Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 3, 2003
Bruce Boucher, ed. Earth and Fire: Italian Terracotta Sculpture from Donatello to Canova Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 314 pp.; 80 color ills.; 120 b/w ills. $75.00 (0300090803)
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Houston, TX, November 18, 2001–February 3, 2002; Victoria and Albert Museum, London, March 14, 2002–July 7, 2002

The exhibition catalogue Earth and Fire: Italian Terracotta Sculpture from Donatello to Canova was published to accompany the exhibition of the same name. Since this reviewer was unable to visit either venue, the following comments, perforce, concentrate on the only permanent record of the show, its catalogue.

The catalogue is divided into two distinct parts: six essays with separate authors that treat different aspects of the exhibition’s content, and a series of eighty-five catalogue entries. The latter are not distinguished by author, but rather were the result of a “collaborative effort, reflecting the input of all those listed on the title page” (x). The bibliography and index at the end of the book cover both parts of the catalogue. The notes, used for five out of the six essays but not for the catalogue entries, are placed after the two main sections and just before the bibliography, a system inherently more effective for publications of a single author’s text.

An extraordinary number of photographs are reproduced throughout; expensive and striking color reproductions appear in the essays as well as in the catalogue entries. The generous use of such images is to be praised; however, given the elaborate attention paid to photographic illustrations, it is rather disconcerting to note the cropped image of Michelozzo di Bartolomeo’s Virgin and Child from Budapest (cat. no. 5). Using the black-and-white photograph of the entire relief included in the second volume of Jolán Balogh’s Katalog der Ausländischen Bildwerke des Museums der Bildenden Künste in Budapest (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1975, cat. no. 53, plate 70) could have solved this problem. Although one must always accept the economic imperatives that necessitate limiting the overall number of reproductions, in the context of the photographic lavishness of this volume, the lack of certain essential comparisons, much discussed in the text and entries (often the marble made from a terra-cotta model) is occasionally frustrating. This is especially true when one sees that two drawings by Antonio Canova (cat. nos. 83, 84) were illustrated with full-page color photographs in their individual entries and with smaller reproductions, also in color (but notably illegible), in the companion entries.

The six articles in the catalogue are arranged chronologically, with the exception of the last one, an excellent contribution by Charlotte Hubbard and Peta Motture entitled “The Making of Terracotta Sculpture: Techniques and Observations,” which offers explanations—in a clear and concise fashion—of the materials used, methods of manufacture, and working practices associated with terra-cotta production. The essay might profitably be read before the others since it offers valuable insights into the process of making terra cottas, informing the reader’s understanding of the historical information provided in the contributions that precede it.

The first essay, “Italian Renaissance Terracotta: Artistic Revival or Technological Innovation,” is by Bruce Boucher, the senior editor of the catalogue. He provides an extensive overview of terra-cotta production in Italy from the end of the trecento through the cinquecento. Boucher’s contribution is especially valuable because he aims to be as inclusive as possible, treating works by Florentine artists side by side with those produced in other Italian centers. In attempting to trace the origins of terra cotta as a sculptural medium, Boucher links its expansion during this time to the production of earthenware pottery for domestic use. He further associates this development with the lengthy process of the design and casting of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s north doors for the Florentine baptistery. The problems that arise at this point are part and parcel of the nature of the exhibition; in his essay, Boucher concentrates on original works in terra cotta rather than on bozzetti or sketches, yet many of the surviving works in clay by illustrious masters are studies for later projects. It is perhaps revealing that no distinction is made between terra-cotta models for bronzes and those for marbles. Surely the required stage of the wax mold should have altered the function, if not the necessity, of a terra-cotta model. This issue aside, the focus on the material of terra cotta, including all of its manifold uses, allows for the creation of a sort of parallel text to the traditional history of Italian sculpture in the Renaissance and Baroque. Rather than tracing this history from one major monument to the next, Boucher’s essay allows the reader to follow the same history, only this time as it was embodied in a “minor” medium. That the word “minor” can no longer be satisfactorily applied to terra-cotta sculptures (or, at least, not without quotation marks) is a measure of the success of both the exhibition and catalogue.

