Italian Mannerist sculpture

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.

Perseus with the Head of Medusa, bronze, by Benvenuto Cellini, 1545-1554, 550 cm height (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence). This bronze, which is one of the most celebrated of the Renaissance for its great size and difficulty in casting, is responsible for Cellini’s posthumous fame, which is largely linked to this statue and to the passionate description of its casting that appeared in Vasari’s Vita. Vasari’s description of Perseus’ casting process makes it one of the best-documented sculptures of the Italian Renaissance. This masterpiece in bronze was sculpted for the Loggia dei Lanzi and has stood there ever since. The second Florentine duke, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, commissioned the work with specific political connections to the other sculptural works then located in the Piazza della Signoria (Michelangelo’s David, Donatello’s Judith and Holofernes, and Bandinelli’s Hercules and Cacus). The sculpture consists of the figure of Perseus, standing triumphant and holding the head of Medusa aloft; the Gorgon’s decapitated body lies on the base, which is raised on a marble pedestal. Perseus stands naked except for a sash and winged sandals, triumphant on top of the body of Medusa. Blood spews from Medusa’s severed neck. Perseus’ bronze sculpture, in which Medusa’s head turns men to stone, was appropriately surrounded by three huge marble statues of men: Hercules, David, and later Neptune (Ammanati’s Fountain, see picture below). The politics of the Medici and Florence dominate the Piazza della Signoria: every sculpture in the piazza can be seen as politically or artistically related to one another and to the Medici. At the time Perseus was created, bronze had not been used in almost half a century for a monumental work of art. The most difficult part was to complete the entire cast all at once, since the sculpture has so many details and protruding parts. For example, Donatello’s Judith had been cast in bronze, but in several sections joined together.
Perseus with the Head of Medusa (detail), bronze, by Benvenuto Cellini, 1545-1554 (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence). Examining the sculpture from the back, one can see a self-portrait of Cellini on the back of Perseus’ helmet. Perseus was one of Cellini’s crowning works, completed with two different ideas in mind. First, he wanted to respond to the sculptures already placed within the piazza, with the subject matter of Medusa reducing men to stone, and thus subduing the surrounding marbles to Perseus. Secondly, the Medici were represented by Perseus, both in the round sculpture and in the relief of the pedestal below.

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.

