by Roderick Conway Morris

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Credit Roberto Sigismondi/Bargello, Florence
'The Drunkenness of Noah,' around 1530, by Baccio Bandinelli.

A Renaissance Genius Is Finally Given His Due

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE, Italy 19 June 2014


The 16th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari gave his near-contemporary Baccio Bandinelli one of the longest and most conflicted of all the entries in his encyclopedic 'Lives of the Artists.'

Bandinelli made many enemies because of his disagreeable behavior. But Vasari, while denigrating him as a human being and relaying many unflattering anecdotes, also frequently felt obliged to praise him as an artist.

'Nature indeed had endowed Baccio with much grace and facility, and these advantages, added to great study, made him a perfect sculptor,' Vasari wrote.

Admiration for Bandinelli as an artist remained more or less universal for the following two-and-a-half centuries. But thereafter his reputation suffered a decline as dramatic as any in art history, thanks in large part to Benvenuto Cellini, his rival. Cellini's 'Autobiography,' published in 1728 and translated by Goethe in 1807, contained vituperative attacks on Bandinelli that lent credence to the negative shades of Vasari's picture of him. And although Cellini's obvious prejudices and pursuit of personal vendettas render him an unreliable witness, the mud stuck.

Bandinelli had to wait until the 20th century for a reassessment of his significance - and until now for the first-ever exhibition devoted to him: 'Baccio Bandinelli: Sculptor and Maestro,' at the Bargello in Florence, curated by the museum's director, Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, and Detlef Heikamp, an expert on Renaissance sculpture.

This is the last of a series of superb exhibitions at the Bargello on Florentine sculptors, including Desiderio da Settignano, Rustici, Ammannati and Giambologna, curated by Dr. Paolozzi Strozzi before she retires at the end of the summer. It runs through July 13.

'Until the early 19th century Bandinelli was regarded along with Sansovino and Michelangelo as one of the greatest sculptors of all time,' Dr. Paolozzi Strozzi said. 'The change came in the Romantic era, during which the cult of Michelangelo, first fostered by Vasari, reached new heights. As the reputation of Michelangelo rose, that of Bandinelli fell. This was given added impetus by the translations of Vasari's 'Lives.' And as Michelangelo was cast as the ultimate hero, so Bandinelli filled the role of the villain.'

The first section of the exhibition, 'Universal Artist,' has been installed in the museum's spacious 'Michelangelo Room,' placing Bandinelli's works alongside works by his masters Michelangelo and Rustici; by his contemporaries Sansovino, Tribolo and Cellini; by his students Vincenzo de' Rossi and Ammannati; and by his most outstanding artistic beneficiary, Giambologna.

Bandinelli was born in 1493, the son of a highly regarded goldsmith close to the Medici. He was an infant prodigy, displaying a high level of skill as a draftsman. He astonished the city and attracted the interest of its most famous artists when one winter, while still a child, he expertly sculpted out of a heap of cleared snow a giant recumbent river-god. This was the first manifestation of Bandinelli's abiding ambition to create monumental male figures worthy of comparison with those of antiquity.

Bandinelli was apprenticed to the studio of Rustici while the latter was working with Leonardo da Vinci on a series of larger-than-life bronze figures for the Baptistry of Florence. Observing his outstanding abilities in drawing, Leonardo urged the boy to pursue a career in sculpture. But the young man was determined to make his mark equally as a painter, following in the footsteps of Leonardo and Michelangelo.

His efforts in this medium, however, produced bizarre results that elicited general surprise and derision - an experience that wounded Bandinelli and might explain some of his subsequent cantankerous behavior.

Examination of Bandinelli's surviving canvases has led to the inescapable conclusion that he was color blind, a condition that was not scientifically recognized until the late 18th century. How this literally muddied his palette, as he would have been unable to see the colors of the spectrum between and including red and green, is lucidly analyzed in the catalog by Michael F. Marmor, a medical ophthalmologist and expert on the influence of sight defects on art.

Bandinelli's 'Leda and the Swan,' from around 1512, vividly illustrates the problem. It is on loan here for the first time from the Sorbonne in Paris, where it normally hangs on the wall of an office invisible to public view. The picture is almost monochrome, except for color highlights added by another artist, possibly Rosso Fiorentino. Yet in other respects the depiction of Leda and the other figures in the painting is remarkably elegant. Juxtaposed with the panel are a series of Bandinelli's drawings and marble reliefs where variations on these figures are given fuller expression in these other media of which he had already become a consummate master.

No less striking is his marble figure of 'Mercury,' also on loan from France. Although damaged, this piece shows that Bandinelli had a sensitivity to Greek marbles long before the distinctions between Greek and Roman sculpture were generally appreciated.

Bandinelli's exceptional qualities are further underlined in the sections that follow: 'Portraits of Cosimo I,' featuring his busts of the Medici grand duke; 'The Choir of Santa Maria del Fiore,' and 'The Duke's Room.'

A scale model of the marble choir shows Bandinelli's monumental architectural plan for Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence's Duomo. The elements on display here include some wonderful reliefs of saints and prophets from the choir's octagonal enclosure and two astonishing nude statues of Adam and Eve that stood behind the high altar (and were removed, as scandalously inappropriate, in 1722).

The massive figures of the dead Christ and God the Father from the altar itself, removed and separated in the 19th century, can now be found across town in Santa Croce, in the crypt of the church and in the garden of the first cloister, respectively.

'The Duke's Room' reunites the four pieces that Cosimo placed in a single room at his Palazzo Vecchio residence, the most beautiful modern marbles in his collection: Jacopo Sansovino's 'Bacchus,' Michelangelo's 'David-Apollo,' Cellini's 'Ganymede' and Bandinelli's 'Bacchus.' The last was more than equal to the other masterpieces in the group.

Across the Bargello's courtyard are the last two sections of the exhibition: 'Drawings, Bronzes, Models' and 'Portraits, Self-portraits and Inventions.'

Bandinelli's drawings here of nude and clothed figures bear witness to his command of disegno, a combination of drawing and design that underpinned the Florentine artistic Renaissance. More unexpected is the realism and sympathy of his sketches of farm animals and the charming intimacy of a 'Rural Landscape.' Alongside them are more than a dozen of the artist's exquisite small bronzes of mythical figures.

In 1558 Bandinelli was preparing to carve a colossal Neptune from a massive block of marble quarried in Carrara to adorn the new fountain in the Piazza della Signoria, built to celebrate Grand Duke Cosimo's bringing of an abundant water supply via an aqueduct into the city center.

The original wax model from Montpellier, publicly displayed here for the first time, and a small bronze from Rome give a compelling picture of what an awe-inspiring work this would have been, had it been realized. But death intervened, preventing Bandinelli from assuming a more permanently visible place in the pantheon of the Renaissance greats.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023