After Verrocchio and Luca della Robbia came a whole generation of sculptors all born approximately during the third decade of the 15th century, this generation has been called “the generation of grace”. These Florentine artists were characterized by a precious and elegant art and by a preoccupation for a purely formal beauty that led them to express almost a semi-abstract style. Three of these sculptors, all of them masters in the work of marble, were born in Settignano, a hill town outside Florence famous for its quarries and stone-cutters: Bernardo Rossellino, his younger brother Antonio and a friend, Desiderio. Above all, they executed monuments of vast ensembles almost filling entire chapels, such as those by Antonio Rossellino exemplified by the tomb of a Portuguese cardinal located in the church of San Miniato al Monte in Florence. Some other times, these monuments were located inside grandiose niches opened in the wall, like those in Santa Croce, one of them a work by Bernardo Rossellino and the other by Desiderio da Settignano, both commissioned as funerary monuments for the secretaries of the Republic of Florence, Leonardo Bruni and Carlo Marsuppini respectively.
Bernardo Rossellino (1409 – 1464), the oldest of these three artists, still showed the artistic robustness and sobriety of previous Tuscan sculptors. These features are obvious in his work for the Collegiate Church of Sant’Andrea in Empoli (see the “Annunciation”). In addition, he created the prototype of Renaissance tomb with a recumbent effigy lying over the sarcophagus and placed in a funerary chapel under an arch, this model is evident in his tomb for the historian and humanist scholar Leonardo Bruni (between 1444-1447).
Desiderio da Settignano (ca. 1428/1430-1464) showed influences of Donatello, but it is most likely that he received his training in the Florentine workshop run by Bernardo and Antonio Rossellino. Desiderio’s work, though, transformed the naturalism and accurate depiction of volumes inspired by the work of Donatello into a more subtle art made of soft allusions and brief highlights on the surface of the stone on which light seems to slip away showing the sensitivity to the tactile qualities of marble that Desiderio had. The tomb he executed for Carlo Marsuppini at Santa Croce in Florence, clearly follows the model of that made by his mentor Bernardo Rossellino in the same church, but this fidelity to a general scheme didn’t prevent him from moving away from this type by imprinting a new sensitivity to the sculptural forms. The typical morbid grace shown in the work by Desiderio da Settignano is best noticed in the series of his Madonnas (at the Bargello in Florence, at Galleria Sabauda in Turin, Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Philadelphia Museum of Art): they all try to search for maximum refinement and elegance as oppose to the harsh Florentine realism exhibited during the first half of the 15th century. The almost blurred forms on the surface of the relief’s plane, without contrasts of chiaroscuro, make the figures living in an artificial atmosphere, far from life’s reality and tending towards abstraction.
Antonio Rossellino (1427-1479), Bernardo’s brother and disciple, further accentuated the morbidity of the surfaces as well as the shine of the marble’s surface: he modeled the stone until almost producing the impression of wax and generated shining effects on the surface of his sculptures almost reaching “impressionist” appearances. In the tomb of the Cardinal of Portugal, in San Miniato al Monte, Antonio imposed this ornamental finesse on a grandiose chapel-sepulcher complex derived from the scheme created by his brother Bernardo (see above). Also a work by Antonio (in collaboration with Francesco Botticini) is a sculpture and tabernacle for St. Sebastian in the Collegiate Church of Sant’Andrea in Empoli, sculpted between 1475-1480.
For their compositions, these Florentine sculptors of the quattrocento preferred to divide the architectural elements into a multitude of friezes, cartouches* and boxes, which they decorated with curls of acanthus leaves, flower garlands, ovals and palmettes. On the tympana and pilasters, subdivided into squares, these artists represented angels or rather allegories, always in exaggeratedly flat reliefs. These Florentine sculptors of the quattrocento went to great lengths to infuse the reliefs with a feeling of light and color, and hardly raised shapes above the flat background of the reliefs. Many times they accentuated this effect by using a very discreet polychromy, with light touches of gold and blue, reinforcing lines or filling the backgrounds with a matte tone; but, other times, this was impossible and the backgrounds were completely invaded by the sfumato of the relief, the tufts of hair and the angels’ wings that filled the composition. Above all, Agostino di Duccio and Mino da Fiesole worked wonders in this kind of decoration; the reliefs by Agostino located in the Oratory of San Bernardino, in Perugia, and some of his panels with Virgins and angels happen to be among the most beautiful of the Tuscan decorative art. These two masters contributed to spreading outside Tuscany the principles of the decorative technique of the quattrocento. Agostino di Duccio, in addition to going to Perugia, also went to Rimini to collaborate in the decorative works for the Tempio Malatestiano. Mino da Fiesole, on the other hand, went to Rome and once there carved, in addition to the tomb of the Florentine Pope Pius II, the great mausoleum for Paul II, now destroyed, but of which precious fragments are conserved in the Vatican grottoes.
Perhaps between all the sculptors of the “generation of grace”, Agostino di Duccio (1418 – ca. 1481) was who best personified the transformation that Florentine sculpture underwent towards an abstract direction. He was heavily influenced by Donatello and Michelozzo. Modern critics have argued that Agostino practiced both a conscious development of the sculptural characteristics of the ancient medieval tradition and of those corresponding to the late Roman and Byzantine art of Ravenna. This thesis is convincing if we contemplate the extensive sculptural cycle that he developed, beginning in 1450, in the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini for which Duccio was responsible for most of the sculptural decoration, in which his figures of angels, substantially anticlassical and drawn with sinuous lines concerned with obtaining precious surfaces, heavily contrast against the hard and severely Roman intellectualism of Alberti’s architecture that we have described in a previous essay. The long relief frieze for the Oratory of San Bernardino, in Perugia, carved between 1457 and 1461, and his marble Madonnas (Louvre, Victoria and Albert Museum, Bargello in Florence) or in polychrome terracotta (Bargello in Florence) allow us to study this rethinking of the late Roman and early medieval forms, achieved through sinuous and extremely sharp linear rhythms, which give the works by Agostino di Duccio their inimitable charm.
Mino da Fiesole (ca. 1429- 11 July 1484), a disciple of Desiderio da Settignano, was characterized by his sharp, angular treatment of drapery, and his sculpture is remarkable for its finish and delicacy of details, as well as for its spirituality and strong devotional feeling. His forte was in the purely decorative ornamentation of his tombs, pulpits, and balustrades where he produced some admirable works. His cartouches and friezes with vine curls and fine palmettes in low relief produce a soft feeling that never tires. Mino carved the marble as if it were ivory, with such finesse that the stone sometimes looks like wax. The hands Mino carved, especially, are of exquisite beauty.
Bier: A movable stand on which a coffin or a corpse is placed before burial or cremation or on which it is carried to the grave.
Cartouche: An oval or oblong design with a slightly convex surface, typically edged with ornamental scrolls. It usually holds a painted or low-relief design.