Italian Renaissance Sculpture
History of Plastic Art in Italy, Florence, Rome, Siena, Milan, Venice.

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Life of John the Baptist - Panel on
Doors to the Florence Baptistery
(1330-36) By Andrea Pisano (1295-1348)

Jacob & Esau Relief, Gates of Paradise.
Florence Baptistery (1425–52)
By Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455).

Note: the term "Renaissance", used
to describe the new forms of
sculpture which appeared in Italy
during the period 1400-1530, was
first coined by the 19th century
historian Jules Michelet 1798-1874.

Renaissance Sculpture in Italy (c.1250-1530)
History and Characteristics


Pre-Renaissance Sculpture (1250-1400)
Renaissance Italy (1400-1530)
General Characteristics
Types of Sculpture: Religious and Secular
Materials and Methods
Florentine Sculpture (c.1400-1450)
- Lorenzo Ghiberti
- Donatello
- Luca Della Robbia
Florentine Sculpture (c.1450-1490)
- Desiderio da Settignano
- Bernardo and Antonio Rossellino
- Mino da Fiesole
- Benedetto da Maiano
- Matteo Civitali
Florentine Bronze Sculptors
- Antonio Pollaiuolo
- Andrea del Verrocchio
Sienese School
- Jacopo della Quercia (1371-1438)
Milanese School
Venetian School
Paduan School
High Renaissance Italian Sculpture
Northern Italy
High Renaissance Roman Scuptors

Pieta (1500)
St Peter's Basilica, Rome.
By Michelangelo. A perfect example
of restrained emotion in a work of
Christian art of the High Renaissance.

For the great historians of
Renaissance art, see:
Jacob Burckhardt (1818-97)
Bernard Berenson (1865-1959)
Kenneth Clark (1903-83)
Leo Steinberg (1920-2011)

Pre-Renaissance Sculpture (1250-1400)

In studying the art of sculpture in Italy during this period, it is important to remember that Renaissance sculptors had before their eyes tangible examples of classical Greek sculpture - the very work they admired - whereas painters had no examples of antique painting to refer to. While Giotto, for instance, had to construct his own 'foundations', the first important pre-Renaissance sculptor Nicola Pisano (c.1206-1278) already had foundations ready for him to build on.

These 'foundations' had been available throughout the Dark Ages and the era of Medieval sculpture. What is noteworthy about the sculpture of Nicola Pisano is that the classical prototypes from which it derives had, for all their availability for so many centuries, lost the power to stimulate the imagination of the medieval artists who saw them. The history of sculpture had never been inactive: plenty of Romanesque sculpture had been produced throughout the Middle Ages in Italy and the rest of Europe. What Nicola Pisano discovered was not the physical existence of a few ancient statues or monuments, but the fact that suddenly it had achieved a new significance. There could be no more remarkable proof of the dawn of Renaissance classicism than Nicola's first high relief carvings in the pulpit in the Baptistery at Pisa, completed six years before Giotto was born, or those in the pulpit of Siena Cathedral, carved while Giotto was in his cradle. There is no lack of technical accomplishment, nothing primitive or hesitant in his work. Beyond a slight tendency to an overcrowding of the forms, and, of course, the Christian subject matter, the carvings themselves might easily look to the casual eye like products of Imperial Rome. The Madonna of the Nativity is a Roman matron, the Magi are bearded Olympians. Nicola himself, one might guess, must have been a Roman Rip Van Winkle who had fallen into a coma in the days of Diocletian and having been awakened in the mid-thirteenth century, had instantly set to work in a style that had been dead for nearly a thousand years. Among his many pupils was the sculptor-architect Arnolfo di Cambio (1240–1310) who created some exemplary tomb sculpture and designed Florence Cathedral.



Nicola's son, Giovanni Pisano (c.1250-1314), evolved a more vivid, a more restless, almost a more Gothic style than his father. Even so, it is in his work - especially on the pulpit in the Church of St Andrea in Pistoia, of 1298, and that at Pisa, finished in 1310 - that we begin to see the true Renaissance yeast at work. These are not trecento versions of Roman carving but attempts to give formal expression to the new spirit. On the Pistoia pulpit are Sibyls that have no Roman counterparts. Their gestures and attitudes are full of dramatic tension. They are troubled, nervous, anxious creatures, and it is from them that, two centuries later, Michelangelo was to extract the kind of meaning that he poured into the Sibyls in his Sistine Chapel frescoes. The Pisano dynasty's most important follower was the Italian Gothic artist Giovanni di Balduccio (1290–1339), who was active in Pisa and Milan.

Giovanni Pisano was followed by Andrea Pisano (1295-1348) - no relation, in fact he is sometimes called Andrea da Pontedera - who worked with Giotto on the reliefs in the Campanile of the Florentine Cathedral, and later executed the first of the famous series of three bronze doors for the Cathedral Baptistery. They show how the spirit of Gothic sculpture was steadily infiltrating across the Alps into Northern Italy and replacing the heavier Roman forms of eighty years earlier. Andrea still belongs to the fourteenth century.

For a glimpse of French sculpture during the fourteenth century, most of which was done in the International Gothic style (a sort of sophisticated Gothic manner adopted by court artists), see the career of the French sculptor Andre Beauneveu (c.1335-1400) who worked for King Charles V. His contemporary the Flemish sculptor Claus Sluter (c.1340-1406) was even more influential, being a key figure in the transition from the International Gothic to the Renaissance.