Perseus with the Head of Medusa (detail of the pedestal), bronze, by Benvenuto Cellini, 1545-1554 (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence). Perseus is thought to be the first statue since the classical age where the base included a figurative sculpture forming an integral part of the work. Cellini was the first to integrate narrative relief into the sculpture of the piazza. From 1548 Cellini was working on the elaborately carved marble base with its four bronze statuettes and relief. This marble pedestal, a kind of Mannerist reinterpretation of an antique altar, is decorated on each of the sides with hollowed niches in which stand bronze statuettes of characters related to the myth of Perseus: Mercury, Danaë (mother of Perseus), Jupiter and Minerva. The modelling of these bronze statuettes on the marble base is so exquisitely done that it suggests the precision of a goldsmith.
Salt Cellar, gold, enamel and ebony, by Benvenuto Cellini, 1540-1543, 26 x 33,5 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). This cellar is the only remaining work of precious metal which can be reliably attributed to Cellini. Cellini’s gold and enamel container for salt and pepper is the most famous example of Mannerist goldsmithery. Cellini worked in the service of François I from 1537 until 1545, and it was under his patronage in Paris that he made his first sculptures. This lavish item of tableware is a sculptural group in miniature and allegorically portrays Terra e Mare (Land and Sea). Two figures, a male and a female, recline upon an ornate base. She is the goddess of earth, he is Neptune, god of the sea. Below them are carved personifications of the times of the day and the four winds, and beside them sit two beautifully wrought receptacles: a miniature temple to house earth’s peppercorns, and a boat to carry Neptune’s salt. The intertwining of the figures and forms is typical of Mannerism, as are the slender proportions of the female figure, the rich materials, and the virtuosity of detail and execution. Several motifs refer to the king of France, including the lilies on the cloth below Land, an an elephant, and a salamander, François I’s personal emblem.
Salt Cellar, gold, enamel and ebony, by Benvenuto Cellini, 1540-1543, 26 x 33,5 cm (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). To create this piece, Cellini didn’t cast the gold in a mold but rather hammered it by hand into its delicate shape. In this work, Cellini imparted the monumentality of sculpture to a goldsmith’s design. The salt was offered in a boat placed by the side of Sea, while pepper was served in a covered triumphal arch placed beside Land. The cellar’s iconography reads like a program for sculpture: the goddess of earth, holding her breast and a cornucopia to signify her nutritive powers, is flanked by a miniature Ionic temple for pepper corns. The god of the sea (Neptune), with trident and shell chariot, is flanked by a boat for salt. The elaborate ebony base is decorated with cartouches of reclining figures. They represent the four times of day alternating with four winds of each season. The figures of the Times of Day placed on the base were inspired by Michelangelo’s figures at the Medici Chapel.
Nymph of Fontainebleau, bronze, by Benvenuto Cellini, 1542-1543, 205 x 409 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). The first surviving monumental piece by Cellini, and his first large scale bronze casting, is this bronze lunette for the Porte Dorée (“Golden Gate”) at the Château de Fontainebleau. The relief illustrates a variant of the legend of Fontainebleau, a hunting dog discovered a spring and its goddess in the forest. A nymph reclines like a Classical river god (her arm round the stag with a three-dimensional head) flanked by hunting dogs and boars. Her elongated form, against a foil of intricate details, demonstrates Cellini’s Mannerist tendencies. This lunette was never installed in its original destination (the Château de Fontainebleau), but instead was placed above the entrance gate of the Château d’Anet, where the nymph became identified with Diana, the goddess of the hunt, representing the owner of the château, Diane de Poitiers, and the stag was identified with her lover Henri II of France.
Nymph of Fontainebleau (detail), bronze, by Benvenuto Cellini, 1542-1543, 205 x 409 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Details of deer, boars, and a bunny show the intricate work on the bronze to produce tri-dimensionality and the appearance of fur and the background landscape masterfully worked by Cellini. The head of two boars on the left of the composition are derived from the Hellenistic statue of a boar, a copy of which was given by Pope Paul IV to Cosimo I de’ Medici, now kept at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
A current view of the entrance gates of the Château d’Anet (France) showing the location of the Nymph of Fontainebleau decorative lunette on a tympanum above the entrance doors. The actual lunette is a painted plaster cast replica of the original bronze which is now kept at the Louvre in Paris.

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”).

Fountain of Neptune, marble and bronze, created by Bartolomeo Ammanati (fountain originally designed by Baccio Bandinelli, Ammanati’s teacher), 1560-1574 (Piazza della Signoria, Florence). Ammanati’s best-known sculpture is the Fountain of Neptune in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence. The central figure was carved out of a colossal block of marble that had been begun by Bandinelli before his death in 1560. Consequently (by general consent) the Neptune isn’t quite harmonious with the figurative program of the rest of the fountain. The central colossal figure of Neptune is surrounded by a number of bronze figures, placed around the fountain’s octagonal basin, representing four recumbent deities and a troop of gesticulating fauns and satyrs, these are mostly by Ammanati, Vincenzo de Rossi and Giambologna, followers of Michelangelo. Sea-horses emerged from the foam in the center of the fountain. The combination of both materials, bronze and marble, makes a brilliant contrast beneath the shimmering water. The fountain was unveiled in 1565 on the occasion of the marriage between Francesco I de’ Medici and Joanna of Austria and was commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici. Neptune is presented as a civic protector, alluding to Cosimo’s efforts to increase the water supply in the city and to establish a viable port at Livorno. All future fountains, whether Mannerist or Baroque, looked to this piece as their inspiration and point of reference.
Fountain of Neptune (detail), marble and bronze, created by Bartolomeo Ammanati, 1560-1574 (Piazza della Signoria, Florence). The figure of Neptune stands on a sea-shell chariot, pulled by four horses rising out of the water, Neptune carries a general baton symbolizing his role as a ruler and alluding to the patron who commissioned the fountain, Cosimo I de’ Medici. On Neptune’s chariot ‘wheels’ are engraved Zodiac signs that seem to follow a traditional pattern starting with Aries and ending with Virgo; though the depiction of Virgo doesn’t follow a traditional representation of Virgo as Virgin, but instead depicts her as a bride with a unicorn seated on her lap. The combination of these two unusual elements probably alludes to biblical symbolism: these two figures are anointing this fountaining as a baptistry and proclaiming the water’s purity.
Fountain of Neptune (detail), marble and bronze, created by Bartolomeo Ammanati, 1560-1574 (Piazza della Signoria, Florence). More appreciated than the central figure of Neptune are the surrounding bronze figures of four recumbent deities and gesticulating fauns and satyrs. The general design and character of these figures, as well as an allegorical female nude statuette personifying Ops (see picture), a fertility deity (casted between 1572 and 1573), show Ammanati’s focus on grace of form and movement at the expense of emotion in a way that was typical of Mannerism.