The next contribution is Jeannine O’Grody’s “Michelangelo: The Master Modeler.” Here, the problem of function and material becomes even more obvious. Despite our romantic notions of Michelangelo attacking the marble in some sort of frenzy to release the soul trapped inside, it is clear that he, too, used a variety of methods to invent, refine, and revise his initial ideas. The models currently attributed to him—none, unfortunately, in the exhibition—come in a variety of sizes, styles, and materials. As O’Grody acknowledges, her focus here is on only a small portion of Michelangelo’s models, those in clay.

By the seventeenth century, the terra-cotta sketch seems to have been generally preferred. Maria Giulia Barberini’s “Base or Noble Material? Clay Sculpture in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Italy,” is a tour de force, an overview of two centuries of sculpture production in Rome. I imagine, however, that for some readers it will be difficult to keep track of all the artists, commissions, patrons, and models—bozzetti, modelletti, modelli—considered in this relatively brief essay. Linked by theme to this article is a second by Boucher that focuses specifically on a subject covered more briefly by Barberini, “Bernini’s Models for the Angels of the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome.”

The last scholarly essay in the catalogue, by Hugh Honour, is a fascinating consideration entitled “Canova’s Work in Clay.” By the end of the eighteenth century the terra-cotta sketch was being replaced by plaster; Canova’s traditional use of clay reflects his own insistence that it was with terra cotta, not gesso or stucco, that he could achieve his desired effects. Especially dramatic is the contrast between the marble Cupid and Psyche (fig. 146) and the bozzetti produced during its ideation: the marble, so open and airy in contradiction to its stony weight; the terra cottas, so compact that the figures seem barely released from the original mound of clay. When one ponders the seemingly carved surface of these clay models (cat. nos. 75, 76), one is reminded of Michelangelo and Giambologna, not, oddly enough, of the overly polished terra cottas from the Farsetti collection (now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg) that once formed part of Canova’s study collection in Venice.

The remaining two-thirds of the catalogue is devoted to entries on the works brought together for the exhibition. Some are already famous, others are new “revelations” for most readers and for those who attended the exhibition. Especially with sculpture, the transition from exhibition to catalogue—from three-dimensional object that shares one’s space to two-dimensional photographic record—drains some of the work’s essential concreteness—its “thereness.” One must remain grateful to the catalogue for preserving even the traces of this experience. By the same token, one must acknowledge the special problems associated with catalogues. Sadly, questions that were presumably answered during the exhibition (for example, the precise measurements of the Ghiberti shop octagonals [cat. nos. 1, 2]) remain unresolved in this preexhibition publication.

In recent years, terra-cotta sculpture has emerged as something of a “growth field” in art history. Leading the way are studies of Roman Baroque bozzetti, especially those by or related to Bernini. For example, Ivan Gaskell and Henry Lie’s Sketches in Clay for Projects by Gian Lorenzo Bernini: Theoretical, Technical, and Case Studies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Art Museums, 1999), which is listed in the bibliography of this catalogue (although, oddly, not cited in any of the catalogue entries), includes thirteen essays on different aspects of Bernini’s clay models and their conservation. Alongside the work of Roman Baroque sculptors, terra cottas by perennial favorites from the Renaissance such as Michelangelo, Giambologna, Donatello, the Della Robbia, and Andrea del Verrocchio, have also begun to attract considerable scholarly interest. The catalogue under review represents an important first step in the expansion of the topic of terra-cotta production to include other, less well-known sculptors and their work.

As an entirety, this noteworthy publication combines very precise argumentation about individual works with more general information about periods, themes, and types. The individual authors provide serious and scholarly surveys of their topics. The catalogue entries, which cover topics and artists not dealt with in the essays, include introductions to a variety of strikingly different terra cottas. In an attempt to address the history of a single medium across four centuries, inevitable problems arise. Broadly speaking, terra cotta first became popular as a distinctive sculpture medium and then shifted over time to function more consistently as a design tool. The dual use of the medium for finished statues and for models is not fully reconciled in this catalogue. But this is probably too much to ask. Earth and Fire does address important issues and, with its beautiful reproductions, opens the door to a comprehensive consideration of terra-cotta sculpture in Italy from the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries.