The Mannerism in sculpture, as we described with respect to painting, was the dominant artistic trend of the 16th century. The discovery of the Hellenistic sculpture of Laocoön in Rome, in 1506, shook the artistic environment, directing it towards a refined style; Michelangelo‘s marvelous works influenced this trend too and brought it a dramatic idealism that constituted the main characteristic of the Mannerist sculpture. Within the group of Mannerist sculptors, we must first mention the famous Benvenuto Cellini (3 November 1500-13 February 1571), swordsman and charlatan, whose autobiography represents one of the most entertained books of the time. In addition, he was the best sculptor of the Mannerist style, in which he excelled with one of his monumental works of sculpture: the Perseus. The Republic of Florence, after expelling the Medici, had placed in front of the Municipal Palace (Palazzo Vecchio) the group casted in bronze by Donatello: Judith and Holofernes. When the Medici returned, they replaced this republican Judith with Perseus, who defeats the female monster and raises his arm showing the people the head of the Medusa.
This bronze by Cellini is beautiful, elegant, gracefully raising the arm that holds the monster’s head. It is a work that posed great difficulty in casting, which already demonstrates the skill of the virtuoso in overcoming technical obstacles. Today we esteem Cellini more as a writer than as an artist, undoubtedly because of the hilarious things he told us about his adventurous life, but in addition to being a good sculptor, he was also a brilliant goldsmith. The pedestal of the Perseus, ornate with reliefs and figures, is a jewel of marble and bronze. It is in this last work and in his medals that Cellini must be admired as a goldsmith, since a great number of such works have been lost. Among those preserved, perhaps the first place is occupied by the famous salt cellar of Francis I of France (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), finished in 1543, work in gold and enamels, and whose lying figures of the Land and the Sea are visibly moved by ardent Michelangelesque inflections, as befits one of the most exquisite sculptors of the Mannerism. Another work by Cellini, made during his stay in Paris, is the famous bronze lunette with the Nymph of Fontainebleau, today in the Louvre, casted ca. 1543 for the door of the castle of Fontainebleau, but which in reality was used by Diane de Poitiers for the doors of her castle at Anet, which will be described in a later essay. Here, the long female figure, almost four meters in length, is simultaneously graceful and rounded, conforming to the Mannerist canon of feminine beauty. This beautiful nude is surrounded by the meticulous detailed definition of the water waves in the fountain and the animals’ hair, which recall the typical goldsmith style of its author.
In the last essay we mentioned that the sculptor Ammanati was present at Michelangelo’s funeral alongside Cellini. Bartolomeo Ammanati (18 June 1511-13 April 1592), who in his youth had been an assistant to Sansovino in the construction of the Marciana Library (“Library of St. Mark”) in Venice, left a true exaltation of the Mannerist dynamism in his Fountain of Neptune, in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. It is a pity that this fountain’s nervous accumulation of nymphs and fauns which twist their gleaming bronze muscles on the marble of the fountain in such an exciting way is crowned in the center by the excessively academic statue of Neptune carved in very white marble, to which the Florentines have always disparagingly called “il Biancone” (“the Big White”). The citizens of Florence disliked this figure so much that on the very day of its inauguration, in 1577, a mocking couplet became popular: Ammannato, Ammannato che bel marmo hai rovinato (“Ammannato, Ammannato, what a beautiful marble you have ruined”).
Giambologna, somewhat later than Cellini, was certainly a great sculptor, though more powerful. Born in Douai, Flanders (now in France), where he was born in 1529, he arrived in Italy in 1550 eager to get started in sculpture. He spent some time in Rome, and on his return he found a protector in Florence who made him stay and provided him with resources to continue studying. Jean de Boulogne then changed his name to a Italian “Giambologna”, and turned into a refined Florentine. His first important work was the Fountain of Neptune, in Bologna, made between 1563 and 1566, which was commissioned by Pope Pius IV. In this work it can already be seen that, together with the influences of Ammannati and Michelangelo (the latter being the most obvious), Giambologna showed a marked preference for graceful and delicately rounded shapes, which he must have learned while passing through France, from the mannerists artists of the Fontainebleau school: Francesco Primaticcio and Jean Goujon. Giambologna was also the author of the well-known Mercury flying, a figure launched in a vertical gesture with strength and lightness, despite its almost two meters height. In this figure reappears the same virtuosity showed in Cellini’s Perseus and it must have been a very difficult figure to cast, but it seems that this was a time when the artists felt pleasure of overcoming technical difficulties. Sometimes art, the aesthetic effect, was secondary; the main focus was to overcome the roughness of the materials, working with granite and hard stones or composing groups with intermingled figures. Such are the groups sculpted by Giambologna of Hercules taming the centaur Nessus, and above all, his famous Abduction of a Sabine Woman, completed in 1583. Both sculptural groups are still on public display today in the Loggia dei Lanzi, in Florence. The second sculpture, in which three human figures rise in space in an impressive movement in spiral, seems endowed with an irresistible centrifugal force towards infinity. Never has marble been thrown like this into the realm of fantasy and almost irrationalism. This audacious “serpentinata” spiral, poetically gesticulating, is already a prologue of Baroque art.
Giambologna was still living in 1605, but his workshop, turned into an export trade, was continued by a certain Antonio Alessi. We know the catalog of the bronzes that he offered to buyers. Some of their themes deserve to be noted: “Abduction of the Sabine Women”, “Hercules killing the centaurs”, “Centaur taking Dejanira”, “Horse killed by a lion”, “Bull killed by a tiger”, “Woman and a satyr”, “Mercury flying”, “Peasant with a lantern”, “Woman bathing”…, and as a religious matter we only see “a crucifix”.
The influential genius of Michelangelo, thus exaggerated with difficult casting techniques and complicated compositions, was predominant in sculpture throughout the 16th century. A certain Bernardino Campi published in 1584 his Parere supra la pittura (“Opinion on painting”), in which he advised painters to study by making drawings of sculptures rather than from the natural. This advice has survived to this day and plaster casts of Classical or Italian Renaissance sculptures have been drawn as a learning method of fine arts.