Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 15, 2001
Mary Bergstein The Sculpture of Nanni di Banco Princeton University Press, 2000. 230 pp.; 164 b/w ills. Cloth $90.00 (0691009821)

Mary Bergstein’s The Sculpture of Nanni di Banco follows in the tradition of the great monographs like Sculpture of Donatello by H.W. Janson and Lorenzo Ghiberti by Richard Krautheimer, but on a more modest scale. Although Nanni di Banco (ca. 1374-1421) accomplished only six major works in his career, he, with Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and Donatello, “self-consciously and deliberately set into motion the issues that would occupy painters, sculptors, and architects through out the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Italy” (3). This book finally revives Nanni from scholarly neglect, though Brunetti, Lanyi, Vaccarino, Janson, Wundram, and Bellosi previously had made attempts in this direction.

In a splendid introduction, Bergstein discusses Nanni’s place in history, reviews the scholarly literature, and states her own mission, which is to examine her subject’s life according to the method of what anthropologists call “thick description.” In this case, it refers to the infrastructure of the Opera del Duomo and the mechanisms of guild politics, rather than concentrating on the traditional biography/career method. For the most part, she is successful in this goal. The book consists of five chapters that discuss Nanni’s career in its historical and social contexts, followed by an extremely valuable Catalogue of Works and a Register of Documents. The concluding Bibliography is impressive in length and convenient in its use of the new MLA style.

In the first chapter, “The Workshop,” Bergstein discusses Nanni’s family, particularly his father, who was active in Florentine guilds and government as well as being capomaestro of Santa Maria del Fiore—activities that certainly aided the young sculptor’s career and early commissions. She postulates that Antonio Manetti’s humorous novella, The Fat Woodworker, which takes place in 1409 in the Florentine artistic milieu to which Nanni belonged, may inform aspects of Nanni’’s life, social world, and workshop.

Chapter 2, “Public Life and Civic Works,” follows the public career of Nanni and his father in their activities and elections to political and guild positions. Bergstein presumes that the reader has knowledge about and background in the intricacies of Florentine political and guild history; the philosophical ideals of these governmental bodies and Nanni’s relationship to them are shown to be essential to an understanding of his artistic contributions. Public art was essential to the self-representation of the Renaissance city, and in Florence the republic spoke most eloquently through the language of sculpture" (23). Nanni’s works demonstrated that sense of public responsibility and consensus.

The sculptor’s relationship to antiquity and to his greatest contemporary is the subject of the third chapter, “The Classical Tradition: Nanni di Banco and Donatello.” Since there is no evidence that Nanni ever went to Rome to study antiquities, Bergstein has found classical sources available in Tuscany (sarcophagi, statues, reliefs, and Pisan sculpture) that may have influenced Nanni, and she assures us that “his classicism was for the most part applied rather than theoretical” (26). Although Donatello may have used many of the same sources, the two sculptors had distinctly different visions. These visions are elucidated by comparisons of heads, drapery, and body types in the work of the two artists, and show that “instead of the arid archeologist that textbook cliches sometimes claim Nanni to be…he emerges as an artist who was able to wholly transform classical examples through interpretation” (40). As an example of Nanni’s classical approach to sculpture, Bergstein investigates the iconographical sources and stylistic aspects of the four sculpted figures, socle, and pediment of the Quattro Santi Coronati tabernacle on Or San Michele. In this chapter, Bergstein also discusses the relationship of criteria between artists and humanists in their reception of ancient sculpture, both theoretical and as collectors. For instance, both artists and humanists practiced ekphrasis—describing a work of art, which might be imaginary, undertaken as a rhetorical exercise. In both its text and illustrations, this interesting chapter is the longest of the five.

“How sculpture, architecture, and urban space worked together to shape everyday life and public ceremony [in Renaissance Florence]” (47) is the theme of the fourth chapter “Public Sculpture and Ceremonial Space.” Bergstein is particularly interested in showing how the Or San Michele statues, commissioned by the guilds and designed for the specific site, participated in the ceremonial activities of the city. For instance, Nanni di Banco’s Saint Philip, commissioned by the shoemaker’s guild, was designed to turn in its tabernacle on the north toward Via Calzaiuoli—the stocking makers’ street—which was a major processional route in the city and especially connected with the Calzolai Guild and its related ceremonies. Another small but noteworthy commission for the papal apartments for Martin V in Santa Maria Novella also had political and ceremonial significance for the city of Florence.

Chapter 5 is titled “The ‘Assumption’ of the Porta della Mandorla: Tradition and Innovation,” and deals with the last and possibly most significant work by Nanni di Banco. It is located in the triangular frame above the Porta dell Mandorla on the north side of the Cathedral of Florence. The Virgin, seated in an almond-shaped mandorla carried by six angels, rises to heaven and hands her sash to the waiting St. Thomas on the left, while a bear climbs a tree on the right. In her formal analysis of this high relief sculpture, Bergstein describes the assemblage in terms of “lyricism, spirituality, and flight” (59), words that seem to denote a more Gothic than Renaissance approach to sculpture, but she is able to show that elements of both styles come together in this remarkable complex. The discussion in this chapter is largely iconographic, tracing the sources of many of the details to their literary, historical, and religious ideas. She also shows how the sculpture had a strong impact on Leon Battista Alberti in writing his treatise On Painting of 1435. Bergstein suggests that sacre rappresentazioni—theatrical performances of a religious nature—were popular forms of devotional entertainment in fifteenth-century Florence, and several “productions” by Brunelleschi and others may have used similar themes that were based on Nanni’s Assumption.

These informative chapters are followed by the Catalogue of Works, which specialists may consider as the meat—or heart—of the book. Every entry is as complete as possible in information and argumentation, and includes description, attribution and dating, documentation, sources, and bibliography for each work discussed. Although we have been introduced to these sculptures in the earlier chapters, it is here where we find brought together all necessary information about them, including some new ideas that the author presents convincingly. In addition, fifteen works that have been attributed to Nanni undergo the same rigorous study and are rejected. The 179 previously published and new documents related to the life and works of Nanni are arranged in chronological order and intelligently but briefly summarized in English (though they are not transcribed). All illustrations are in black and white and are prolific and of good quality, but are placed in inconvenient positions that require a good deal of flipping pages in some instances.

I found very little to complain about in this excellent, informative study. There were a few slips into postmodern jargon that bothered me slightly, but most of the book is written gracefully, clearly, and accurately. Although it is extraordinarily complete regarding Nanni di Banco’s life and work, the questions of his early training and career before the Hercules and Angel on the Porta della Mandorla (1395), and between those works and the Isaiah (1408) were not posited or discussed. Where did he gain his professional skill and talent? I thought that a few arguments in Chapter 2 could have been abbreviated because they seemed repetitive and/or unnecessary to the subject. These, however, are minor and personal quibbles.

Although based on the traditional format of a monograph, The Sculpture of Nanni di Banco offers many new insights into the sculptures. The book will appeal primarily to the specialist in Early Renaissance sculpture, but could be read enjoyably by an interested, intelligent public. Mary Bergstein has made an important contribution to our understanding of a sculptor who previously had not received his justified fame.

Harriet McNeal
Indiana State University