaissance sculptors in his own right, but his reputation has been obscured by his small output, now widely scattered. After being in place for nearly 500 years except for a brief period during World War II, his statues over the north door were removed in 2006 to rescue them from the effects of weather and air pollution.

After a painstaking program of cleaning and conservation, the statues now form the centerpiece of a revelatory exhibition at the Bargello Museum: 'The Great Bronzes of the Baptistery: Giovanfrancesco Rustici and Leonardo,' curated by Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, director of the museum, Tommaso Mozzati and Philippe Sénéchal. The nearly 40 pieces in bronze, terra cotta, marble, maiolica and on panel and paper come from 19 collections in Europe and the United States.

Leonardo was more than 20 years older than Rustici, who was born in 1574. But by the time Rustici was in his teens, their fathers clearly knew each other well. Tradition had it that Rustici studied at Andrea del Verrocchio's studio, where Leonardo had started his career. Verrocchio died in 1488, but the workshop was still going strong under Lorenzo di Credi, and there is no reason to doubt that Rustici received some early training there.

Rustici's family and artistic contacts - clarified by some valuable sleuthing by the show's curators and other contributors to the catalogue - would also have given him access to the private gardens near San Marco, where the bronze sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni, who had worked with Donatello and was responsible for the Medici sculpture collection, presided over an informal academy that had nurtured the talents of aspiring young artists such as Michelangelo and Sansovino.

The Medici were driven out Florence in 1494, leading to a new constitution inspired by that of Venice. The Hall of the Great Council in the Palazzo Vecchio was deemed in need of some suitable decoration evoking the glories of the old pre-Medici Republic. Leonardo was commissioned to provide a fresco of

'The Battle of Anghiari' and Michelangelo 'The Battle of Cascina,' both rather obscure engagements, but with topical resonances.

At the center of Leonardo's mural was a wild scene of a melee of men and horses in a furious fight over a standard, one of the sketches for which, from the Accademia in Venice, is on show. The murals, now lost, were incomplete when Leonardo departed for Milan in 1506 and were soon deteriorating.

Michelangelo left for Rome even earlier and before even beginning to paint. Both the artists' cartoons, repeatedly pored over by subsequent generations, completely fell to pieces. And what was left of Leonardo's murals was overpainted by Vasari in the 1560s.

'From Leonardo Rustici learned many things,' as Vasari wrote, 'especially in making horses, of which he was very fond, producing them in clay, in wax, in the round and bas-relief, and every imaginable way.'

Rustici left his own interpretations of Leonardo's murals in the form of terracottas for which, as Vasari noted, there was considerable demand. The only two surviving autograph versions of these artfully modeled, but totally bizarre tangled masses of rearing beasts and screaming men hell-bent on mutual destruction - from the Bargello and the Louvre - are brought together here.

Rustici was commissioned to make 'The Preaching of St. John the Baptist' at the end of 1506, after Leonardo had gone to Milan.

'Giovanfrancesco, while making the clay model of this work, would have no one around but Leonardo da Vinci,' writes Vasari. Leonardo, though, was only back in Florence for any length of time during the winter of 1507-08.

The larger-than-life-sized ensemble consists of John flanked by a long-haired and bearded 'Pharisee,' or more likely a priest, and a bald Levite, the dramatic biblical event represented in an unprecedented fashion not as a static tableau, but as a moment of animated dialogue, the first reported in St. John's gospel, frozen in bronze.

On being interrogated by these 'priests and Levites' as to who he is, John replies: 'A voice of one crying in the wilderness. Make straight the way for the Lord.' The lines of each protagonist are inscribed, anachronistically, in Hebrew rather than Aramaic on the base of each statue.

Rustici must certainly have done almost all the modeling of the statues. And while the style is influenced by Leonardo, Rustici's Baptist is markedly different from Leonardo's painting of the same figure, on loan from the Louvre. No autograph Leonardo sculptures have come down to us to compare with the Baptistery bronzes.

Rustici's striking sculptures in the rest of the show demonstrate his mastery of diverse materials. His marbles of the Madonna and Child have the lyrical tenderness of the finest quattrocento masters. His large-scale 'Noli me tangere' altarpiece of Christ and Mary Magdalene, crowned by a semi-circular panel of St. Augustine with cherubs, is an amazing example of original design and virtuoso modeling in terra cotta, glazed in brilliant white against a golden-chrome background.

Other delightful glazed terra cottas are of classical themes. A 'Leda and the Swan' is developed from ancient cameos, like the one on show here that once belonged to Lorenzo the Magnificent, while a breezy 'Europa and the Bull' is elaborated from a drawing from Filippino Lippi's studio. When Lippi died in 1504, his son joined Rustici's studio, bringing many drawings with him.

Exquisitely crafted bronzes inspired by the antique include a majestic candelabra and Rustici's comically playful 'Mercury,' commissioned for a fountain at Palazzo Medici in 1515, on loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.

In 1528 Rustici followed in Leonardo's footsteps to the court of Francis I in France. His principal task was to model an enormous equestrian statue of the king. But he did not have much more luck than Leonardo with his equestrian sculptures - Da Vinci's great model for a similar horse in Milan was used for target practice by the invading French Army in 1499. Rustici's riderless horse was eventually cast but was destroyed in the French Revolution. And his other remarkable talents seem to have gone largely to waste. When King Henry II came to the throne, Rustici's salary was canceled and he died in obscurity, dependent on charity, in Tours in 1554.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024