Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 20, 2008
Charles Davis and Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi I grandi bronzi del Battistero: L’arte di Vincenzo Danti, discepolo di Michelangelo Exh. cat. Florence: Giunti, 2008. 406 pp.; many color ills.; many b/w ills. Cloth Euros 45.00 (9788809059023)
Exhibition schedule: Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, April 16–September 7, 2008
Vincenzo Danti. Moses and the Brazen Serpent (1559). Bronze. Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello.

Although most of his works normally reside in Florentine museums and his role as a proponent of the maniera in sculpture is well-known, Vincenzo Danti (1530–76) is finally being feted with an exhibition of his own. On view at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence through September 7, I grandi bronzi del Battistero: L’arte di Vincenzo Danti, discepolo di Michelangelo is the schizophrenic title for what is essentially a monographic show on the career of the artist. Its occasion is the restoration of a three-figure bronze group from the southern door of the Florentine Baptistery, but the show and especially its catalogue reexamine his entire output, both within and outside the shadow of Michelangelo. Equally important, the exhibition separates Danti’s sculptures from their usual location in the large room of Cinquecento sculpture in the Bargello, where they are surrounded by contemporary Medici commissions from Bandinelli, Cellini, Ammannati, and Giambologna—the flood of talented practitioners Danti regularly competed against for patronage and whose work often is confused with his. Seen as a group (with some important additions from collections in the United States and England), Danti’s sculpture is thematically varied, technically diverse, and—probably the biggest surprise of the exhibition—most rewarding on a small scale.

It is not unusual to see the name Michelangelo tossed into the title of any show concerning Cinquecento Florentine art, but in Danti’s case the link is undoubtedly relevant, especially when discussing his monumental sculptural groups made in Florence. Although probably not a literal disciple (some early biographers hypothesized that as a teenager he made the pilgrimage to Rome to meet the master), Danti in his later career worked to bolster, refine, and reconstruct the Michelangelesque canon in sculpture.

His unfinished, little-read treatise, Trattato delle perfette proporzioni (Florence, 1567), instructed artists “to imitate Buonarroti with all of their efforts and power”—an early academic manifesto that neatly sums up the Vasarian age. Because Danti not only sculpted and wrote this treatise but also practiced architecture, painting, and poetry, David Summers characterized him as “one of the few artists in the history of art whose theoretical ability and practical ability were comparable” (The Sculpture of Vincenzo Danti: A Study in the Influence of Michelangelo, PhD diss, Yale University, 1969, xvii). Although probably not intended as a backhanded compliment, this apt phrase indicates the problems and limitations usually seen in Danti’s work—that in art and the printed word he was a facile exponent of the newly canonized academic standards of the Florentine maniera. Yet by gathering together a great number of his works (beyond the titular Baptistery bronzes), the Bargello show and its exhibition catalogue reveal a more protean, judicious sculptor than previously thought, dependent not only upon Michelangelo’s example but on two centuries of sculptural practice in Florence.

Because of obvious constraints, Danti’s most significant works from his pre-Florentine years in his native Perugia are missing from the show. Fortunately, the catalogue covers this early period excellently in three essays, each focusing attention on his first important work, the marvelous bronze statue of the seated Pope Julius III for the duomo of Perugia (1553–55). The iconographic and technical exigencies of the Julius portrait form the basis for Alessandro Nova’s “La statua di Giulio III a Perugia: Stile, commitenza e politica,” which includes some superb photographic details of Danti’s complex working of the tiara and cope. (On display at the Bargello is a plaster cast of a relief from the hood of the papal cope showing Faith Triumphing Over Heresy—a welcome addition to the show, since on the original monument the cope is nearly impossible to view.) Francesco Federico Mancini’s “Vincenzo Perugino” documents his assorted projects of the mid 1550s, which include not only the papal monument but several minor architectural commissions and terracotta portraits quite unlike his future work in Florence. Finally, Marco Collareta’s “Vincenzo Danti e l’oreficeria” uses the papal portrait to discuss Danti’s talent as a goldsmith. No later work of Danti’s in any medium contains so much surface detail and richness, which indicates that his turn toward robustly physical classicism was largely influenced by the taste of the Medici court, where he served for most of his career after he moved to Florence in 1557.

