Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 14, 2002
Margaret Haines, ed. Santa Maria del Fiore: The Cathedral and Its Sculpture Florence: Edizioni Cadmo, 2001. 318 pp.; 161 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (8879232460)
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During the approximately six centuries of its construction (1296–ca. 1900), Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral of Florence, was a focus of Florentine life not only because of its importance as a religious monument, but also because of the monetary expense and the enormous amount of time and energy invested in its building and decoration. Of all of the embellishments commissioned, the Duomo of Florence is most famous for the sculpture carried out for its interior and exterior, façade, and campanile. For hundreds of years, the Opera of Santa Maria del Fiore employed the most gifted sculptors working in Florence: Arnolfo di Cambio, Andrea Pisano, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Michelangelo, and Baccio Bandinelli all carried out commissions for the cathedral and its campanile. Consequently, just as the Duomo functioned—and continues to function—as a fulcrum of Florentine life, the sculptural decoration planned for it occupies a pivotal place in the history of Florentine sculpture and in the development of European sculpture during the late Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Because of the significance of this sculptural decoration, and also undoubtedly as a result of the abundant documentation that survives in the Duomo archive, scholars have dedicated much attention to works planned and executed for Florence cathedral and its campanile. The most recent contribution to this body of work is Santa Maria del Fiore: The Cathedral and Its Sculpture, which contains fifteen essays originally delivered as lectures at a symposium held at the Villa I Tatti in June 1997, the year during which Florence celebrated the Duomo’s seventh centenary. This symposium, one of two major scholarly conferences held in honor of this event, focused exclusively on the sculptural decoration commissioned for Santa Maria del Fiore (for the acts of the other conference, see Atti del VII Centenario del Duomo di Firenze, 3 vols. in 5 [Florence: Edizioni Firenze, 2001]). While the essays included in Santa Maria del Fiore are chronologically comprehensive, they are not exhaustive with regard to the total scheme of sculpted decoration planned for the cathedral; indeed, some significant sculptural commissions intended for the cathedral—for example, Tino da Camaino’s Tomb of Bishop Antonio d’Orso or Michelangelo’s David—are hardly discussed by the authors. Instead, reflecting the very richness of the types of commissions planned for the cathedral, the essays touch upon an impressive array of media and sculptural techniques.

The fifteen essays are divided thematically into four separate sections; brief introductions, written by the eminent scholars Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt, Timothy Verdon, Margaret Haines, and Artur Rosenauer, precede each of these parts. Haines, the editor of the book and a leading authority on the building and decoration of the Duomo, has selected essays that represent a wide variety of approaches to the study of sculpture. Indeed, the editor’s choice of diverse methodologies has resulted in a group of essays (in English and Italian) that will be useful to both students of Florentine art and society and to a broader range of scholars interested in issues relevant to the decoration of any architectural structure completed during the thirteenth through nineteenth centuries.

The first section, “The Choice of Sculpture,” begins with Antje Middledorf Kosegarten’s essay, “Remarks on Some Medieval Descriptions of Sculpture.” She examines a range of medieval sources in which authors discuss their reactions to various sculptural types. Kosegarten focuses largely on the classical and early Christian sources for the comments of these medieval authors and does not consider any visual or textual material directly related to Santa Maria del Fiore. This essay is followed by Gert Kreytenberg’s “La decorazione del Duomo nel Trecento e la genesi della scultura fiorentina,” which considers anew the few sculptural commissions carried out for the Duomo during the fourteenth century. Kreytenberg considers not only the construction and decoration of the campanile, but also the ornamentation of the external nave walls and the outside doors. The third essay in this group, Eve Borsook’s “The Power of Illusion: Fictive Tombs in Santa Maria del Fiore,” examines the four painted, fictive tombs carried out for the Duomo in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Borsook concludes that such tombs, while less expensive, also made a greater visual impression in the interior of the cathedral and were in part chosen over sculpture for this reason. The final essay in this section is Shelley E. Zuraw’s “Mino da Fiesole’s Lost Design for the Façade of Santa Maria del Fiore,” in which the author considers a lost wooden model for the façade of the cathedral that Mino da Fiesole carried out in 1476. Zuraw offers a reconstruction of the model based on other projects Mino completed, as well as an investigation of what the Opera del Duomo might have chosen given the form of Arnolfo’s façade and designs for ephemeral facades designed during later centuries.

