Bertoldo & The Bronze Renaissance
Art & History Writer
Since the first smelting of metals, bronze sculpture has been part of our attempt to create artistic images of the world that surrounds us. The art form itself has had a turbulent history as the mode was nearly forgotten and then "rediscovered" on two separate occasions, once during the Renaissance period and then again during the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th-century. However, it was first revitalized in the Italian Renaissance by the great Florentine sculptor Giovanni di Bertoldo.
The bronze casting method dates far back to ancient times when sculptors made fine miniature statuettes forged out of metal. The strength, durability, and overall finish of bronze works made them especially appealing. Creating the mold took much time, patience, and skill, and because bronze is a copper-based alloy with a lower melting point than steel or iron, it freely allowed ancient artists to cut even the most intricate details into the casting. The hardness factor also allowed bronze sculptures to retain these specific details even in outdoor conditions. Nevertheless, it was an incredibly precious commodity, and as a result, many works of art have been lost to time primarily because they were melted down to reuse the valuable metal. For example, many Greek statues were lost when the Romans came. However, first, they were copied in marble, before being melted down to create more functional everyday objects, such as tools, weapons, and shields in which their empire greatly depended upon. And so bronze sculpture became a "lost art" of sorts.
It was much later, in the early 15th-century, that ambitious European makers and patrons of the arts sought to emulate their Greco-Roman forebears' tastes and technologies not only for large-scale statuary and statuettes but for relief plaquettes and medals. For sculptors working in bronze during the Renaissance, it was often an expensive and technically challenging material. Regardless, bronze statuette achieved great popularity during this time, partly because of its classical origins. Although production peaked in the 16th-century and then died off again, the form was first revitalized in the Italian Renaissance by the Florentine sculptor Giovanni di Bertoldo.
Bertoldo di Giovanni (1420-1491) was a sculptor and medalist who operated in the republic of Florence during the second half of the 15th-century, also known as the Quattrocento period of the Italian Renaissance. Bertoldo worked in such disciplines as statuettes, reliefs, medals, and mostly in the arena of small bronze production. He was a very significant figure in Florentine culture as his art was intrinsically intertwined with the world in which he worked and intimately linked with the ruling class of the Medici of Florence, who heavily favored him as patrons. His sculptures appealed to the private audience of his patronage and their inner circle and helped shape diplomatic relationships with powerful figures abroad, for his collection was an exclusive affair and an enticing gift. As one of the Lorenzo de’ Medici’s favorites.
Bertoldo was an also active collaborator with many other artists of the time and even those from the past. As we can see with his work "Battle" (below) it was originally designed for the Medici palace and commissioned by Lorenzo himself. This was Bertoldo's largest bronze, and it is an adaptation of an ancient sarcophagus that depicts a battle between Roman soldiers and barbarians. The original sarcophagus he based his composition on was actually severely damaged long before Bertoldo laid his eyes on it. But he managed to reconstruct the scene and organized the chaotic imagery by following what was remained of the ancient example. 'However, instead of repeating the narrative of Romans attacking foreigners, clearly identified by their costume in the sarcophagus, here all of the soldiers attack one another without any obvious underlying logic or clear identification. At the center of the melee, for example, the largest warrior wears both the helmet of the god Hermes and the lion skin of the hero Hercules. Bertoldo created a scene with an unfixed narrative, thereby encouraging discussion among viewers attempting to discern its subject.' (1)
“Battle” (relief) (c. 1480–85), Bertoldo di Giovanni. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Photo: Mauro Magliani; su concessione del Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali
Posthumously, Bertoldo has been somewhat overshadowed by that of his pupil and his teacher. His pupil, of course, was the great Michelangelo Buonarroti, and his teacher was another great, Donatello, from whom he studied the art of sculpture. These connections have somewhat added to the suffering of Bertoldo’s reputation in the annals of history. 'His legacy was largely written out of history by Michelangelo, who fashioned his own identity as a self-taught artist divinely blessed with ability. Michelangelo’s biographers, including the art historian Giorgio Vasari, reduced Bertoldo’s role significantly, mentioning him only in passing while focusing more extensively on the pioneering creativity of Donatello, the magnificent patronage of the Medici family, and the staggering genius of Michelangelo.' (2) It can be said it was both a blessing and a curse that he was known as being a student of Donatello and the teacher of Michaelangelo.