Renaissance Italy (1400-1530)

During the fifteenth century, Italy was composed of a mixture of differing regional entities, including the Duchies of Milan and Savoy, and the Republics of Venice, Genoa, Florence, and Siena. Furthermore, the States of the Church owned a large chunk of Central Italy, while the whole of Southern Italy including Sicily belonged to the Kingdom of Naples. Generally speaking, these communities were ruled in monarch-fashion by families and individuals, many of whom became important patrons of Renaissance art, including the art of sculpture as well as painting. The most important ruling families included the Sforza and Visconti at Milan, the Gonzagas in Mantua, the Montefeltro at Urbino, the Este at Ferrara and Modena, the Malatesta at Rimini, the Bentivoglio at Bologna, and the powerful Medici family in Florence. At the vatican in Rome, pontiffs interested in fine art included Pope Sixtus IV (1471-84), Pope Julius II (1503-13), Pope Leo X (1513-21) and Pope Paul III (1534-49).

General Characteristics

Almost from the outset, sculpture and painting were characterized by individualism, as progress became less and less a reflection of schools, and more about the work of individual artists. An equally important feature of Renaissance art was its naturalism. In sculpture, this was evident in the increase of contemporary subjects, together with a more naturalistic handling of proportions, drapery, anatomy, and perspective. A third feature was the reemergence of classical subjects and forms. Since the fall of Rome in the fifth century, Italy never completely forgot the sculpture of ancient Greece, nor could it ignore the visible mass of Roman ruins. The revival of classicism in sculpture began about the time of Nicola Pisano (c.1206-1278), and, though checked in the 14th-century, continued throughout the 15th-century. True, Gothic traditions survived for a good deal of the quattrocento, but typically assumed something of a classic manner. Classicism took over completely only during the High Renaissance (c.1490-1530). One final point needs to be stressed. Italian Renaissance art was primarily religious art. Less so perhaps than during the Romanesque or Gothic periods - after all Europe was becoming wealthier - but Christianity remained a dominant force in the lives (and art) of princes and paupers alike.

Types of Sculpture: Religious and Secular

The demand for sculpture during the quattrocento and cinquecento remained largely ecclesiastical. Church exteriors were adorned with stone sculpture, not only around the doorways, but sometimes the whole facade was decorated with relief sculpture and column-statues. Meanwhile church interiors were filled with marble sculpture (for pulpits, baptismal fonts, tabernacles, important tombs, groups of statues), and wood carving (notably, for choir stalls, statuettes, as well as painted altarpieces after the Late Gothic style). Cathedral baptistery, and sacristy doors were often composed entirely of bronze sculpture, usually low reliefs. The interior walls of Renaissance churches also housed large architectural tombs, memorializing secular rulers, generals, statesmen, and philosophers as well as the usual cardinals and bishops.

Palaces and private homes were also decorated with sculpture. Doorways, gardens, reception rooms and interior features were the most commonly embellished areas. Interior sculptural works included, friezes, carved ceilings, fireplaces, statuettes and busts, while exterior works extended to gargoyles, fountains, shrines, statues including Madonnas and saints.


Themes used in sculpture were very similar to those used in early Renaissance painting. Subjects for ecclesiastical works nearly always came from the Old and New Testament of the Bible. If the Madonna and Child is the most popular subject, other common subjects included scenes from the life of Christ or the Virgin Mary, as well as episodes from Genesis. Decorative motifs of classic origin were occasionally introduced into religious sculpture, but mythological subjects much more rarely, except for Cupids and Putti. Subjects broadened however, during High Renaissance painting, and this also affected sculpture. Themes for non-church sculpture might feature scenes from classical mythology, and portraits of or motifs connected with the patron concerned, as well as Biblical subjects.

Materials and Methods

Precious metals, like gold and silver, were used less in sculpture than in the preceding Gothic period. And while the goldsmith's workshop continued to train some of the finest Renaissance sculptors and painters, gradually training became more specialized as the various disciplines became more independent of each other, and the influence of the goldsmith was limited to the craft of metalwork. Bronze however was given a more important role, being employed first for reliefs, then for statues or busts. It was a particularly popular medium for Renaissance sculptors, both because of its ductility and durability and also because of its brilliance when gilded. Not surprisingly, such benefits took time to emerge, as early bronze-casting was crude, and finished pieces were not highly polished. But by the time of the High Renaissance these difficulties had been overcome and a high degree of technical perfection achieved.

In stone sculpture, growing refinement and demand for detail, led to a greatly increased use of marble, as well as other finer types like Istrian stone, and Pietra serena sandstone. White Carrara marble, the favourite of Michelangelo, was used widely for monumental sculpture, its colour sometimes softened by wax. Details of statues - including hair, ornaments and sometimes skin - were often gilded or painted.

Terracotta became fashionable as a cheap alternative to marble and, when glazed, was equally durable. It could also be painted before glazing, for a permanent polychromatic effect. It was used throughout Italy during the 15th-century, for altarpieces, pulpits, fonts, and other ecclesiastical fixtures, as well as numerous domestic applications. Even cheaper material than terracotta was fine stucco, made from marble dust and sand. Both terracotta and stucco stimulated the copying of ancient masterworks by the most distinguished sculptors of antiquity.

Wood was another inexpensive sculptural material, but the tradition of wood carving was limited generally to thickly wooded regions, notably the Austrian Tyrol and Southern Germany, where it was practised with virtuoso skill by master-craftsmen like Michael Pacher (1435-98), Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), Veit Stoss (1447-1533) and Gregor Erhart (1460-1540).

Whether working in stone, bronze or wood, the sculptural techniques used by Renaissance sculptors were by and large the same as those used by Greek or Roman sculptors: the same types of implement were used and many of the same techniques were followed. But the ethos of the Renaissance was far more pictorial. Written designs, for instance, were considered to be essential. In addition, great attention was paid to perspective, the use of multiple planes, and gradations of relief. Furthermore, preliminary cartoons, studies, and small-scale models of the intended sculpture in clay, wood or wax, could be progressed far enough by the master-sculptor to allow it to be completed in bronze or marble by a pupil or other artisan.


Florentine Renaissance Sculpture (c.1400-1450)

It was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Northern Italy that the larger cities were taking shape; new forms of Renaissance architecture flourished and sculptors were more closely linked with architects than they are today. Thus it is not surprising that the beginnings of a recognizably Italian style are to be found in sculpture a little earlier than in painting. Nor is it surprising that after the first Pisan outburst, the great sculptors of Italy were almost all Florentines. The keen Florentine mind had a natural bias towards formal and structural problems, which - given its reverence for disegno - could find their solution as easily in sculpture as in painting. Added to which was the proximity of stone and marble quarries without which a regional school of sculpture cannot easily flourish. The most important sculptors of the first half of the Florentine Renaissance (1400-90), were Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello (Donato di Niccolo), and Luca Della Robbia.

Lorenzo Ghiberti

Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) obtained his technical training from his stepfather Bartolo, a goldsmith. He began as a painter, but his real talent lay in the sculpture of small objects. In his De Orificeria Benvenuto Cellini comments: "Lorenzo Ghiberti was a true goldsmith, not only in his graceful manner of creating objects of beauty, but in the diligence and finish which he gave to his work. He put his entire soul into the production of miniature works, and although occasionally he applied himself to larger-scale sculpture, he was much more at home when making smaller objects." Ghiberti's key works as a goldsmith were a gold mitre and pluvial button (1419) for Pope Martin V (1417-31), and a gold mitre (1439) for Pope Eugenius IV (1431-47). These beautiful mitres, embellished with miniature reliefs and figures and emblazoned with precious gems, were melted down in 1527 to provide funds for Pope Clement VII (1523-34). His bronzes were more fortunate, as they have all survived, and Ghiberti devoted himself to bronze with the same spirit of the goldsmith. In 1401 he succeeded in winning the contract for a pair of bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery, beating contemporary rivals Jacopo della Quercia (c.1374-1438) and Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) in the process.

His design for the doors followed the same basic scheme as used previously by Andrea Pisano: it comprised 28 panels, depicting the life of Christ, the four Apostles, and the four Fathers of the Church. However, Ghiberti's doors are richer in composition, higher in relief, and more naturalistic in its figures and drapery. Ghiberti devoted almost the whole of his Early Renaissance working life to the making of the famous second and third pairs of bronze doors for the Florentine Baptistery. They are marvels of craftsmanship, and the low relief treatment of landscape and architectural backgrounds in the third pair is skilful and ingenious, but the unfailing suave flow of drapery in Ghiberti's figures becomes a little tiresome. In the second pair of doors the narrative panels are contained within Gothic quatrefoils, similar in shape to those of Andrea Pisano cast ninety years earlier, but more crowded in composition. In the third pair, begun in 1427 and finished in 1452, the advancing classic tide had swept away the outward forms of Gothicism. The quatrefoils are replaced by square panels, and the treatment - as though a rectangle meant for Ghiberti, a picture, - becomes ingeniously but almost embarrassingly pictorial. Rarely have the frontiers of painting and sculpture approached each other so nearly as in these ten Old Testament narratives. To Ghiberti's contemporaries these tours de force of low relief in bronze were astonishing: Michelangelo himself declared that the doors were worthy of forming the entrance to Paradise. They still are: yet they reveal an ingenious rather than a creative mind.

Other important contemporaries of Ghiberti included the sculptor-architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), another of the competitors for the first baptistery doors, and a friend of Donatello; Nanni di Banco (1375-1421), whose statues of St. Eligius at Or San Michele, of St. Luke in Florence Cathedral, and the Assumption of the Madonna by the north doorway are especially noteworthy; and Niccolo d' Arezzo (b.1370), who collaborated with Piero di Giovanni on the north door of the cathedral.


Donatello (Donato di Niccolo) (1386-1466) was in many ways the most representative sculptor of the quattrocento. The chronology of his work reflects the changing aesthetic of the times. Up to 1425 his sculpture was thoroughly Gothic. With some exceptions, the statues he created for the Cathedral, for the Campanile, and for Or San Michele are somewhat awkward in pose, over-heavy with drapery, and lacking in grace. Apostles and prophets appear to be little more than portraits of his own contemporaries. Even his Christ is but a peasant. The St. George, however, is completely different - an outburst of creative energy.

It was during the period, 1425-1444, that Donatello produced most of his best works, and extended his reputation beyond Florence, as far as Siena, Montepulciano, Orvieto, Rome, even Naples. Like Luca della Robbia, he fused Hellenic grandeur with northern naturalism. But to this fusion of opposites he added the unique force of his own creative imagination which could produce, at one moment the stylish elegance of the boy David, casually resting his foot on the severed head of Goliath (surely one of the greatest sculptures ever and the first free-standing nude statue since Classical times - for more details, see: David by Donatello), the undergraduate arrogance of the young St George, the dignity of the seated St John, in which Michelangelo found the inspiration for his Moses, the Rodinesque naturalism of Il Zuccone - a bald-headed beggar turned Old Testament prophet - on the Campanile, the animated, ungainly dance of children of the Cathedral Cantoria (executed only two years after Luca della Robbia's), the equestrian statue of Gattamelata in Padua, the prototype of all Renaissance equestrian statues, and by common consent, the grandest, and finally those low relief narrative bronzes done for the high altar of St Anthony's Church in Padua. These marvellously inventive works could be described as the archtypes of all expressionism in narrative art. The suave Hellenic rhythms of Ghiberti have been abandoned as useless for Donatello's purposes, and in their place we find a new nervous energy, a new dynamism. All kinds of restless, momentary gestures add to the emotional intensity of the story to be told. Compared with these crowded and daring experiments Ghiberti's attempts at picturesqueness on the Baptistery doors are sadly lacking in vitality and imagination.

He collaborated on several works with the Florentine architect and bronze sculptor Michelozzo di Bartolommeo (sometimes mistakenly referred to as Michelozzo Michelozzi) (1396-1472). In partnership with Michelozzo, Donatello produced three important tombs: those of the anti-pope John XXIII (1424-8, Baptistery of Florence); Cardinal Brancacci (1426-8, San Angelo a Nilo, Naples); and Bartolommeo Aragazzi (1427-38, Montepulciano Cathedral). In his relief sculpture of this period, he introduced some new perspective effects, most visibly on the font in the Siena Baptistery, the pulpit at Prato, and the organ gallery of the Florence Cathedral. His realism (as in Il Zuccone, 1423-6, Museo dell'opera del Duomo, Florence) was gradually superceded by a more refined classicism, most particularly in his revolutionary bronze statue of David (1440-3, Museo Nationale del Bargello, Florence).

Donatello's final period opened with a visit to Padua in 1444, and lasted until his death in 1466. It was marked by a significant rise in his sense of drama. True, his bronze Equestrian Statue of the Gattemelata (Condottiere Erasmo da Narni) (1444-53, Piazza del Santo, Siena). showed a considerable amount of classical restraint, but his relief sculpture, ranging from the S. Antonio altar-reliefs in Padua to the bronze pulpit reliefs of S. Lorenzo in Florence, traced his gradual decline. His later reliefs, for instance, are marked by exaggerated emotion, disjointed composition, and an overly loose treatment of form and drapery. They are unfortunate precursors of the Rococo style into which Italian sculpture was doomed to fall.

Two artists in particular are associated with Donatello's early manner: Nanni di Bartolo (Il Rosso) (c.1379-48), who produced several statues of prophets for Giotto's Campanile (bell-tower) of Florence Cathedral; and Bernardo Ciuffagni (1385-1456), responsible for the seated St. Matthew in the Cathedral. Agostino di Duccio (1418–1481) was another follower who was greatly inspired by Donatello's best work, although his handling of drapery is more reminiscent of that of Ghiberti. See for instance his statues on the facade of San Bernardino at Perugia. His carvings have the same kind of flowing arabesque of line and something of the same wistful delicacy as the paintings of Botticelli. He is a minor poet of sculpture, but he left a memorable mark on the interior of the famous Tempio Malatestiana at Rimini, which owes more than half its loveliness to his great series of gentle, pagan carvings round the walls.

There is no doubt that Donatello's sculpture had a huge impact on both painters and sculptors alike. His use of classical motifs, his sophisticated used of perspective, and his virtuosity in all materials, made him the most influential sculptor of his age, unmatched by any Renaissance artist until Michelangelo.


Luca Della Robbia

Less experimental than Ghiberti, more restrained than Donatello, Luca Della Robbia (1400-1482) trained under the goldsmith Leonardo di Ser Giovanni, achieving a recognizable mastery of bronze (doorways at the sacristy of the Florence Cathedral), as well as marble sculpture (choir-gallery reliefs, and marble tomb of Bishop Benozzo Federighi, S. Francesco di Paola). Best known as the founder of a school of glazed-terracotta clay sculpture, his influence on Italian Renaissance sculpture should not be underestimated. Curiously, the finest single work done by Luca is his first - the marble reliefs in the Cantoria of the Cathedral in Florence, finished in 1438. Photography and their wonderfully fluent charm have made them hackneyed, but charm is the least of their virtues. The carvings of boy musicians and child dancers have an almost Hellenic purity: yet they reveal a wonderfully observant eye for the behaviour and gestures of adolescence and they are enlivened by touches of quiet humour.

Other early sculptures, such as the Resurrection (1443) and the Ascension (1446), the lunettes in Florence's cathedral and the church of S. Pierino, were influenced by Leonardo di Ser Giovanni and Ghiberti. But his lunette of the Madonna and Child over the doorway in the Via dell' Agnolo, as well as the Apostle medallions in the Pazzi Chapel, and the Visitation group at S. Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia, were executed in his personal style. It was in about 1463 that he created the exquisite medallion for the Florentine General Council of Merchants, and for the Guild of Stone Masons and Wood Carvers, both of which embellish the facade of Or San Michele. His later works include the magnificent Tabernacle of the Holy Cross at Impruneta. In some of his works Luca Della Robbia employed coloured glazes, but more often he applied colour only to details, such as the eyes and eyebrows, or as a superficial embellishment.

Luca's terracotta sculpture business was boosted significantly by his nephew, Andrea della Robbia (1435-1525). Andrea used terracotta more extensively and took it into the smaller towns of the region. To begin with - as in his early works at La Verna and Arezzo - he borrowed heavily from his uncle's repertoire and style, before developing a slightly more graceful style of his own - as illustrated by the lunette over the entrance of the cathedral at Prato and the altar in the Osservanza near Siena. Sometimes however, this gracefulness deteriorated into sentimentality, as in his reliefs over the portal of S. Maria della Quercia at Viterbo.

Andrea was followed in the business by his five sons, of whom Giovanni (1469-1529) was the most talented, being noted for the sacristy (1497) of S. Maria Novella, the Nativity (1521) in the Museo Nazionale, and the medallions at the Ceppo Hospital at Pistoia. The youngest son Girolamo (1488-1566) introduced the family tradition into France, with no discernible influence on French art.

Florentine Renaissance Sculpture (c.1450-1500)

During the latter half of the 15th-century, demand for large-scale sculpture in both marble and bronze rose appreciably. Churches required a range of different items for their altarpieces, tabernacles, pulpits, tombs, and interior recesses, all sculptured in the new dynamic Renaissance style, while secular palaces needed new friezes, chimney pieces, portrait busts and numerous other types of decorative sculpture. The most eminent marble sculptors in late 15th-century Florence included Desiderio, the Rossellino brothers, Benedetto da Maiano, and Mino da Fiesole. The best of the bronze-workers of the same period were Verrocchio and Pollaiuolo.

Desiderio da Settignano

Desiderio da Settignano (1430-64) absorbed the spirit of Donatello's best sculpture, to which he added a sense of harmony and a refined elegance all of his own. His tomb for Chancellor Carlo Marsuppini in the Church of S. Croce is the best example of this type of monument. So too is his marble tabernacle in the Church of S. Lorenzo. Also noteworthy were his dignified portrait busts of Marietta Strozzi and of the Princess of Urbino, while his busts of children continue to be mistakenly attributed to Donatello. Although he died at the tender age of 34, his contribution to Italian Renaissance sculpture was lasting.

Bernardo and Antonio Rossellino

Although technically accomplished, Bernardo Rossellino (1409–1464) lacked originality as an artist. In architecture he was a devoted follower of Alberti, while in sculpture he borrowed too much from others, as illustrated by his famous tomb of Leonardo Bruni (d.1444). His younger brother Antonio Rossellino (1427-1479) did better: his St. Sebastian in the Collegiate Church at Empoli is seen as one of the most graceful statues of the quattrocento. His tomb of Cardinal Portogallo (d.1459) at San Miniato, while perhaps lacking in architectural importance, is nevertheless full of beauty. His low-relief sculpture and his portrait busts are no less impressive than many of Desiderio's works.

Mino da Fiesole

According to the biographer Giorgio Vasari, Desiderio's pupil Mino da Fiesole (1429-84) was responsible for a huge number of altars, pulpits, tombs, reliefs, statues and busts. A skilful craftsman, he spurned the use of models or cartoons, and was noted for his excellent finish. Incorporating a good deal of Desiderio's refinement, his work typically had the charm of distinction, coupled with an unusual mannerism. Despite his long residence in Rome, he borrowed little from classical antiquity: indeed, his Roman sculpture does not compare to his best Florentine work. His finest sculptures, all in Fiesole Cathedral, include the tomb of Bishop Leonardo Salutati, as well as the altarpiece depicting the Madonna with the Infant Jesus.

Benedetto da Maiano

While not particularly original, Benedetto da Maiano (1442-97), was a perfect representative of the general ethos of his age. His altar of St. Savinus at Faenza (1470) as well as his St. Sebastian in the Misericordia at Florence borrowed noticeably from Antonio Rossellino, whose influence can also be seen in Benedetto's works at San Gimignano. More striking is his celebrated pulpit at the church of S. Croce in Florence, decorated with picturesque reliefs from the life of Saint Francis. But his Madonna statues and reliefs lack the edge of those by the earlier masters, being reminiscent of well-fed, prosperous women of the middle class.

Matteo Civitali

The Lucca-born Matteo Civitali (1435-1501) is properly a representative of Florentine sculpture, whose works were influenced by Antonio Rossellino, Desiderio and Benedetto da Maiano. Even so, there is a hint of most un-Florentine-like emotion in many of his sculptures. His Christ figures are men of great sorrow; his angels are adoring; his Madonnas are tender-hearted mothers. Charming examples of his work can be seen in Genoa, as well as Lucca.

Florentine Bronze Sculptors

If Florence's marble sculptors contributed a great deal to the spread of grace and beauty of Renaissance art, its bronze-workers were no less active in mastering the techniques of their medium.

Antonio Pollaiuolo

Antonio Pollaiuolo (1432-98), a pupil of Bartolo - Ghiberti's stepfather - achieved great things as a goldsmith and metallurgist. His funereal monument for Pope Sixtus IV (St. Peter's Basilica, Rome), completed in 1493, was a development from the slab tomb. The Pope is depicted reclining upon a couch, adorned with reliefs of the seven Virtues, and the ten Liberal Arts, a work in which Pollaiuolo relied upon richness of detail rather than pure mass. His tomb for Pope Innocent VIII, also in St. Peter's, is less remarkable, while his small-scale bronzes of Marsyas and of Hercules and Cacus, in the Bargello at Florence, strive too hard for effect. At the same time, however, assuming that the base of a silver cross in the Cathedral Museum of Florence is correctly attributed to Pollaiuolo, it is clear that he possessed an unusually well-developed sense of architecture. He was also celebrated as the founder of the "goldsmith" school of painting.

Andrea del Verrocchio

Andrea del Verrocchio (1435–1488) produced the best metalwork of his day, and was the greatest sculptor between Donatello and Michelangelo. Trained in goldsmithing by Giuliano Verrocchio, he learned more from Donatello and Desiderio, before finally developing an independent style of his own. In his Medici monument (1472), in the sacristy of S. Lorenzo, he borrowed from Desiderio although he preferred straight to curved lines. His bronze David (1476) in the Bargello, exudes the spirit of Donatello, but is more angular, less sylph-like and less provocative. More innovative is his Christ and the Doubting Thomas (1483) in a niche on the exterior of Or San Michele, although its drapery is perhaps too heavy, as it may be also in the Cardinal Forteguerra monument in the cathedral at Pistoia.

Verrocchio is the acknowledged type of the all-round Florentine artist, content to refine on his inheritance rather than to widen its scope; yet he left behind him one superb sculptural conception - his last work, which he did not live to see as we can see it now - the bronze statue of Bartolommeo Colleoni (1480-95) astride his horse, on the high pedestal in the Piazza of SS Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. Compared with this, Donatello's effort at Siena appears decidely immobile: indeed, in no other equestrian statue are horse and rider composed with such unity.

Florence was the inspirational driving force of Italian Renaissance sculpture during the fifteenth century, and her influence radiated throughout Italy. Even so, other centres, like Siena, Milan, Venice, Padua, and Umbria, also produced sculptors of originality and influence.

Sienese School of Renaissance Sculpture

The more conservative Siena remained an outpost of Gothic art far longer than Florence. Like the Sienese School of Painting, the city's sculptors continued to express both the naturalism and emotion of Gothic sculpture, but without the classical motifs and dynamic sense of Renaissance aesthetics. The leading Sienese sculptor was Jacopo della Quercia, a not unimportant influence on the young Michelangelo.


Jacopo della Quercia (1371-1438)

Jacopo della Quercia, born about 1370, is the first Italian sculptor of whom it can be said that he understood the full meaning of the Italian Renaissance, and used the human figure neither as a vehicle for restless Gothic energy nor for static Classic nobility, but for deeper spiritual meanings. One sees him at his best in the great series of relief sculptures that surround the main doors of the Church of San Petronio in Bologna. Here was a man who could conceive, in carved low relief, figures as solid and expressive as those in Masaccio's Brancacci Chapel frescoes which were being executed at precisely the same moment. In some cases, one can compare the approach of the two artists to the same subject and note how similar, for example, is their conception of the expulsion of Adam and Eve. There is the same mastery of the naked human body for narrative purposes, the same grandeur of rhythm, the same preference for gestures that are expensive rather than graceful. Michelangelo, who visited Bologna at the age of nineteen must have seen this great series of carvings, and remembered them when he came to design his Adam and Eve frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Jacopo della Quercia was followed by Lorenzo Vecchietta (1412-1480), Antonio Federighi (c.1420-1490) and the bronze caster Giacomo Cozzarelli (1453-1515).

Milanese School of Renaissance Sculpture

In Lombardy, especially at Milan but also in Parma, Cremona, Bergamo and Pavia, the Milanese School of sculptors left their mark throughout northern Italy. Although the Gothic tradition, was more firmly entrenched than in Florence, it failed to halt the spread of Renaissance ideas and methods. At the same time, plastic art in Lombardy tended to be more elaborately decorated, in order to satisfy the demand for ornamentation. Thus, for instance, when the Florentine artist Michelozzo came to work in Milan he altered his style to suit Lombardian taste. This decorative style is exemplified in the sculptures of Milan Cathedral, of the Colleoni Chapel at Bergamo and the Certosa at Pavia. The brothers Cristoforo Mantegazza (c.1420-82) and Antonio Mantegazza (c.1425-95) - head sculptors at the Certosa, known for their conventional, hard, academic style - were two of the first stone carvers to depict drapery in the "cartaceous" manner, from its similarity to wet paper. They were followed by Giovanni Antonio Omodeo (1447-1522), whose sculpture demonstrated a significant step forward in terms of naturalism and classical forms. See for instance, his decorative pieces for the Colleoni Chapel, his tomb for Bartolommeo Colleoni at Bergamo, his work on the exterior of the Certosa at Pavia, and his Borrommeo monuments at Isola Bella.

Other top sculptors of the Lombardian School included: Cristoforo Solari (active 1489-1520) whose High Renaissance works were influenced in particular by Michelangelo; the clay relief sculptor Caradosso (1445-1527) whom Benvenuto Cellini judged to be the most talented goldsmith he ever met, and whose terracotta reliefs for the sacristy in the church of San Satiro ranked alongside those of the great Donatello; and Agostino Busti (1480-1548) noted for his signature "miniaturist" style which he applied with some success to monumental sculpture.

Venetian School of Renaissance Sculpture

While Milanese artists sculpted for patrons in Bergamo, Brescia, Genoa, and other northern Italian towns, the influence of Venice extended to Istria and Dalmatia in the east, to Verona and Brescia in the west and Ravenna, Cesena, Faenza, and Ancona to the south.

Venetian sculpture, like Venetian painting a little exotic, tended to appeal to the emotions, while that of Milan, Siena and Florence appealed to the intellect. This was only natural, given Venice's preference for colorito rather than the Florentine disegno. (For a colourful career in Venetian sculpture, see the sculptor-architect Filippo Calendario.) So perhaps it is no surprise that the city produced no first-rank sculptors during the Renaissance. Venetian artists worth mentioning include: Antonio Bregno (c.1400-1462), Antonio Rizzo (active 1465-99), Pietro Lombardo (1435-1515), his sons Tullio Lombardo (c.1455-1532) and Antonio Lombardo (1458-1516), as well as Alessandro Leopardi (d.1522).

Not unlike Siena and Milan, the Venetian school was too fond of the Gothic style to cast it aside too quickly. Thus the transitional period, during which Gothic co-existed with Renaissance, was a comparatively long one in Venice. Moreover, neither Donatello (nor his followers in Padua) nor Antonio Rizo of Verona, had any success in altering the trend of Venetian sculpture. The continuity of its development is revealed in the sculptural decoration of the Porta della Carta of the Doge's palace, and it succeeds finally in reflecting the classical humanism of the Italian Renaissance in the work of Pietro Lombardo (1435-1515). The latter's manner is clear from his tombs for the Doges Niccolo Marcello (d.1474) and Pietro Mocenigo (d.1476), but a typical Venetian charm pervades his decorative art in the church of S. Maria dei Miracoli.

Paduan School of Renaissance Sculpture

Fifteenth century Padua possessed a productive if not highly distinguished school of sculpture whose influence was mainly felt in Mantua and Ferrara. After obliging Donatello to change his style so as to suit her inferior taste, his pupils in the city became popular sculptors, of whom the most talented was Giovanni da Pisa, creator of the figurative terracotta sculpture in the church of the Eremitani. Better known was Bartolommeo Bellano (1430-1498), whose replicas of works by Donatello and Desiderio demonstrated his lack of originality, while his reliefs for the pulpits in S. Lorenzo, in Florence, were marked by an artificial striving for dramatic effect. His successor Andrea Briosco (1470-1532) absorbed something of his approach, albeil moderated by a greater knowledge of Greek art. On the other hand, in his small-scale domestic bronze reliefs, in his candlesticks and jewellery chests and statuettes, he showed himself a master, and attracted a notable school of followers.

High Renaissance Italian Sculpture

Sculpture during the late-15th and early-16th-century gradually assumed a greater individual importance in relation to architecture and painting. Thus architecture actually became more sculpture-like: pilasters were replaced by columns; cornices and mouldings were endowed with greater projection, allowing for new patterns of light and shade. Painting, too, became more plastic, as figures received greater modelling and perspective overtook outline and composition in importance. Indeed, sculpture occasionally reduced her sister arts to subjection. In wall tombs, figures were given a new prominence, with architectural construction being regarded as mere backdrop. Even entire buildings were sometimes treated as mere backdrops for sculptured figures. In addition, the entrancing bas-reliefs of the Early Renaissance were superceded by haut-relief and statues. Modelling, posture, and movement of drapery became the new criteria for excellence, as also did the creation of colossal statues. The influence of classical Greek sculpture was maintained if not increased, but rarely led to the reproduction of antique forms.


A major High Renaissance sculptor in Florence was Andrea Sansovino (1467–1529). His early terracotta clay altarpieces in S. Chiara at Monte Sansavino owed much to Andrea del Verrocchio and Antonio Rossellino. And his group of figures depicting the Baptism of Christ, over the doorway of the Florence baptistery, was on a par with the painting of Lorenzo di Credi (1458-1537) - and marked a distinct decline from the more energetic conceptions of del Verrocchio. In Rome, his funereal monuments for the Cardinals Ascanio Sforza and Girolamo Basso della Rovere, while charming in their decorative detail, demonstrated a conflict between sculpture and architecture. His heads and drapery were essentially classical, but the proportions of his figures were too heavy. His later sculpture at Loreto was too contrived, and too reliant on the new Mannerism.

His pupil Benedetto da Rovezzano (1476–1556) had much of Sansavino's technical ability, and more originality, as illustrated by his delicate floral designs, and odd combinations of skulls and cross-bones. His tombs for Piero Soderini in the Carmine and for Oddo Altoviti in SS. Apostoli in Florence are more interesting than arresting, while his relief in the Bargello pictorializing the Life of S. Giovanni Gualberto revealed the independence of his art. His tomb for King Louis XII of France, and his tomb for Cardinal Wolsey in England (unfinished) did much to introduce Italian Renaissance ideas into Northern Europe. The irascible Venetian sculptor Piero Torrigiano (1472-1522) also went to England, where he created the tomb of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey. Another of Sansovino's pupils, Francesco di San Gallo (1493–1570) revealed something of his teacher's manner, to which he added a greater sense of realism. His tomb for Bishop Leonardo Bonafede, at the Certosa near Florence, derived from the bas-relief slabs of the Late Gothic and Early Renaissance periods.


Northern Italy

In Lombardy, the line of talented sculptors appears to end with Agostino Busti. Those who came after him were inferior: even Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) contributed little to the art of sculpture. The influence of the Florentine Michelangelo was quite dominant.

In Modena, some progression was achieved by Guido Mazzoni (1450-1518) - noted for his figurative clay sculpture, including Head of a Laughing Boy (1498, British Royal Collection), allegedly a portrait of a young Henry VIII - and Antonio Begarelli (1479—1565), who specialized in terracotta and sculpted groups for recesses, altarpieces and statues. His earlier works like the Bewailing of Christ in S. Maria Pomposa, owed much to Mazzoni, but Begarelli found more varied means of expression and captured a good deal more movement in his compositions. His later work - such as the altarpiece at S. Pietro, portraying Four Saints with the Madonna surrounded by Angels in the Clouds - was infused with the spirit of Correggio (1490-1534).

In Bologna, a similar progression may be traced in the work of Alfonso Lombardi (1497-1537). His early work at Ferrara and at S. Pietro, Bologna, also resembled works by Mazzoni. Later he fell under the influence of Sansavino, and adopted a more overtly classical manner: see for instance, his sculpture in the left portal of S. Petronio. Another artist of merit was the sculptress, Properzia de' Rossi (1490-1530). Niccole Pericoli (Il Tribolo) (1485-1550) was another sculptor of talent, as illustrated by the sibyls, angels, prophets, and other reliefs around the portals of S. Petronio. A sequence of misfortunes prevented him from achieving the proper recognition that he deserved.

In Venice, the top sculptor was another pupil of Andrea Sansavino, the Florentine Jacopo Tatti, better known as Jacopo Sansavino (1487-1570). In 1506, he followed his master to Rome, where he moved in circles frequented by Donato Bramante (1444-1514) and Raphael (1483-1520), and became infused with the spirit and manner of the classical antique. His Bacchus Holding a Bowl of Wine (c.1508, Museo Nazionale, Florence), is an excellent example of his sculpture during this period. From about 1518 to 1527 he was in Rome after which he went to Venice, where he fulfilled several important architectural and sculptural commissions, altering his style to produce the rich decorative effects required by Venetian patrons. In his statues of Apollo, Mercury, Minerva, and Peace for the Loggietta near the Campanile of S. Marco, he demonstrated that he was a worthy successor of Pietro Lombardo. However, his famous bronze door in the choir of S. Marco and his marble relief for the Chapel of S. Antonio at Padua were altogether less worthy. Other Venetian High Renaissance sculptors included Alessandro Vittoria (1525-1608) and Girolamo Campagna.

Michelangelo Buonarroti

During the Early Renaissance, Florence supplied artists to Rome. But during the High Renaissance, Rome dominated art (especially sculpture) throughout Italy, largely through the person of the Florentine genius Michelangelo.

Michelangelo (1475-1564), though equally brilliant as architect, sculptor, and painter, was quintessentially a sculptor in everything he did. Though his early works owed something to Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia, his spirit gave to sculpture a greater sense of independence than it had enjoyed at any time since the days of the Greeks. Indeed his plastic art was rooted in Antiquity, because from the very beginning he was interested only in the human form. Inspired by the values of sculpture in Ancient Greece, he chose to make the human body express everything he had to say.

Michelangelo's first style of work (1488-1496) may be compared to that of Donatello, though it was freer and more classical. He perfectly captured to perfection the Head of a Faun, the stone statue identified with the restored part of the so-called Red Marsyas in the Uffizi; and depicted the Madonna della Scala (Madonna of the Stairs) (c.1490, Casa Buonarroti, Florence) with the same degree of dignity and humanity that is typically found in Greek reliefs. He revelled in the male nudes in his marble high-relief known as Battle of the Centaurs, suggested to him by Poliziano. His debt to Donatello can be seen in the marble statue of the Young St John (S. Giovannino) in Berlin, with its slim form, oversized hands, and expressive head.

His second style of work (1496-1505) demonstrated greater originality and knowledge of human anatomy. In spite of the heavy expanse of drapery, his masterpiece Pieta (1500, St Peter's Basilica) creates an intensely personal moment of human sorrow. Sculpted from a single block of Carrara marble, it combines classical idealism with Christian piety and an exceptional eye for anatomical detail: Christ's veins are even shown as distended, emphasizing how recently blood flowed in his body. Ironically, when it was first shown to the public, he heard people attribute it to a more famous sculptor of the time, so he carved his own name on the ribbon across the breast of the Madonna. His joy at discovering new poses, as in his Genesis fresco, was exhibited in sculpture in the Cupid (1497). His next masterpiece the Statue of David (1501-4, Galleria dell'Accademia) demonstrates his sense of drama, as expressed in its powerful head which implies that intellect is greater than the physical might of any giant. The confident serenity of this work should be contrasted with the writhing movement and exaggerated gestures of Giambologna's immortal work, the Rape of the Sabine Women (1583, Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence).

His final style of work (1505–1564), is exemplified by the Moses (1513-15) for Tomb of Julius II, at S.Pietro in Vincoli, Rome - the main surviving figure of the magnificent monument which was to have been installed in St. Peter's in memory of Julius II. The intial design comprised a free-standing structure incorporating as many as forty statues, and was on Michelangelo's mind for forty years (1505–1545), but circumstances intervened to prevent its completion. As it stands in S. Pietro in Vincoli, the tomb is just a fragment of the original, with only the Moses being carved by his hand alone. Two Slaves in the Louvre - Rebellious Slave (1513-16) and Dying Slave (1513-16) - were probably intended for the tomb, as was the Victory (1532-4, Palazzo Vecchio, Florence).

The funereal tombs for the Medici family in the church of San Lorenzo in Florence (1524–1534) were also only partly fulfilled: those for Cosimo and Lorenzo il Magnifico were never produced, while even those for Lorenzo and Giuliano were not completely finished. The Lorenzo (1524-31), referred to a "Il Penseroso" because of his pensive attitude, is a superb figure, and the Giuliano hardly less expressive. But it is the four figures that flank the seated statues of Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici that are the most typical examples of his genius. They are not merely human bodies in effectively semi-recumbent poses, as they would have been had they been carved by an Athenian of the Periclean age. They are unforgettable expressionist interpretations of Day and Night, Dawn and Dusk. A modern sculptor would tackle the same problem by abandoning anatomical accuracy. Michelangelo's surprising achievement is to have drawn upon a profound knowledge of anatomy and turned it to expressionist purposes. His last great work, the Entombment group in the cathedral of Florence, contains the whole of his extraordinary genius - his absolute command of the human figure as a vessel for the most profound emotional content.

Roman Scuptors

Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560) sought to be more Michelangelo-like than the great man himself. His first statue, a St.Jerome, was allegedly praised by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), while his second, a Mercury, was purchased by King Francis I. However, the inferiority of his works compared to those of Michelangelo is shown clearly by his static pair Hercules and Cacus (1525-34) in front of the Palazzo Vecchio, which were greatly ridiculed by his contemporaries.

Bandinelli's pupil Bartolommeo Ammanati (1511-1592), who also studied under Jacopo Sansavino, executed numerous works at Padua, Urbino, Florence and Rome. His best sculpture, the Neptune of the fountain in the Piazza della Signoria, is regrettably quite lifeless. The Florentine Mannerist sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500-70) described it as "an example of the fate which befalls him who, trying to escape from one evil, falls into another ten times worse, since in trying to escape from Bandinelli it fell into the hands of Ammanati."

The Roman sculptor Raffaello da Montelupo (1505-1566) worked with Andrea Sansavino at Loreto, and later assisted Michelangelo in the Medici Chapel. His carving disappointed Michelangelo, but two altarpieces at Orvieto clearly demonstrate his talent with a chisel. The sculptor-monk Montorsoli (1507-1563) was a more committed follower of Michelangelo, and introduced his style to Bologna, Genoa, and even as far as Sicily. Other artists who exaggerated the manner of Michelangelo and so contributed to the decline of Italian sculpture, included Giacomo della Porta (d.1577) and Prospero Clementi (d.1584).


Italian Renaissance Sculpture can be seen in the best art museums and sculpture gardens around the world, notably the Vatican Museums (Rome), Doria Pamphilj Gallery (Rome), Pitti Palace (Florence), the Louvre (Paris), the Victoria & Albert Museum (London) and the J Paul Getty Museum of Art (LA).

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