Perhaps inevitably, both the show and catalogue are of two minds about how to treat Danti’s debt to Michelangelo, since he both consciously emulated Michelangelo’s works and sought ways to avoid the traps of repetition. The direct citation of Michelangelo is discussed in Cristina Acidini’s catalogue essay “Vincenzo Danti e Michelangelo,” which is concerned particularly with the debt of Danti’s masterful Honor Triumphant Over Deceit (Bargello) to Michelangelo’s Victory (ca. 1532–34; Palazzo Vecchio, Florence). Although the latter is not on exhibition at the Bargello show, Michelangelo’s conic, two-figure group spiraling simultaneously in opposing directions served as clear inspiration for Danti’s composition, which here is represented not only by his 1561 marble but by variations in terracotta and bronze after the original work.

Yet Danti also was inspired in less literal ways by the master, a fact that the show tries to address through the two works by Michelangelo that have been installed in the exhibition, the Pitti Tondo (1505–8) and the Apollo/David (ca. 1530). Both works belong to the Bargello and thus were already at hand, but neither is a particularly meaningful example of the influence that Michelangelo cast upon Danti. The writhing posture of the Apollo/David inspired countless imitations among the late Cinquecento sculptors of Florence, Danti included, but the non finito quality of this and many other works by Michelangelo in fact appeared much more sparingly in Danti’s oeuvre. His monumental sculptures rarely explore their media in this way, with the exception of the graceful Leda and the Swan (ca. 1559–60; Victoria and Albert Museum, London), a work that astoundingly was once believed to be by Michelangelo himself. More often, Danti’s large-scale marbles, like his classicizing Cosimo I as Augustus (ca. 1572; Bargello), had a high polish and pensive stillness more reminiscent of the effigies at New Sacristy tombs than the roughness of the Pitti Tondo and Apollo/David.

The curators have tried to incorporate the influence of the New Sacristy sculptures upon Danti by displaying plaster casts of Michelangelo’s New Sacristy Dawn and Dusk made in 1570 and known to have been donated by Danti to the Accademia del Disegno of Perugia in 1573. Although Danti’s pair of Equity and Rigor for the Uffizi façade (absent from the show except in a large photograph) were closely modeled on Dawn and Dusk, those sculptures were completed by 1566, a few years before these casts were made. Summers’s study of Danti detailed the controversies surrounding the casts (of which there is also a second pair of Night and Day that did not travel from Perugia for this show). Since they are slightly larger than the original marbles and contain several minute variations from the sources, scholars over the centuries have debated whether they were made directly after the original works, followed some now-lost modelli by Michelangelo, or were freely reinterpreted by Danti in plaster.

Dimitrios Zikos’s catalogue entry shrewdly concludes (like Summers) that the first of those possibilities is the most likely, yet Zikos’s attribution to Vincenzo’s brother Egnazio Danti and Timoteo Refati requires some additional clarification. Although he is documented as having asked permission from Cosimo I to make the casts, Egnazio Danti—then the granducal cosmographer as well as the Medici court’s leading scientist and mathematician—almost certainly would not have been involved in their fabrication. The Mantuan medallist Timoteo Refati, mentioned in the same document, most likely made these plasters rather than either of the Danti brothers. The exhibition’s labeling of Egnazio as one of their authors seems misguided, and in any event the plasters form little more than a minor footnote in the career of Vincenzo. Their privileged display in the center of the second room—the same space housing Danti’s reliefs, his Santa Croce Madonna and Child [ca. 1568], and Michelangelo’s Pitti Tondo—overwhelmed the more significant objects surrounding them.