Bertoldo did not travel far and wide like many other artists of the day, but rather he preferred to stay close to the Medici court while devoting most of his career to Lorenzo’s initiative of cultural renewal. It was here Bertoldo helped to rediscover the lost art of bronze sculpture during the Renaissance, which is not a far stretch considering he was also the custodian of the Roman antiquities for the Medici. The sculptural skills required to recreate the lost art required heightened skills, patience, and ingenuity. 'Artists working in bronze typically used the lost-wax technique, a 6,000-year-old tradition employed by the Greeks and the Romans. In the simplest version, an initial model is created and covered with beeswax, which is then covered in plaster. Once hardened, it is fired, melting the waxy contents.' (3)
From a historical perspective, bronze is the most versatile and artistically effective material for cast metal sculptures, and so the works of Bertoldo’s bronze figures helped to showcase the form again while returning the mode to popularity. The artist helped bring this method back into fashion per se by working predominantly in bronze technique and also prominently shedding a spotlight on Greco-roman era subject matter, which was widely associated as a revival movement within the period. However, Bertoldo sculpted with a twist by attuning his work slightly with the era and appealing to his princely audience which was well versed in learned reference to antiquity.
For example, we may look to this in his work "Bellerophon Taming Pegasus" (below). Here we see the struggle of the hero Bellerophon takes to tame the winged horse Pegasus, which was a common subject of ancient texts and artworks, but Bertoldo's depiction was one of the first since antiquity. Following a classical ode, the sculptor captures the precise moment at which Bellerophon bends Pegasus to his will using an enchanted bridle. But here we see the bridle is still slung over the hero's shoulder, and the sculptor has departed from the poem's narrative in which Bellerophon subdues the Pegasus by gently placing the charmed reins on the horse. What Bertoldo is doing with this classical story instead is transforming the scene into a violent contest between man and beast.
Bellerophon Taming Pegasus (c. 1480–82), designed by Bertoldo di Giovanni, executed by Adriano Fiorentino. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Photo: KHM-Museumsverband
These types of allegorical changes more attuned to realism would have been appealing to a Renaissance culture more concerned with humanism and bringing spirituality more tied to an early realm. It must have also been appealing to Bertoldo's princely audiences to be exposed to such narratives that was charged to spark discussion and debate.
Bellerophon Taming Pegasus is the only statuette signed by Bertoldo. The surface under the base is inscribed, EXPRESSIT ME BERThOLDVS * CONFLAVIT HADRIANVS [Bertoldo modeled me; Adriano cast me]. Bertoldo created the wax original, then entrusted the bronze casting to his collaborator, Adriano Fiorentino. The Pazzi Conspiracy medal (also included in the exhibition) was similarly designed by Bertoldo but cast by another hand, indicating that this was standard practice for the sculptor.
From his statuettes, we can see how he incorporated the ancient allegories and exercised some ingenuity. Many of his sculptures are artistic representations of a classical subject or as 'All'antica. An Italian term meaning 'in the manner of the ancients' used for works of art, architecture, and literature that sought to revive the style and principles of the classical past, especially that of Ancient Rome.' (4) He was gifted at replicating the iconography of the ancient civilizations into his artworks and obviously a master of bronze work. Bertoldo demonstrated his narrative style using motifs from ancient stories, so they were synonymous with classical resonance but also embodied a more fluid visual movement that creates the impression of natural action in his works of art. He combined influences of increased awareness of nature, a revival of classical learning, and a more individualistic view of man, which of course is a telltale sign of the Renaissance. Thus, Bertoldo’s techniques in bronze casting tell us a lot about the sculptural skills used and employed during the Italian Renaissance period.
The historical evidence concerned with his process has survived from the era to give us a detailed track record of the technique that he and other sculptures used during the Quattrocento. 'Bertoldo’s working method is especially considered, tracing his artworks from concept to design to production, across media, and, often, involving collaboration with other well-known artists. The statues, reliefs, medals, statuettes, and frieze attributed to Bertoldo demonstrate his ingenuity, as well as his essential role in the development of Italian sculpture between the Early and High Renaissance.' (5)
With Bertoldo’s "Shield bearer" works (below) we see a muscular, naked man with a thick beard (below left). When viewing this piece we notice the girdle of vine leaves at his hips matches the wreath on his head that sits upon his head. He carries a large club as well as his shield which is meant to be reminiscent of the Greek hero Hercules. What we are seeing here, is the bronze master artist combining the attributes of so-called savages with those of iconic likes of the mythological Hercules and Bacchus. This was mostly meant to act as a satyr. And upon looking at Betoldo's other shield-bearer figure (below left) the same attributes apply to this companion piece, but for this figure it represents Bacchus and we see his body is much leaner, has no beard, and appears youthful and joyful. Bacchus of course was known not for his physical prowess like Hercules but was especially known as a god of wine and ecstasy, so his stature is not as large, stocky, or muscular. These two works and Bertoldo's statuette of "Hercules on horseback" (below bottom) which is separately housed in the Galleria Estense in Modena, formed a miniature equestrian monument for the initiall owner of this group of statuettes. The original owner was Ercole d’Este, the Duke of Ferrara, who was a patron to many representations of Hercules in his home town. This duke was also known as a very able horseman as well. These three bronze figures are considered to be the earliest statuettes by produced by Bertoldo, and date from c. 1470.
