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Crying in the wilderness: a bronze 'St John the Baptist' from the circle of Piero the Gouty De'Medici: in the 1450s Lorenzo the Magnificent's father commissioned a bronze statuette of St John the Baptist for a holy-water stoup in SS Annunziata, Florence. Charles Avery presents new evidence that this lost work has survived unidentified in the Bargello.

A report on notable acquisitions by the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, published in APOLLO in October 2007, singled out a gilt-bronze statuette of St John the Baptist, claiming it to be by Michelozzo, and to be the central figure from the holy-water stoup in SS Annunziata, Florence. Alas for the museum, this cannot be the case. The statuette formerly in the church was actually said by Vasari to be by not Michelozzo, but Pagno di Lapo Portigiani, a junior associate of his, a statement that can be corroborated by unpublished documents. This work has recently been identified beyond reasonable doubt as being a hirsute bronze figure of the Baptist in the Bargello, the sculpture museum of Florence.

But to start from the beginning, the first reference to such a statuette appears in a description of SS Annunziata in Filarete's Trattato di architettura of around 1464: (1) 'And there is also a worthy stoup where the holy water is kept which is made of marble, with an image of St. John the Baptist on top, which is in gilt bronze and is some three quarters of a braccio high'. The braccio (literally a [fore]-arm), the standard unit of measurement in Florence, measures around 58 cm, so that Filarete thought it was about 43.5 cm high. The actual height of the statuette in the Bargello is 56.2 cm, but, as we shall see, later writers guessed its height as being much closer to this.

Nearly a century later, in 1550, the pioneering art historian Giorgio Vasari accorded the figure a passing reference in his biography of Michelozzo. He writes that Michelozzo was brought out of retirement by Piero de' Medici to help design a special shrine to the Virgin Annunciate and all its appurtenances in the church dedicated to her in Florence. (2) It is important to note, however, that he prefaced his long passage with the rider that the actual execution was entirely delegated to Pagno di Lapo Portigiani of Fiesole. Therefore it is to Pagno that Vasari is referring when he writes: 'Outside the chapel of the Annunciate, the same [artist] made a large bronze candelabrum ... and the water-stoup with St John on top.' In his second edition, published in 1568, Vasari expanded a little on this, specifying its position and adding a clause of praise: 'And on entering the church, the marble water stoup, in the middle a St John, which is a very fine thing.' (3) The authorship of the statuette was correctly given a century later still, in Francesco Bocchi's guidebook Le bellezze di Firenze, which was addressed to visitors of the generation of the early Grand Tour, who had a more collectorly interest in what were then becoming thought of as 'works of art', rather than just as devotional items. (4)

What now proves to be the crowning figure from the stoup has been in the Museo del Bargello since 1890. Prior to then it had been in the storerooms of the Royal Gallery (that is, the Uffizi), whither it had arrived from the famous art school the Accademia di Belle Arti on 15 March 1853. This much is recorded in the files of the Bargello, making the evidently mid-quattrocento statuette one of the few in the collection that is not descended directly from the old family holdings of the Medici. (5) To this information the present writer was, happily, able to add some documentation from the annals of SS Annunziata as to the history of the statuette of St John that used to crown its water stoup.

Let us turn now to the work of art in question. The statuette (Fig. 1) conveys an unflinchingly realistic image of the Baptist--coincidentally the patron saint of Florence--as the emaciated man of the desert 'clothed with camel's hair, and with a girdle of skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey'. (6) Here he is shown with his own matted hair and beard almost indistinguishable from that of the ill-smelling beast in whose hide he is clad. His face is haggard with the intensity of the message of repentance and salvation through baptism that he was trying to bring to the people of Israel (Fig. 2). His hands spread open from top and bottom a parchment scroll (Fig. 3) inscribed with the Latin translation of the crucial words that he uttered on seeing Jesus approaching the River Jordan to accept baptism at his hands: 'Ecce Agnus Dei'--'Behold the Lamb of God'. This was the traditional phrase used to distinguish the last of the great Hebrew prophets. His sandalled feet are firmly planted on the ground, with Iris advanced left foot projecting over the comer of the rectangular base, which has chamfered comers. Between the feet is a hole centrally placed in the base to accommodate a massive screw to hold the statuette in place on the stoup.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

As early as 1904 the pioneering art historian Cornelius von Fabriczy, in a wide-ranging and still valid article about Michelozzo, the one-time partner of Donatello, noted the sculpture's similarity to a silver statuette on the altarpiece from the Baptistry and a life-size statue in terracotta in the Annunziata and felt that it might be attributable to Michelozzo's late period. (7) By later standards, the similarities seem to be mainly generic, and yet they point in the right direction.

Piero the Gouty de' Medici (son of the more famous Cosimo the Elder and father of Lorenzo the Magnificent) endowed SS Annunziata with a shrine in its north-western corner to house and focus attention on a miracle-working holy relic. Its designer was the Medici 'house architect' Michelozzo; its elaborate, marble surround in the newly-fashionable renaissance style was carved by Pagno di Lapo Portigiani (1408-70); while its bronze grille, in the form of some fictive rope-netting, was cast by Maso di Bartolomeo (1406-56).