Fortunately, the three restored bronzes that form the Beheading of the Baptist (1570–71) from the Florentine Baptistery are displayed prominently and well. In making the Beheading, Danti had to negotiate many contingencies of its charged placement: his modern group was attached to an eleventh–twelfth century building held dear to every Florentine (Dante’s “bel San Giovanni”) and placed above Andrea Pisano’s fourteenth-century bronze doors showing scenes from the baptist’s life (including this same beheading). Ghiberti’s two sets of fifteenth-century doors and the early Cinquecento sculptural groups by Andrea Sansovino (Baptism of Christ) and Giovanfrancesco Rustici (The Preaching of John the Baptist) also added to the pressures incumbent upon Danti to make a statement with his bronzes, even though he was required to employ the same three-figure format used by Sansovino and Rustici. Finally, although adorning a religious building, the Beheading was undoubtedly understood as a public sculpture, in much the same manner as Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus (an obvious influence) in the Loggia dei Lanzi (1545–54). It was paid for by the Arte di Calimala (the wool guild traditionally responsible for decorating the Baptistery) at the command of Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, whose name rather than that of the guild is easily visible in the Bargello display on the signature beneath the baptist’s left knee: “1571 / Vincentius Dantius faciebat / mandato Cosmi Medicis Magni / Ducis Etruriae.”

The resulting bronzes were generally well received but never considered as virtuouso as Cellini’s Perseus or Danti’s own Julius III. Summers memorably described the figures of the Baptistery group as “weightless” and having “flat useless feet” (300). Up close, the group reveals a rapid, planar quality not common in Danti’s other work. Made in about six months, they appear to have had little surface reworking after their casting, quite unlike the rich finish of the Julian monument. Although much of the surface weathering and discoloration still remains after the restoration, traces of gilding are now visible on the hem of the executioner’s gown and on Salome’s girdle. Brought down to eye level, the Beheading installation in the Bargello allows the viewer to see the back sides of the sculptures, which are significantly more complete than one would have guessed. Its removal from busy Piazza Duomo to the calm of the Bargello also allows one to consider Danti’s narrative strategy. Although hardly Danti’s greatest work, the Beheading complicates the reading of Danti as a “disciple” of Michelangelo, since it suspends the climactic moment indefinitely rather than collapsing the lengthier narrative through countervailing details. Danti recognized the degree to which his work would compete with the rest of the building’s imagery and sought an immediacy for the composition that would set it apart from the work of the building’s earlier sculptures.

The show’s other important revelation is Danti’s relief work. Although both the Moses and the Brazen Serpent (1559) and the enigmatic sportello door from the Palazzo Vecchio treasury (1559) normally reside in the Bargello, the chance to see these works alongside an early, probably unfinished Perugian terracotta Flagellation (ca. 1553–57; Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris) and a stucco Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple (ca. 1553–57; Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria, Perugia) allows viewers to consider the debt owed to Donatello’s late reliefs, primarily the Paduan altar and the stunning pulpits in San Lorenzo. Surrounded by this remarkable grouping in the second room of the exhibit, a non-documented but long-attributed Deposition (ca. 1559; National Gallery, Washington) has no difficulty convincing the viewer that it belongs in the company of Danti’s other works. In several strong essays in the catalogue, Charles Davis characterizes Danti’s relief style as wide-ranging and experimental, and, because very few drawings by his hand survive, serve as the best evidence of his approach toward disegno. Of the great Moses and the Brazen Serpent, Davis writes, “No contemporary bronze relief of the same dimensions is remotely comparable to it, nor possesses a similarly contorted, almost violent, plasticity” (96–97). It is in smaller scale works like the Moses that Danti’s impeccable training as a goldsmith appears after his departure from Perugia, and the chance to consider them near the larger work confirms the ambition and eclecticism of his output.

Although the Bargello’s exhibition space is limited to two tightly packed rooms on the ground floor in the palace’s northeast corner, the show gives a full picture of Danti’s activities in Florence. Even more importantly, the catalogue—with eleven essays on Danti’s career, detailed entries for the twenty-three works on show, and a lengthy report on the Beheading’s restoration—serves as a much-needed (and well-illustrated) reappraisal of the artist beyond the limiting labels of academic mannerism.

Mark Rosen
Associate Professor of Aesthetic Studies, Edith O’Donnell Institute of Art History, University of Texas at Dallas

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