High Renaissance Sculpture
Jon L. Seydl The Paul J. and Edith Ingalls Vignos Jr. Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, 1500-1800
Mars, Minerva, Venus, and Cupid early 1500s. Valerio Belli (Italian, c. 1468–1546). Rock crystal intaglio, gilded from reverse, backed with lapis lazuli, mounted in a gold pendant; h. 6 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund 2008.147
Italian High Renaissance art is a key category in art history, but one of the hardest areas in which to collect. Renaissance art has been so popular for so long that museums snapped up most significant works decades ago. Cleveland luckily holds major works by Michelangelo, Filippino Lippi, Sansovino, and Andrea del Sarto. The collection lacks depth and breadth, however, so the recent opportunity to acquire two works by major High Renaissance sculptors was too good to pass up.
The first is small in scale but huge in impact. Generally Italian Renaissance sculpture brings to mind the monumental public work of Donatello or Michelangelo. However, smaller objects—in bronze, gold, and other precious materials—were extremely significant, especially among prestigious, humanist collectors such as the Medici, who assembled collections of these refined works. Among the most noteworthy practitioners was the medalist, goldsmith, and gem carver Valerio Belli. Born in Vicenza, near Venice, Belli moved to Rome early in his career and quickly linked himself to the courts of Popes Clement VII de’ Medici and Paul III Farnese. Although his biography remains shadowy, Belli’s fame comes from small-scale luxury objects and widely reproduced bronze plaquettes, or small reliefs (the CMA has three casts after Belli’s models in the collection). Belli closely studied ancient coins and gems, as well as contemporary Renaissance prints, and his learned subject matter reveals his close connection with Renaissance humanist circles.
In this tiny sculpture, a bare-chested man sits at left. A helmet, breastplate, shields, and swords rest on the ground before him, identifying him as Mars, the god of war. At center, the helmeted female figure, clad in heavy classical drapery and carrying a shield and spear, is Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. In contrast, Venus, draped more sensuously, with streaming curly hair, stands at right, accompanied by her son, the winged Cupid.
A snake, a symbol of wisdom, passes from Minerva’s hand and wraps around the extended arm of Mars, showing his selection of her gift. Venus meanwhile has turned to leave, gathering her garments in one hand while her rejected laurel wreath falls toward the floor; Cupid playfully reaches for it, enhancing the triviality of his mother’s offering. Belli further develops the goddesses’ opposition by turning their heads toward one another, across the spear’s stark diagonal. The thin break between the figures splits the composition, expressing the difficult but morally correct choice between wisdom and pleasure, or virtue and vice.
The subject is common in antiquity and the Renaissance, although the male figure traditionally represents Hercules (a subject Belli also sculpted). Belli moves away from this iconography to a more Olympian protagonist, and rather than a generalized choice of virtue, Minerva’s snake lionizes wisdom, perhaps indicating the intellectual or political tilt of the patron, who has yet to be identified.
The scale of this work is astonishing, only about 2¼ inches tall. Its technique and quality are likewise unusual and impressive, a novel departure from ancient Roman and Byzantine gem-carving traditions, Belli’s inspiration. Belli engraved into the reverse of a rock crystal (a naturally occurring clear stone), so that we see the flat side. He then applied gilding from the back, creating the impression of a cameo reaching out toward the viewer through the stone. Finally, he attached a thin slice of lapis lazuli to the back. The pendant is probably not original, and while the carving could have been worn, Belli’s works more commonly graced larger luxury objects or were collected as things in themselves. The technique is complex, even for Belli, only recorded in two other published works. The carving is also remarkably precise, carefully delineating four different types of hair and creating clear distinctions among the bodies and between the goddesses’ costumes. Moreover, the gilding, which could have clotted the design, has been applied expertly to enhance the composition and to express the story with clarity and authority. This sculpture—the only example of Renaissance gem carving in the collection—caps the CMA’s collection of medals and plaquettes, opening with the Renaissance galleries in 2012.