Significantly, in a manuscript of around 1765 by one of the resident monks, Filippo Tozzi of the Order of Servites, we read: 'Near this lunette is the holy water stoup, worked in white marble by Giacomo di Marco of Fiesole at the expense of Piero di Cosimo de' Medici, whose arms are to be seen on its foot. The St John the Baptist in bronze that stands on top of the stoup, is a work of Pagno di Lapo Portigiani of Fiesole. The principal door of the church, which leads out from the other lunette ...' (8) The last phrase is included here because it corroborates the site of the stoup given by Vasari in 1568, between the pair of lunettes above the two doorways at the west end of the church. The veracity of this information is corroborated by a shorter note in the standard guidebook to the churches of Florence, which had been published by Giuseppe Richa some six years earlier: 'and between the two doors, in the middle of the second stoup there is to be seen a St John the Baptist of bronze one braccio high, which is the work of Pagno Portigiani'. (9) As mentioned above, this estimate of its height is more accurate than Filarete's guess of 200 years earlier.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

By about a century later, in a detailed guidebook to the church published in 1858, the presence of the water stoup is referred to in the past tense, 'Between the same two doors there was for a time a stoup', (10) while in the next guidebook, printed in 1876, it was no longer referred to at all. (11) These sad admissions of its loss from the church by 1858 correspond--too neatly for it to be a mere coincidence--with the appearance (seemingly 'out of the blue') of the Bargello statuette, prior to 1853, in the Accademia di Belle Arti. This is an institution only about 500 yards away that is dedicated to the study of art, a fitting repository for an evidently good and old bronze statuette, that had--unaccountably to us today--been judged, in our terms, 'superfluous to current needs'. Therefore the data recorded within the walls of the monastery--presumably derived from an attentive reading of old documents--regarding the patronage and authorship of the water stoup and its traditional crowning figure must apply to the statuette under examination. It is all the more convincing for its attribution of the (missing) marble parts to a carver about whom nothing is known, Giacomo di Marco of Fiesole.

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

The information that the statuette itself was by Pagno di Lapo Portigiani, partly concealed from a casual reader in Vasari's lengthy account, comes as a surprise to a specialist, for Pagno is otherwise known only as a marble carver, who--apart from the sanctuary in the Annunziata--worked for the Medici on other projects alongside Donatello and Michelozzo. Perhaps he was its author in the sense that he supplied the original model in wax (and may even have chiselled the bronze cast once cold), but it would actually have been cast by a fellow associate of Michelozzo, Maso di Bartolomeo, who is documented asa skilled foundryman by his own fascinating notebooks. (12) When ordered to make a statuette of St John the Baptist, Pagno and Maso could be expected to have produced an image just such as this, so heavily influenced by their illustrious elders, Donatello and Michelozzo, that it has been attributed in the pioneering stage of modern art history to one or other of them. (13)

For example, after Fabriczy's generic attribution of 1904 to Michelozzo himself, Wilhelm von Bode, the doyen of the emergent field of study of bronze statuettes, anda critic with an amazingly subtle eye, discerned a different hand at work:
 The close relationship existing for nearly
 twenty years between Donatello and
 Michelozzo (the most distinguished bronze-caster
 of his time and, as such, Donatello's
 collaborator) explains why this figure has
 been ascribed to him. Yet Michelozzo's
 different figures of St John, executed in clay
 and silver, show a decided deviation from it.
 They have not its pronounced realism, its
 thick-set body, ugly head with large cheek
 bones, and disarranged folds of drapery,
 but are slender, and show antique influence
 and a soft and somewhat weak expression.
 The name of the artist who made this clever
 figure, soon after the middle of the 15th
 century, is yet to be found. The figure is
 so close to Donatello that ir should rather
 be ascribed to him, or to one of his unknown
 pupils or followers, than to Michelozzo. (14)


Pagno di Lapo fits Bode's description perfectly.

Strangely enough fora native Italian, Lionello Venturi, author of the magisterial and still valid Storia dell'Arte Italiana, while allowing the statuette a full-page illustration in volume vi, published in 1908, held that it was not from the same stable as Michelozzo's Baptists, who were 'a type of barbarian king, of powerful lord of the desert', but was 'the figure of some ignoble artisan'! Perhaps Venturi was too fixated on the concept of Graeco-Roman idealism in early-renaissance sculpture. Since the great days of early-modern art history, the statuette has evoked little interest, save for being included in the first of the post-war international exhibitions to be devoted to bronze statuettes, sponsored in its English manifestation by the Arts Council and mounted in the Victoria and Albert Museum, when it was--less than perceptively--once again given by John Pope-Hennessy, ignoring the caveats of Von Bode, to Michelozzo himself. (15)