Bertoldo’s pendant Shield Bearers (ca. 1470-80), displayed together at:
"A Frick first: Florence’s earlier sculptor, instructor of Michelangelo, in Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence show" (Sep 18- Jan 12 2020)
“Hercules on Horseback”, early 1470s, bronze, 27.2 cm high; Gallerie Estensi, Modena, Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali – Archivio fotografico delle Gallerie Estensi, photo: Carlo Vannini.
Hercules is here identified by a club (his signature weapon), lion-skin cloak, and muscular appearance. He is large in proportion to his horse, emphasizing his physical strength. Again 'equestrian depictions of Hercules were unique to the Este family. The imagery of Hercules on Horseback is connected to Ercole's wedding to the princess of Naples or to a springtime festival during which Ercole rode throughout Ferrara in costume, bringing flowering branches to the city's most beautiful women.' (6)
His art demonstrates a creative process, shows many intricate details, and ingenious design across different bronze media; it helps that Bertoldo worked small, creating miniature bronze figures, narrative scenes in relief, and in Renaissance medals, which often looked like classical coinage.
“Mehmed the Conqueror” Medal by Bertoldo di Giovanni. (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9f/Renaissance_Electrotype_Medal_of_Bertoldo_di_Giovanni.jpg)
Bertoldo also worked with production in wood, metal, and terracotta, exploring the innovation of his work across media reveals 'both his versatility as well as his ability to create a unified style, mediated through diverse scale, media, and hands. The objects shed light on his creative process—the development of a sculpture from idea to design to production.' (7)
What remains constant is his work is the engaging lyrical style and 'the essential role he played in the development of Italian Renaissance sculpture. Indeed, Bertoldo was one of the earliest sculptors since antiquity to create statuettes in bronze, an art form that became ubiquitous in prestigious collections during the 15th-century and thereafter accompanied by an inventive allegorical scene or incredibly detailed historical event.' (7) Bertoldo may not have been quite as popular as others in his own time, but at least we have come to be more familiar with his name, appreciative of his technique and understanding of influence in the past and our own times. We can now credit the often forgotten sculpture for the first great Bronze Renaissance.
Battle, The Frick Collection, Available at https://www.frick.org/exhibitions/bertoldo/11
Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence, Fine Art Today, Fine Art Connoisseur, Available at https://fineartconnoisseur.com/2019/09/bertoldo-di-giovanni-renaissance-sculpture/
A new collector’s guide to Renaissance bronzes, Christie's, Available at https://www.christies.com/features/Renaissance-bronzes-collecting-guide-8738-1.aspx
All'antica, The National Gallery, Glossary, Available at https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/glossary/allantica
Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence, The Frick Collection, Available at https://www.frick.org/shop/exhibition_catalogues/bertoldo
Hercules on Horseback, The Frick Collection, Available at https://www.frick.org/exhibitions/bertoldo/2
First Monographic Exhibition on the Artist Presented through Gathering of Nearly Entire Extant Oeuvre, The Frick Collection, Available at https://www.frick.org/press/bertoldo_di_giovanni_renaissance_sculpture_medici_florence
The Bronze Renaissance & Bertoldo di Giovanni
Bertoldo di Giovanni, “Hercules on Horseback” (detail), ca. 1470–75, bronze, H 10 3/4 in. Galleria Estense, Modena; Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali – Archivio fotografico delle Gallerie Estensi; photo: Carlo Vannini
Bertoldo di Giovanni, Shield Bearer, ca. 1470–80. Photo by Michael Bodycomb. Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.
Bertoldo di Giovanni, “Shield Bearer” (detail), ca. 1470–80, gilt bronze, H 8 7/8 in. The Frick Collection, New York Photo: Michael Bodycomb
Bertoldo di Giovanni, “Battle” (detail), ca. 1480–85, bronze, 17 3/4 x 39 1/8 in. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence; Su concessione del Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali; photo Mauro Magliani
Bertoldo di Giovanni, “Mehmed II (1433–1481),” ca. 1480, bronze, diam. 3 3/4 in. Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, Staatliche Museen, Berlin; photo: Karsten Dahmen
Bertoldo di Giovanni, Orpheus, ca. 1471. Photo by Mauro Magliani. Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.
Bertoldo di Giovanni, Orpheus, ca. 1471. Bronze. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence (349B). Ministero per i beni e le attività culturali; photo Mauro Magliani
Bertoldo di Giovanni, medal commemorating The Pazzi Conspiracy (Lorenzo de' Medici), 1478. Photo by Mauro Magliani. Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.