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.

Fountain of Neptune, bronze and marble, by Giambologna, 1563-1566, 335 cm (central figure) (Piazza Maggiore, Bologna). This decorative fountain erected on the main square in Bologna was the first major work of Giambologna. The construction of the fountain was commissioned by the Cardinal Legate Charles Borromeo, to commemorate the recent election of Borromeo’s uncle as Pope Pius IV. Three years after the competition for the Fountain of Neptune in Florence (see pictures before), the authorities in Bologna approached Giambologna to make a statue of Neptune and many subsidiary figures and ornaments for a fountain designed by Tommaso Laureti that they were erecting in the center of their city. With a vertical rather than horizontal emphasis, the format of this fountain is pyramidal and architectonic. At the feet of Neptune are four boys (cherubs) struggling with dolphins, which spout water, interspersed with grotesquely puffing heads of childlike wind-gods, also spouting water. At the four corners of the pedestal below are four sensuous figures of Sirens (Nereids), with bulbous curving fishy tails for legs, expelling water from their full breasts into the basin below. In between are many grotesque masks, pontifical crests and shells articulating the several smaller basins.
Fountain of Neptune (detail), bronze and marble, by Giambologna, 1563-1566, 335 cm (central figure) (Piazza Maggiore, Bologna). In this public work, Giambologna was able to give rein to his imagination and high sense of composition in the mighty figure of Neptune itself, with its energetic pose and sharp turn of the head. At the feet of Neptune, on the pedestal, are four boys struggling with dolphins, which spout water, interspersed with grotesquely puffing heads of childlike wind-gods, also spouting water. The fantastic lower figures of the Nereids (see picture below) allow the viewer’s eyes to ascend to the Neptune, silhouetted against the sky depicted in a striding pose and holding his characteristic trident. This statue of Neptune is a typical expression of manneristic theatricality: he stretches his left hand in a lordly gesture, appearing to be aiming to placate the waves. This posture is interpreted as symbolic exaltation of the new power of the Pope Pius IV: just as Neptune was the master of the seas, the Pope was the master of Bologna and of the world. The trident held by Neptune inspired and was used by the Maserati brothers as emblem for their first car, the Maserati Tipo 26. This is still today the logo of the Maserati car company.
Fountain of Neptune (detail), bronze and marble, by Giambologna, 1563-1566, 335 cm (central figure) (Piazza Maggiore, Bologna). This detail shows one of the corners of the pedestal with a sensuous figure of a Nereid (or Siren), with bulbous curving fishy tails for legs, expelling water from her full breasts into the basin.
Fountain of Neptune (detail), bronze and marble, by Giambologna, 1563-1566, 335 cm (central figure) (Piazza Maggiore, Bologna). At the feet of Neptune are four boys struggling with dolphins, which spout water, interspersed with grotesquely puffing heads of childlike wind-gods, which also spout water. The dolphins are allegorical representations of major rivers from the then-known corners of the world: the Ganges, the Nile, the Amazon River, and the Danube.

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”.