Section 2, “The Meaning of Sculpture,” opens with Mary Bergstein’s essay “Istoria and Meaning at the Porta della Mandorla.” She proposes that Nanni di Banco’s relief sculptures for the Porta della Mandorla directly influenced Leon Battista Alberti’s conception of istoria and the rules of composition he described in his Della pittura. Bergstein also focuses on what Nanni’s image meant to the broader Florentine public and points out fascinating links between Nanni’s Assumption and paraliturgical drama in fifteenth-century Florence. The next two essays argue that the appearance or meaning of sculptural projects could reference specific historical styles or types to convey sophisticated levels of meaning. Marco Scalini’s “La porta della sagrestia delle messe tra Roma e Bizanzio” links the subject matter and style of the bronze door of the Sacrestia delle Messe to the influence of the art and ideas of Byzantium brought to Florence during the Council of Florence in 1439. Doris Carl’s essay, “Il ritratto commemorativo di Giotto di Benedetto da Maiano nel Duomo di Firenze,” connects the image and inscription contained in Benedetto da Maiano’s Commemorative Portrait of Giotto to classical prototypes like the Roman imago clipeata, and also to earlier images of Giotto. In the final essay of this section, “Imagining Michelangelo’s St. Matthew in Its Setting,” Michael J. Amy uses formal and documentary analyses in order to suggest where the operai of the Duomo intended to place Michelangelo’s never-completed apostle statue. Amy concludes that the statue was most likely meant for a niche in a pier near the high altar and walks the reader through the cathedral to demonstrate how the statue worked within its space.

The third section, “The Making of Sculpture,” examines the production of sculpture, addressing the personal activity of the artist in carrying out the work, as well as the mechanics of commissioning and paying for it. In “La facciata arnolfiana e l’eredità di Arnolfo,” Enrica Neri Lusanna examines the style of the Duomo’s original façade and its influence on later sculptors. Utilizing the Bernardo Poccetti drawing of the façade of 1587 and surviving architectural fragments, Lusanna produces a reconstruction of parts of the façade, tantalizingly allowing the reader to perceive the scale and grandeur of Arnolfo’s project. Louis F. Mustari’s “Some Procedures and Working Arrangements of Trecento Stonemasons in the Florentine Opera del Duomo” and Louis Alexander Waldman’s “Bandinelli and the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore” explore the workings of the Opera and its role in the commissioning of sculptural works. Mustari’s essay presents information regarding modes and levels of payment and the roles of various officials and sculptors within the Opera during the fourteenth century. Waldman’s essay, which draws on an abundance of new documents, relates the fascinating and at times contentious history of relations between Baccio Bandinelli and the Opera. In the final essay of this group, “L’attivitá giovanile di Donatello nel cantiere del Duomo di Firenze,” Luciano Bellosi reassigns to Donatello the so-called Profeta patetico, a sculpture he argues was one of those meant to go on one of the cathedral’s buttresses. While other scholars have refuted this argument based on documentation that Bellosi does not cite, his conclusion, that the International Gothic style profoundly influenced Donatello’s youthful works, still holds.

The final part of the book, “Transformations,” deals with two themes: the changes made to sculptures over time and sculptural projects executed for the cathedral during the nineteenth century. In the first essay, “Tra dispersioni e ricomparse: gli spiritelli bronzei di Donatello sul pergamo di Luca della Robbia,” Francesco Caglioti argues persuasively that two bronze winged candlebearers, today located in the Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris, and attributed to Donatello, were actually made for Luca della Robbia’s cantoria and not, as has been assumed, for the cantoria that Donatello sculpted. In “Michelangelo’s Pietà in Florence: Transformation of Place and Intent,” Jack Wasserman addresses both major themes of this section, tracing the fate of Michelangelo’s Florentine Pietà from the eighteenth century, when the work was placed behind the high altar, until the twentieth century, when it was finally removed from the cathedral and installed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. The final essay in this section, Carlo Sisi’s “Polemiche artistiche intorno alla facciata di Santa Maria del Fiore,” examines theoretical debates surrounding the sculptures completed for the façade in the nineteenth century, paying special attention to how nationalistic attitudes and the weight of the past influenced the sculptures commissioned for the façade.

It should be noted here that in this volume, as is typical in many collections of essays, not all of the material presented is new. Indeed, several of the essays derive wholly from previously published material. For example, Bergstein’s essay is repeated almost verbatim from her monograph, The Sculpture of Nanni di Banco (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), and the substance of Caglioti’s contribution derives directly from his book on Donatello and the Medici, Donatello e i Medici: Storia del David e della Giuditta (Firenze, Italy: Leo. S. Olschki Editore, 2000). In these and several other cases interested scholars might profit further from consulting the more extensive studies published previously.

The high level of scholarship and methodological breadth in this group of essays make Santa Maria del Fiore: The Cathedral and Its Sculpture a significant contribution to Florentine Renaissance studies. Still, it is a tribute to the wealth and quality of sculptural decoration at the Duomo that this volume, while offering essays on a wide variety of projects and themes, leaves the door open to—and indeed suggests—new avenues for further research.

Amy R. Bloch
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, University at Albany, State University of New York

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.