Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 7, 2013
Michael W. Cole Ambitious Form: Giambologna, Ammanati, and Danti in Florence Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011. 372 pp.; 167 b/w ills. Cloth $49.50 (9780691147444)
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Since his article on “Cellini’s Blood” (The Art Bulletin 81, no. 2 [June 1999]: 215–35), Michael Cole has challenged previous notions that late sixteenth-century sculpture was the rather unfortunate product of a decline of innovation and is rife with repetitive references to Michelangelo, as sculptors struggled to survive in the revered master’s shadow. In Ambitious Form: Giambologna, Ammanati, and Danti in Florence, Cole continues his groundbreaking path in what is, perhaps, his most ambitious project.

Cole sets out to resituate Giambologna and his peers in Florence in terms of their artistic goals, which were, he asserts, less about being in the “crisis of Michelangelo’s shadow” than has been previously argued. Although the book’s subtitle includes three artists, Giambologna is the clear protagonist. The other artists, Bartolomeo Ammanati and Vincenzo Danti, appear rather sporadically, often as a foil or further example of a concept, instead of as equal forces in the study. Overall, Cole’s focus is not on historical contexts or patronage (with important exceptions, as noted below), and the seven chapters of the study tend to read as only marginally interdependent case studies, though there are some significant threads that tie the chapters together, such as the focus on the artist as maker, creator, and manipulator of material, form, and space.

In chapter 1, “Models,” Cole discusses Giambologna’s working process, particularly his production of models and the fact that he did not cast his own sculptures in bronze. The model was proof of the sculptor’s intellect, just as drawings were for painters. The next important part of the process for Giambologna, Cole posits, was the finishing of the bronze after it was cast. His meticulous polishing and chasing were in intentional contrast to Michelangelo’s non-finito.

In chapter 2, “Professions,” Cole contrasts Giambologna’s training in the production of bronzes with that of his peers who had, for the most part, been trained as goldsmiths. Danti and Benvenuto Cellini, for example, were goldsmiths who had already worked on large-scale bronzes by the time Giambologna attempted it. Danti’s had not been successful (Hercules and Antaeus (1558)), but Cellini’s Perseus (ca. 1554) certainly was. Ammanati, who was much better versed in engineering and mechanical devices, sought to outdo Danti with his technical feat when he made his Mars Gravidus (1559). In this climate of rivalry, Giambologna sought to surpass both Danti and Ammanati. After he lost the Neptune competition to Ammanati, he focused on learning about bronze and experimented with large and small-scale bronzes. Three years later, he was well prepared to make his bronze Neptune (ca. 1567) for Bologna, with the help of bronze caster Zanobi Portigiani. The partnership with Portigiani was not a happy one, however; and this, in part, may explain why Giambologna turned to the production of smaller-scale bronzes for the majority of his career, which he could manage without the help of a caster.

Another reason for Giambologna’s vast production of bronzes was that it enabled him to form a niche in the Florentine (and international) art world, since “no contemporary, by contrast, left anything like Giambologna’s bronzes, and there is no real precedent for it in the Florentine tradition” (62). Even artists trained as goldsmiths rarely produced statuettes. Cole astutely points out that Leone Leoni, who was trained as a goldsmith, did not produce bronze statuettes, which would have been natural for him with his background and also would have been easier to ship over long distances, as so many of Leoni’s sculptures were. Leoni, like Cellini and other goldsmith-trained sculptors, perceived a stigma against goldsmithery that spurred them to focus almost exclusively on large-scale figures. Giambologna’s lack of training as a goldsmith allowed him to be free of that stigma and to redefine the small figures he created as small sculptures, not as goldsmiths’ products.

Cole offers a particularly compelling analysis of Giambologna’s Bathers (ca. 1584), who draw attention through their gestures to the finishing process and to their own impeccably high finish. The limited accouterments he gives his figures facilitates the appreciation of their finish, as well as allows them to avoid potential criticism as being overly wrought or decorated. The limited accouterments and attributes also enable the figures to defy identification. In addition, the inclusion of pedestals for the statuettes impedes the sculptures from being physically absorbed into any settings in which they could be placed. Their autonomy and identity flexibility freed Giambologna, as Simone Fortuna wrote to the Duke of Urbino, “to make caprices that go beyond what is ordinary, as [the artist’s] fantasy instructs, such that his things are different from others and require much time to consider” (quoted by Cole, 86).

But, of course, Giambologna also produced impressive marble sculptures. Chapter 3, “Naturalism,” addresses the unique ties of sculptors to the original material from which they create their works. Cole argues that the compressed compositions so popular in late Renaissance Florence maximized the size and value of the original stone, though some believed that outstretched limbs were a show of virtuosity. Giambologna’s marbles, like Florence Triumphant over Pisa (ca. 1565), demonstrate that the sculptor sought a compromise with those two approaches.