Standing ignored and under-labelled, as the statuette still does today, against the shadowy east wall of the Donatello hall in the Bargello, it has always fascinated me on account of its vigorous modelling and feeling of repressed, almost savage, energy. I have always believed that it was the figure from the Medici commission for SS Annunziata, but until I read among recent documentary findings by Andrea Ciaroni the actual history of how and when the item reached the Bargello, I could not prove the case, but kept by me for over 30 years the information from generations of monastic scholars in SS Annunziata. This has finally enabled us to make it one of the more innovative entries in the first volume to appear of our joint survey of bronzes in the Museo del Bargello. (16)

(1) A.M. Finoli and L. Grassi (eds), Antonio Averlino detto Il Filarete, Trattato di Architettura, Milan, 1972, p. 691: 'E ancora v'e una degna pila dove che sta l'acqua benedetta la quale e di marmo, con una immagine di Santo Giovanni Battista lassu in cima, la quale e di bronzo dorata, ed e d'altezza di qualche tre quarti di braccio'.

(2) G. Vasari, Le Vite de'piu eccellenti Pittori Scultori ed Architettori, Florence, 1550, edited by C. Ricci, Milan, 1927: 'et la pila di marmo con un San Giovanni a sommo'.

(3) G. Vasari, Le Vite de'piu eccellenti Pittori Scultori ed Architettori, Florence, 1568, edited by G. Milanesi, Milan, 1881, p. 477: 'Ed all'entrar di chiesa la pila dell'acqua benedetta di marmo, e nel mezzo un San Giovanni, che e cosa bellissima'.

(4) G. Cinelli, Le Bellezze della citta di Firenze ..., Florence, 1677, p. 431: 'Il S. Gio: di bronzo, ch'e spra la pila di marmo fra le porte e di Pagno Partigiani [sic] scolar di Michelozzo'.

(5) See A. Ciaroni and C. Avery, Dai Medici al Bargello, vol. II, I Bronzi del Rinascimento: Il Quattrocento, Maastricht, 2007, pp. 141-47, no. 16.

(6) St Mark, 2:34.

(7) C. von Fabriczy; 'Michelozzo di Bartolomeo', Jahrbuch der Preussischen Kunstsammlungen, vol. xxv, 1904, p. 56.

(8) Filippo Tozzi, 'Memorie della chiesa e del convento', p. 263. Archives of SS. Annunziata: 'Contigua a questa lunetta e la pila dell'acqua Santa, lavorata in marino bianco da Giacomo di Marco da Fiesole a spese di Piero di Cosimo de" Medici di cui osservasi l'arme nel piede. Il San Giovanni Battista di bronzo, che e sopra la detta pila, e opera di Pagno Portigiani da Fiesole. La porta principale di Chiesa, che riesce nell'altra lunette'. This reference was kindly communicated to the present writer in 1973 by Fr Eugenio Casalini OSM.

(9) Giuseppe Richa, Notizie Storiche delle chiese fiorentine, volume IV, Florence, 1759, p. 59: 'e tra le due porte, in mezzo alla seconda pila vedesi un S. Gio. Battista di bronzo alto un braccio, che e opera di Pagno Portigiani'.

(10) Ottavio Andreucci, Il fiorentino istruito nella chiesa della Nunziata di Firenze, Florence, 1858, p. 116: Tra le stesse due porte fuvvi per un tempo una pila di marmo per l'acqua lustrale lavorata da Giacomo di Marco da Fiesole, avente l'arma Medicea, ed al di sopra S. Giovanni in bronzo, opera che Piero di Cosimo Medial affidava a Pagno Portigiani da Fiesole scolare di Michelozzo'.

(11) [Pellegrino Tonini], Il Santuario della Ss. Annunziata di Firenze. Guida storico illusstrativa compilata da un religioso dei Servi di Maria, Florence, 1876, pp. 212-15.

(12) C. Yriarte, Journal d'un sculpteur florentin au XVe siecle: Livre de souvenirs de Maso di Bartolommeo, dit Masaccio (Manuscripts conserves h la bibliotheque de Prato el a la Magliabecchiana de Florence), Paris, 1894.

(13) For a full account of the vicissitudes of its attributional history in the early 20th century, see Ciaroni and Avery, op. cit., pp. 144-45.

(14) Wilhelm von Bode (edited by J. D. Draper), The Italian Bronze Statuettes of the Renaissance, 2nd edition, New York, 1980, p. 4.

(15) Before this, H.W. Janson in the unpublished typescript of bis doctoral dissertation for Harvard University of 1941 had opined that the figure was related to the late pulpits of Donatello in S Lorenzo and so might be by Bellano; while in a talk given to a colloquium in Florence entitled 'Donatello e il suo Tempo' in 1966, he raised the spectre of its being a work by Donatello in his twenties. Perhaps this did not find favour with his audience or the editors of the Acts and so was tacitly withdrawn.

(16) Ciaron and Aves; op. cit.

Charles Avery has collaborated with Andrea Ciaroni on a new catalogue of the bronze sculptures in the Bargello, which is reviewed on pages 140-141.
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Date:Jun 1, 2008
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