THE GREAT TUSCAN SCULPTORS OF THE XV CENTURY V. Francesco Laurana, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Andrea Riccio and Pisanello.

The flat, subtle and refined style of the Florentine sculptors of the quattrocento never became affected. They were delicate by conviction. This aspect is evident in the portraits that another sculptor, this time not Florentine, named Francesco Laurana, made for the princesses of the court of Naples. Francesco Laurana (ca. 1430 – before 12 March 1502) was Dalmatian, from Vrana (today Zadar), and had a cosmopolitan career in Naples, Sicily, Marseille and Avignon. His portraits of the Neapolitan princesses of the House of Aragon (Eleanor, in the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, and the bust of an unidentified princess, in the Louvre) are both masterpieces in which formal synthesis leads its way along the path of abstract creation.

Bust of Eleanor of Aragon, marble, by Francesco Laurana, ca. 1468-1471 (Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo). Francesco Laurana, also an architect like his brother Luciano, builder of the Ducal Palace of Urbino, was also an excellent sculptor of refined and sober elegance. Called by Alfonso V to his court in Naples to work on the triumphal arch of Castelnuovo, he made these busts of the Aragonese princesses there. This particular bust was originally carved for Eleanor’s tomb and is considered to be the epitome of Renaissance-era Sicilian sculpture. It is considered iconographically similar to the “Bust of a Princess” (Louvre, see picture below).
Bust of a Princess, marble, by Francesco Laurana, ca.1468 (Museé du Louvre, Paris). This bust forms a perfect square (44 x 44 cm). Although the sitter remains unidentified, it has usually been related to a posthumous portrait of Infant Eleanor of Aragon, on the basis of her funerary portrait now housed in the Galleria Nazionale della Sicilia at Palermo.

Florentine decorators not only executed their works in limestone and marble, but even in bronze, such as Donatello and Verrocchio once did. One of them, named Antonio del Pollaiuolo (17 January 1429/1433 – 4 February 1498) moved to Rome in 1484 with his brother Piero, also a sculptor and painter, to carve the sepulchral monuments of Innocent VIII and Sixtus IV. Pollaiuolo was an artist of extreme sensitivity, somewhat sickly. The nervousness that was already visible in some of Donatello’s works was aggravated in Pollaiuolo’s, his first training was as a goldsmith, a technique to which he returned to in his older years when he made the silver relief representing the Birth of the Baptist, between 1367-1483. This altar, carved before his trip to Rome, was destined for the baptistery of Florence.

Monument of Sixtus IV, bronze, by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, 1484-1493 (Basement treasury of St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican). This tomb of Sixtus IV was commissioned by Sixtus’ nephew, Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II). The tomb is one of the great sculptural achievements of the 15th century, a composition that manifests the exaggeration in the anatomical features of the figures typical of Pollaioulo’s art. The top of the monument is a lifelike depiction of Sixtus IV lying in state. Surrounding the recumbent figure of the Pope wearing tiara and pontifical vestments, and set on a slightly lower level, are depictions of the seven virtues (Charity, Hope, Prudence, Fortitude, Faith, Temperance, and Justice). The concave base of the tomb is decorated with ten bas-relief panels depicting allegorical female figures representing Grammar, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Painting, Astronomy, Philosophy and Theology—the classical liberal arts, with the addition of painting and theology; these figures are separated by acanthus consoles. Each figure incorporates the oak tree (rovere” in Italian), symbol of Sixtus IV.
Tomb of Pope Innocent VIII, gilded bronze, by Antonio del Pollaiuolo, 1492-1498 (St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican). Antonio del Pollaiuolo’s final commissions were the papal tombs of Sixtus IV (see previous picture) and that of his successor Innocent VIII (pictured above). This funerary monument originally stood in the old St. Peter’s Basilica, and was completed shortly before Pollaiuolo’s death. ​The monument is made up of two parts: a recumbent effigy of Innocent VIII lying on his tomb and an image of him seated on a throne and placed above. In this seated figure, the blessing pope holds the metal tip of the lance that pierced the side of Christ, one of the many holy relics housed at St. Peter’s. For centuries the relic of the Holy Lance was kept in Constantinople. However, in 1492, shortly before his death, Pope Innocent VIII received it as a gift from the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II. The figure of the seated Pope is surrounded by reliefs of the four cardinal virtues. On top, a heavy cornice is surmounted by a lunette with the three theological virtues represented in relief (Charity is placed inside a mandorla).
“Altar of the baptistery of Florence with Scenes from the Life of the Baptist: Birth”, gold, by Antonio del Pollaiuolo (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence). This relief, representing the Birth of the Baptist, is located on the left side of the Altar, and it gives a faithful genre picture of a contemporary Florentine interior. The scene takes place inside a room, in which the bed is placed midway. In the far background below the window, a servant brings refreshments, while the child Baptist tended by his nurses occupies the foreground. Meanwhile, the Virgin enters the room to the right accompanied with her attendant, a figure which strongly recalls the image of Flora in the “Primavera” of Botticelli (pictured below). The foreground scene represents the washing of  the child and is realistic in its details, for example see the woman feeling the temperature of the water with her left hand.