Cole then turns to Giambologna’s images of Mercury. He showed his technical acumen by designing a large Mercury (multiple versions) that balances on one foot. The foot rests on a spew of water, or, rather, as Cole demonstrates, earth’s exhalations. It is here that Cole delivers another fascinating analysis of material, technical process and instruments, and etymology—as he has done elsewhere (“Cellini’s Blood”; “The Demonic Arts and the Origins of the Medium,” Art Bulletin 84, no. 4 (2002): 621–40; and “Under the Sign of Vulcan,” in Bronze: The Power of Life and Death, Leeds: Henry Moore Institute, 2005, 36–52). Here, the ties between Mercury, water, bronze, and sprues (sfiatatoi) are analyzed and contribute to the sculpture’s reading as “breathable” and their sculptor as a creator of life.

In chapter 4, “Pose,” Cole examines the impact of the production of an abridged version of Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting on Giambologna’s compositions. He relates that the sculptor’s poses and concerns about equilibrium respond to this version’s reframing and refocusing of some of Leonardo’s observations. Giambologna’s statues, Cole offers, are meant to be read “as a figure balancing itself rather than as a balanced figure,” and once they are read in this way, “it becomes all the easier to see that figure as one capable of motion, one that has just moved or that might move again.” He continues, “just as Giambologna embraced the stillness that was a necessary condition of his representation, so did he employ equilibrium in a way that depended on a strong sense of its opposite and that ultimately encouraged viewers to think about a movement they couldn’t see” (153). Cole’s close analysis of textual and visual sources here and elsewhere in his book reveal exciting new ideas about artistic approach, materials, and meaning.

Chapter 5, “Sculpture as Architecture,” seeks to align the professional identity and technical processes of sculptors with those of architects and does so by analyzing the tools, approach to measure, scale, and order, along with the long-standing connections between the human form and architecture. Sculptors who operated like architects, Cole suggests, perceived a parallel between creating models and creating architecture and tended to abstract their sculptures. Cole examines this concept in regards to Danti and his Equity and Rigor, which originally flanked his Cosimo I (1564–66; the statue of Cosimo was replaced by one by Giambologna in 1585).

These ideas carry over into the next chapter, “Chapels,” where Giambologna’s project for the Salviati chapel in San Marco is thoroughly analyzed. Giambologna’s role as sculptor and architect of this chapel and the imagery included in this space are examined in terms of resituating and refocusing the Savonarolan cult in late sixteenth-century Florence toward an emphasis and renewed devotion to St. Antoninus. Cole’s careful reading of the text and image of this space is masterful.

In chapter 7, “Sculpture in the City,” Cole returns to the importance of rivalry between the sculptors of late Renaissance as a means to explain some of their architectural and sculptural projects. Specifically, Cole relates two of Giambologna’s large-scale sculptures, the Equestrian Monument of Ferdinando I (1602–08) and the column at Sta. Trinita (1560), to two of Ammanati’s architectural projects: Palazzo Grifoni (1561–65) and the Ponte Sta. Trinita (1567–69).

First, Cole examines the influence of Roman buildings and spaces in Florence’s construction as “the New Rome.” At Palazzo Grifoni and San Giovannino, Ammanati turned to recent Roman examples as his sources (Palazzo Farnese and Il Gesù, respectively). Giambologna’s idea to place the equestrian statue of Ferdinando I in Piazza SS. Annunziata referenced the Campidoglio in Rome, but also redirected the viewer’s attention away from Ammanati’s facade at Palazzo Grifoni from just a few years prior.

Finally, Cole offers a new reading of Florence’s urban projects of the late sixteenth century. Instead of reading the city as a whole, Cole convincingly argues that the projects must not only be understood in terms of their original placement in the city’s larger plans, but more specifically, they should be examined within their neighborhoods. His discussion of the Hercules and Centaur (ca. 1599), now in the Loggia dei Lanzi, but originally in a crossroads of the Canto dei Carnesecchi, proves his point. By resituating the sculpture in this crossroads, the sculpture’s intended multiplicity of viewpoints is evident (as opposed to the single viewpoint previously suggested by scholars). Moreover, its placement in the Strozzi neighborhood (which Cole meticulously reconstructs) allows a new understanding of the iconography of the sculpture in terms of the Medici’s triumph over their rivals, the Strozzi.

Cole concludes by arguing for the continued value of symbolic anthropology, new historicism, and microhistory while warning of the loss of such readings as a cost of more globalizing approaches. Giambologna’s sculptures, in particular, have been discussed more frequently in terms of their placement in foreign collections than in terms of their production and original context in Florence. Although these “wider lens” studies have contributed in important ways to an awareness of pan-European contexts (and beyond), as well as the importance of trade and state gifts in artistic exchanges and influences, Cole’s admirable book is a testament to the continued valence of more localized studies and the rich meanings and contexts that remain to be elucidated.

Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University of Vermont

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