Flying Mercury, bronze, by Giambologna, 1580, 180 cm height (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). The most celebrated bronze sculpture by Giambologna is the Mercury, known in four versions whose chronology is uncertain. The fourth version (pictured here) became a fountain figure at the Villa Medici in Rome. Mercury balances on a bronze column of air issuing from the mouth of the wind god Zephyr, over which flowed water, increasing the illusion that Mercury was floating. This work shows a study of Verrocchio’s Putto with Dolphin, and is as well indebted to the Mercury on the base of Cellini’s Perseus (see pictures above) but shows more dynamism. The god assumes an arabesque pose, precariously balancing on his toes, while with his right hand he points upward to Jupiter. The bronze is Mannerist in that it can be appreciated from all angles and its forms are elongated and elegant; yet these features contrast with its amazing physicality and an evident study of weights and balances.
Hercules and the Centaur, marble, by Giambologna, 1600, 269 cm height (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence). The proto-Baroque tendencies of the late style of the Mannerist sculptor Giambologna are strongly apparent in this work. His movement away from the grace and elegance of the mannerist style and into the realism of the Early Baroque is seen in this group. Here, Giambologna shows as in a theatrical and tragic pose, the episode of Classical mythology in which Hercules kills the powerful centaur Nessus, whose tainted blood in turn killed Hercules.

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.

Abduction of a Sabine Woman, marble, by Giambologna, 1579-1583, 410 cm height (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence). Giambologna intended to surpass antiquity by sculpting a large group from a single block of marble that also involved a complicated lift. The result is the first sculpture with no principal viewpoints, it forms a spiral that is the culmination of the “figura serpentinata“. Giambologna’s great masterpiece, the Abduction of a Sabine Woman, represented the climax of his career as a sculptor, combining three figures into a cohesive group, an idea that had obsessed Michelangelo. This great marble was unveiled in the Loggia dei Lanzi in January 1583 in place of Donatello’s Judith. The three figures are linked psychologically by the directions of their glances, as well as formally by the arrangement of their limbs and bodies. The spiral composition means that the group cannot be fully observed from any single viewpoint. Technically, the sculpture is a masterpiece of virtuosity, pushing to its furthest limits the technique of undercutting, which Giambologna had studied in Hellenistic carvings. The sculpture depicts three nude figures: a young man in the center who has seemingly taken a woman from a despairing older man below him. The scene could be based on the rape of the Sabine Women incident from the early history of Rome when the city contained relatively few women, leading to their men committing a raptio (ancient classical Roman term meaning “large-scale abduction”) of young women from nearby towns and cities.
Abduction of a Sabine Woman, marble, by Giambologna, 1579-1583, 410 cm height (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence). Giambologna intended to surpass antiquity by sculpting a large group from a single block of white marble, which became the largest block ever transported to Florence. The result is the first sculpture with no principal viewpoints, it forms a spiral that is the culmination of the “figura serpentinata“. His chief interest lay in the energy of the spiral movement and the vitality of the male and female figures, and he succeeded so well in their rendition that Baroque sculptors, particularly Bernini, were deeply influenced by this work. Since the sculpture was conceived without a dominant viewpoint, it gives a different view depending on which angle it is seen from. For example, the three figures’ heads are at opposites regardless of view point; in particular the old man seems is always turned away from the woman, as he realizes he has lost her to the aggressor.
Abduction of a Sabine Woman (detail of the relief of the pedestal), bronze, by Giambologna, 1579-1583 (Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence). After Giambologna finished the sculpture and the subject of the Rape of the Sabines was decided on, it became necessary to clearly stated it somewhere in the final work (Giambologna was more interested in technique and sculptural form than story-telling, and typically named his works only late in their completion). With this in mind, Giambologna made for the pedestal a bronze relief (corresponding with the relief beneath Cellini’s Perseus, see pictures before), which depicts (and hence clarifies) the episode of the Abduction of the Sabines and thus removed ambiguity when deciphering the sculpture’s subject; thus, this bronze relief acted as a sort of visual label. In style the relief conforms to the great marble group above: the figures in this relief are breaking up into lucid, self-consistent units, each with a drama of its own, the foreground figures are modelled almost in the round. The pedestal also contains a bas-relief inscription OPVS IOANNIS BOLONII FLANDRI MDLXXXII (“The work of Johannes of Boulogne of Flanders, 1582”). Compare the similarities of this relief (volume treatment and perspective) with those on the “Gates of Paradise” by Lorenzo Ghiberti finished 131 years before.