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Gods, heroes--and birds: the first major Giambologna exhibition in a generation, which has just transferred from Florence to Vienna, is so complete, says Charles Avery, that only birdsong is missing.

A Flemish sculptor whose real name was Jean Boulogne (1525/29-1608), the protagonist of this exciting visual feast is normally known--as in the title--by the compressed Italian version, 'Giambologna'. This is for the simple reason that he spent his whole adult career in Florence, working for the Medici grand-dukes. Giambologna is still not a household name, but deserves to be--for he occupies a crucial position in the history, of sculpture between Michelangelo (d. 1564) and Bernini (b. 1598). All three had strong characters, distinctive personal styles and lived to be octogenarians: accordingly, each influenced the evolution of the art of sculpture for well over half a century, as did Henry Moore in our own lifetimes.

The finest collection of Giambologna's work is in the Bargello, Florence, which is the inheritor of many marvellous examples from the Medici collection. These are the source for the present show, 'Giambologna, Gods and Heroes', which reflects the predominance within his production of pagan and secular subjects, in spiralling, sinuous compositions. They express his poetic, sensuous appreciation of the human body, with centrifugal compositions for extrovert males and struggling groups, contrasted with contained poses for his calmly introspective females. Giambologna had a strong feeling for calligraphic design in three dimensions, which led him slightly beyond natural appearances, towards ideal, stylised renderings, which might be compared with the abstraction of forms found in the 20th century in such sculptures as Brancusi's Bird in Space.

The organisers have set out to redress the neglect of Giambologna--perhaps because he was an outsider and not even an Italian--in Florence, the city where he made his home and his career for half a century. The only previous international exhibition was organised by the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1978 with venues in Edinburgh, London and Vienna. Now, 25 years later, the show opened with a new arrival from the streets of the city, a Striding Bacchus in bronze that has for years been immured in a niche opposite the southern end of the Ponte Vecchio (it is to be replaced with a copy). That location abnegated its dramatic stride, which is a pleasure to behold from the centre of the courtyard.

Under an arch opposite, Neptune--the colossal marble centrepiece from a fountain in the Boboli Gardens brought under cover long since for the sake of preservation--was dragged forward from the wall and raised on to a pedestal to give it 'space to breathe' and room for the visitor to walk round and admire it from 360[degrees]. A similar, laborious exercise was performed within the Great Hall of the ground floor--home to so many masterpieces of high renaissance and mannerist sculpture--for the allegorical group of Florence Triumphant over Pisa, which between 1565 and 1572 closely followed Samson slaying a Philistine (V&A, London) into the world. The sheer size and fragility of these big marbles understandably trammelled the organisers in any attempt to arrange the sort of coherent route around the exhibition that one tends to expect. Indeed, they remained moored like great ocean liners in a busy harbour, surrounded on all sides by smaller--even if valuable--craft. A mass of bronzes huddled round and almost beneath the polished marble flanks of the statue of Florence.

Meanwhile the nearly life-size bronze Mercury--Giambologna's most widely known and reproduced statue--was brought down from its normal situation, virtually out-of-doors on the balcony, where it seems to soar skyward over the courtyard, to act as the centtepiece of a dark booth around which were mounted a number of miniature versions in bronze. Most of these precede it in date and interestingly show the evolution of the artist's imagination as his composition evolves from a running figure of the messenger of the gods to one that takes off vertically, his forefinger pointing upwards like the tip of a rocket (Vienna).

The trompe l'oeil bronze birds on the balcony were freed from their restrictive 1960s pedestals and gathered together on a rocky islet, in an attempt to simulate their original location in and around the mysterious water-grotto in the gardens of the Medici Villa of II Castello (whence, years ago after an attempt at theft in that vulnerable location, they were moved to the Bargello). Who has not admired the smooth plumage and streamlined, avian forms of Giambologna's Eagle and Peacock, or marvelled at the lifelike rendering of ruffled feathers of his Owl or his Turkey (Fig. 1)? He caught not just the physical appearance, but also the character of the different species, as commonly perceived by mankind, thereby becoming a prototype of the animaliers of the French 19th century. The evocation of a garden on the balcony was charming and successful, enhanced by festoons of foliage at which the Florentines have excelled since the renaissance--one is put in mind of Luca della Robbia's lovely wreaths around his Madonnas in polychrome terracotta. Only the sounds of splashing waters and birdsong were lacking.


Down below again, in the vaulted chambers of the undercroft--around two winsome life-size nude marble ladies, Venus and Architecture (Fig. 3)--were assembled the remainder of the gods and heroes, in the semblance of a strong-room or treasure-chamber. This is precisely where many of the best exhibits come from: the fabulous Green Vaults in Dresden (where they have been since they were given by the Medici to the Elector of Saxony in 1587) and the Kunstkammer of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, which participated generously in the British endeavour of 1978 (indeed taking the whole exhibition and producing a catalogue in German). Once again, but with their new Florentine partner, the Viennese have taken the portable items from this Bargello show--save for the birds--and mounted them alongside the remainder of their own historic collection, most of which goes back to Giambologna's day, when the Habsburgs ruled much of Europe.


Related by the marriages of some female members into the Medici family, they were inundated with reciprocal gifts from the city on the Arno, and the records of their receipt at the Danube end often provide the otherwise elusive dates for the small bronze figures which functioned as pawns in the international chess game of diplomatic alliances. Giambologna's bronzes (Fig. 2) made attractive gifts, whose intrinsic value was hard for the recipient to calculate (they did not actually cost much when the artist was on one's payroll), while their artistry was breathtaking and avant-garde at the time. This was especially true in the German lands, which, like England, were slow to leave the gothic style behind and step into the light of renaissance or--by the time it reached them--of mannerist art.


Giambologna's became a truly international style and led to the hiring of his best assistants--often, like their master, northerners by origin--as sculptors to the greatest courts of the day. By 1600, his work was being exported all over Europe, so eagerly sought after was it by royalty, nobility and bourgeoisie alike, and frequently featuring in paintings of their smart galleries. This taste has been revived in the past quarter of a century by a new generation of collectors, mostly Americans, which has created a new peak in prices for bronzes by Giambologna--and by his followers over two generations--on the international art market (see 'Collectors Focus', APOLLO, March 2006).

'Giambologna: Gli Dei, Gli Eroi', Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, 2 March-15 June; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (+43 1 525 24 591), 27 June-17 September. Catalogue edited by B. Paolozzi-Strozzi and D. Zikos.

The work illustrating this review are by Giambologna (1529-1608).

Charles Aver, a historian specialising in sculpture, is author of 'Giambologna: The Complete Sculpture' (1987).
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Title Annotation:EXHIBITIONS
Author:Avery, Charles
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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