Julius Caesar c. 1455–60. Mino da Fiesole (Italian, c. 1430–1484). Marble with traces of gilding and limestone with traces of polychromy; 83 x 84 x 25 cm. John L. Severance Fund 2009.271
The other newly acquired Renaissance sculpture is by Mino da Fiesole, one of a handful of great Italian sculptors of monumental objects working in the 1400s between Donatello and Michelangelo. He trained under the Florentine sculptor Desiderio da Settignano and is best known for carving the first portrait bust since antiquity (Piero de’ Medici, 1453, Bargello, Florence). Like Belli, Mino worked for the era’s key patrons in Rome and Florence, making tomb sculptures, portrait busts, and refined reliefs, such as this work.
The commanding marble depicts Julius Caesar in profile before a blank background, carved with a Latin abbreviation of his name. Caesar appears as a political rather than military leader, worn by the burdens of office, with signs of aging carefully described—including crow’s feet, a wrinkled brow, and sagging chin—while an idiosyncratic, antique-inspired robe is pinned in three locations. Traces of bole (a red clay compound) on the laurel crown in his hair indicate that this detail was originally gilded. The relief rests inside a large, worn, fine-grained limestone block with rough hatch marks on all sides except the front, suggesting that at least this part of the sculpture was originally set into a wall. A garland of fruit, grain, nuts, leaves, and flowers, with significant traces of color, surrounds the relief, while thin, elegant ribbons, leaves, and blossoms, in very low relief, fill the flat passages.
Expressive Marble Mino da Fiesole made these two sculptures within a few years of each other, and both exemplify the artist’s remarkable skill. The face of the Madonna is young and flawless while Caesar’s is lined with long experience.
The close connection to ancient coins as well as Renaissance medals and painted portraits, the graceful, balanced composition, and the classicizing subject exemplify the revival and reimagining of antiquity so fundamental to the Italian High Renaissance. The assured handling and sense of proportion likewise exemplify the best works by Mino. The sculpture belongs to the tradition of imperial subjects and portrait reliefs characteristic of Renaissance art, also revealing the humanist preoccupation with classical antiquity. For Mino’s patrons, Caesar offered a model for leadership, masculinity, and composure. Only about 12 autograph reliefs of ancient Roman figures have been identified, and they vary considerably in scale, depth of carving, relationship to the frame, and psychological tone, indicating that they were not a series but a field of experimentation to which Mino returned across his career.
Cleveland’s High Renaissance painting and sculpture collection were largely built in the early 20th century, and the monumental sculpture—despite some exceptional highlights—is uneven. One major gap is 15th-century Florentine sculpture, a touchstone category in the history of art but never collected in depth at the CMA. As a secular relief by a major artist, Julius Caesar fills a significant gap in the museum’s collection, almost exclusively composed of religious subjects and largely small-scale objects. The work also makes key connections to extant strengths, including the Italian Renaissance medals and plaquettes as well as one of the museum’s great sculptures, the Madonna and Child, alsoby Mino da Fiesole, a splendid religious counterpoint to Julius Caesar.
Madonna and Child by 1461. Mino da Fiesole. Marble with traces of gilding; 93.7 x 80 x 12.7 cm. Gift of Mrs. Leonard C. Hanna 1928.747
The marble relief is in unusually good condition. The quality of the carving is remarkable, and the psychological depth of Mino’s portrayal of Caesar retains its power, even at a distance. Mino’s other imperial reliefs are damaged, and most have been cut down or rebuilt from fragments. The limestone garland, however, requires further study. Although it is not by Mino’s hand (he often worked with decorative carvers on larger commissions), it may be original (or at least period), and it will be presented together with the relief until we have a more definitive answer about its connection to the marble.
The Mino is currently on view in gallery 214 in the 1916 building, on the sightline from the rotunda through the Reid gallery.
Cleveland Art, July/August 2010