In some of Pollaiuolo’s works expression played an important role, especially in his small sculptures. Antonio del Pollaiuolo has been also attributed by some scholars to have sculpted the figures of the infant twins Romulus and Remus that were added in the 15th century to the ancient statue of the Capitoline She-Wolf. Around this time, various Tuscan artists or others coming from different regions of central and northern Italy, began to model works of reduced size, thereby giving rise to a tradition that, at the end of the 15th and at the beginning of the 16th centuries, would have its most important representative in the Paduan Andrea Briosco surnamed Riccio (ca. 1470 – 1532), trained first as a goldsmith and later author of small bronze figures, animals and nudes modeled in the Etruscan style. He excelled in creating small bronzes that captured the spirit of antiquity without resorting to copying. Riccio has been considered as the greatest sculptor of small bronzes in Renaissance Italy.

Some small sculptures by Antonio del Pollaiuolo. Left: Hercules and Antaeus, bronze, 1470s, 45 cm height (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). The sculpture depicts the Classical episode of Hercules engaged in a wrestling match with the giant Antaeus who was invincible as long as some part of him touched the earth, from which he took his strength. Thus, Hercules held him in the air until he weakened and died. Hercules is depicted with his arms locked around the waist of Antaeus, crushing the giant’s body to his own. These bronze statuettes were frequently patinated to resemble antique bronzes. This particular piece demonstrates Pollaiuolo’s knowledge of anatomy (learned from dissecting corpses) and his ability to represent physical and emotional violence. This group was famous in the artist’s own lifetime: Leonardo studied it and Michelangelo included a sketch of it on a sheet illustrating bronze casting. Right: Hercules, ca. 1475 (Bode Museum, Berlin).
Small bronzes by Andrea Riccio. Top left: Pan, ca. 1510-1520, 36 cm height (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). This statuette is modeled after an antique marble statue today in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. Duccio’s learned clientele preferred themes associated with Classical mythology. Top right: The Shepherd Daphnis with Pipes, between 1520-1530, 21.3 cm height (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. Maryland). This small bronze is notable for its naturalism and lyricism. This statuette represents a shepherd from the mythic world of Arcadia, where satyrs, nymphs, gods, and humans lived together at ease. He was taught to play the hollow reed pipe by the god Pan and became the inventor of pastoral poetry. Bottom left: The Rothschild Lamp, ca. 1510-1520, 19 x 23 x 7 cm (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). This is a functional oil lamp. In general, the lamp takes the form of a fanciful ancient ship or galley. Decorated with shells, bucrania, harpies*, garlands, and other classical decorative motifs, the body of each lamp is also decorated with friezes of putti. Bottom right: Satyr and Satyress, ca. 1510-1520 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Here Riccio depicts the lustful nature of the satyrs but also their tender relationship: Satyr and Satyress sit intertwined on a shallow base, their arms around each other’s shoulders, her right leg resting over his left, the Satyr touches his partner’s neck with his fingertips, his thumb resting on her chin, and their lips pursed as if about to kiss.

It is natural that a society like that of Florence during the mid-15th century, which felt the mirage of antiquity with a truly romantic passion, aspired to leave an ancient imprint on all its artistic manifestations. Such eagerness to emulate ancient art became something so deep-rooted and so natural among the Italians who then lived in Tuscany, that it was even noticed in the art forms destined to the simpler bourgeoisie and the common town’s people. It can be seen in ceramics in which, as a result of an abundant import of Valencian pieces, the mastery of the white stain varnish technique was evident, which lends itself so much to polychrome ornamentation. Thanks to the use of this technique and of an elegant modelling, such varnished and painted terracotta were often small masterpieces that reflected that subtle Renaissance sensibility, be it vessels and pieces of crockery or decorative inserts for devotional or personal purposes.

Examples of Maiolica tin-glazed pottery from early Renaissance Italy. Left: Blue and white vase with oak-leaf and dogs decor, made in Florence, ca. 1400-1450 (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). Right: Earthenware, tin-glaze Maiolica plate, early 15th century, Italy (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Other typical facet of this desire to revive the forms of antiquity was translated into medal making. The first and most famous medalist was a painter and sculptor, a native of Verona, Antonio Pisano, called the Pisanello (ca. 1395 – ca. 1455), a refined artist and highly skilled illustrator of animals. He was the one who set the tone for this artistic fashion. His first medal was the one he made with the effigy of John VIII Palaeologus, in commemoration of his arrival in Italy in 1438. The impact this medal had on art was significant, influencing both sculpture and painting. Renaissance artists subsequently used Pisanello’s portrait of John almost as a stock type to represent exotic or antique figures. This can be seen in the work of Piero della Francesca who used the image of John in his “Flagellation of Christ” and Arezzo frescoes on The History of the True Cross, and in the work of Benozzo Gozzoli who used John’s image as a model to depict one of the magi in his frescoes for the Magi Chapel (see small pictures below).

Medal of Emperor John VIII Palaeologus (obverse-left and reverse-right), copper alloy, by Pisanello, ca. 1438, 10 cm diam. (Münzkabinett, Staatliche Museen, Berlin). John VIII Paleologus (1392-1448), emperor of Byzantium, was the last ruler of the old Roman Empire. He was invited by Pope Eugenius IV to attend a council in Ferrara, where he arrived with a large entourage. Pisanello, who was then working in Ferrara for Leonello d’Este, was fascinated by the exotic appearance of the imperial entourage, details of which he recorded in drawings and used in paintings. Pisanello was commissioned to produce an object commemorating this historic visit. This medal, the first portrait medal of the Renaissance, became the type for all subsequent medals. On the obverse (left), Pisanello placed John Palaeologus in profile following ancient and medieval examples, and surrounded by an identifying inscription in Greek which reads “John, emperor and autocrat of the Romans, the Palaeologus”, the most striking aspect of the portrait is the emperor’s hat: this large garment occupies around half the pictorial space of the obverse. On the reverse (right) Palaeologus is again depicted in profile, riding his horse, while stopping to pray at a roadside cross on top of a pedestal. Behind him, mounted on another horse, is a page or squire viewed from the rear and foreshortened. Inscriptions in both Latin and Greek name Pisanello as the medal’s maker (“The work of Pisano the painter”).
The image of John Palaeologus by Pisanello (see previous picture) had a strong influence in art. His “exotic” features were reproduced almost unchanged by later artists including Piero della Francesca (Arezzo frescoes on The History of the True Cross-left, and Flagellation of Christ-center) as well as Benozzo Gozzoli (Procession of the Magi fresco in the Magi Chapel-right).

Inspired by Roman coins, with their portraits of rulers and allegorical representations on the reverse, Pisanello’s medals commemorated individuals or events and functioned as gifts and mementos. Pisanello determined then, the style of such coinage. In general, on the obverse of the bronze disc, he modeled in relief the profile bust of the portrayed character, accompanying it with a Latin legend and reserving for the reverse a symbol or allegory. Among his most famous medals are those he made for Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua, that for Filippo Maria Visconti, for Leonello d’Este, and the one he made in Naples for Alfonso V of Aragon.

Other medals by Pisanello. Top left: Medal of Gianfrancesco Gonzaga, copper alloy with dark patina and dark layer of wax, ca. 1445-1447, 10 cm diam. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Gianfrancesco Gonzaga (1395-1444) was a successful military captain and a key figure in consolidating Gonzaga rule in Mantua. On the obverse (left) of the medal, the marquess appears opulently dressed with a large hat. On the reverse (right) his role as a military commander is shown, where he wears field armor, holds the baton of command, and sits astride a powerful horse. A dwarf squire, similarly attired for war, is seen from the back. Middle left: Medal of Filippo Maria Visconti, cast bronze, ca. 1441, 10 cm diam. (Castello Sforzesco, Milan). Filippo Maria Visconti (1392-1447) was the ruler of the duchy of Milan. He was reclusive, overweight, and walked with difficulty. The obverse of the medal shows Visconti in profile wearing his trademark hat. On the reverse, the dashing mounted figure, wearing tournament armor and holding a jousting lance, evokes the chivalric ambiance of the court, as do his mounted companions. Bottom left: Medal of Leonello d’Este, yellowish copper alloy with dark brown patina, ca. 1441-1444, 7 cm diam. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Leonello d’Este (1407-1450) was marquis of Ferrara and Duke of Modena and Reggio Emilia. According to contemporary sources, he was a serious intellectual, avid musician, poet, and active patron of the arts. In 1441 he brought Pisanello to his court and commissioned from him a series of at least six medals. Each medal bears the prince’s portrait on the obverse, paired on the reverse, with an obscure and complicated image rich in symbolism and in allusions to classical art and learning. On the reverse of this particular medal, pieces of armor hanging from olive-branches flank the curious figure of the three-faced child, who is generally explained as an emblem of Prudence, an essential attribute of the ruler, who looks to past, present, and future. Right: Medal of Alphonso of Aragon, King of Naples, cast bronze, 1449 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Pisanello produced several commemorative portrait medal for Alphonso V of Aragon. The reverse depicts a majestic eagle perched above a dead fawn and surrounded by smaller birds of prey, representing Alphonso’s virtues as a ruler. This image is reinforced by the inscription in Latin “Imperial Liberality”.

Other medals, no less famous, have also been attributed to Pisanello or his follower, Mateo de’ Pasti, also from Verona, who was a pupil of Donatello. He worked in Donatello’s workshop for many years and completed Donatello’s unfinished works after his death in 1466. Later, Bertoldo became head and teacher of the informal academy for painters and sculptors that Lorenzo de’ Medici founded in his garden. At the same time, Bertoldo was the custodian of the Roman antiquities collections there. Though Bertoldo was not a major sculptor, some of the most significant sculptors of their time attended this school, between them Michelangelo. Other famous medalists were Bertoldo di Giovanni, a disciple of Donatello, and Niccolò Fiorentino.

Medallions of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and of his last wife Isotta, by Matteo de’ Pasti (Museo della città di Rimini, Italy). Matteo de’ Pasti (born in Verona) worked on many royal commissions, including works for Leonello d’Este and Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta. Matteo also collaborated with the architect Leon Battista Alberti on the design and construction of the Tempio Malatestiano.
Other important medalist of the early Italian Renaissance. Top left: Portrait medal of Mehmed II (obverse), bronze, by Bertoldo di Giovanni, ca. 1480, 9.4 cm diam. (National Gallery of Art, Washington). Mehmed II, commonly known as Mehmed the Conqueror, was an Ottoman Sultan from the middle 15th century. Top right: The Pazzi Cospiracy Medal (obverse), bronze, by Bertoldo di Giovanni, 1478, 6,4 cm diam. (National Gallery of Art, Washington). This famous medal commemorates Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici after the Pazzi conspiracy of 1478. The obverse depicts Lorenzo, who escaped. The bust-length portrait is framed by Brunelleschi’s temporary wooden choir enclosing the high altar of the Basilica of Florence, while the scene under the bust portrays Lorenzo warding off his attackers and fleeing. Its narrative content is unprecedented in a medal. Middle left and right: Medal of John Kendal (obverse and reverse), bronze, by Niccolò Fiorentino, 1480, 5.9 cm diam. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Bottom left and right: Medal of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ‘il Magnifico’, (obverse and reverse), bronze, by Niccolò Fiorentino, ca. 1490, 9 cm diam. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Born into a family of Florentine goldsmiths, Niccolò is placed among the leading portrait medalists of the Italian Renaissance. Working in high relief, he created effigies that are bolder in scale and more bluntly realistic.



Harpy: In Greek and Roman mythology, a harpy is a half-human (usually female) and half-bird personification of storm winds. They feature in Homeric poems.



Medal: (or medallion). A small portable artistic object, consisting of a thin disc, normally of metal, that carries a design, generally on both sides. These designs typically have a commemorative purpose of some kind. They may be intended to be worn, suspended from clothing or as  jewelry.