THE GREAT TUSCAN SCULPTORS OF THE XV CENTURY IV. Bernardo and Antonio Rossellino, Desiderio da Settignano, Agostino di Duccio and Mino da Fiesole.

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).

Tomb of Leonardo Bruni, marble, by Bernardo Rossellino, between 1444-1447 (Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence). This funerary monument consists of a shallow wall niche framed by pilasters and topped by a semi-circular arch. The whole design suggests a triumphal arch. The sarcophagus is placed within the niche and it, in turn, supports a brocade-draped bier* upon which rests the deceased’s recumbent effigy holding his own work “History of the Florentine People” on his chest and wearing a laurel crown. A tondo with the Madonna and Child flanked by half-length angels is placed inside the semi-circular arch, while two large putti bearing Bruni’s coat-of-arms rest on top of the archivolt. An epitaph reads on the side of the sarcophagous, written by Carlo Marsuppini, the successor of Bruni in public offices and also buried in Santa Croce, across from the tomb of Bruni. Thanks to its sense of unity, this tomb represented the “standard” upon which so many subsequent later Renaissance 15th century tombs were based.

The Virgin Annunciate and the Archangel Gabriel, marble, by Bernardo Rossellino, 1444 (Church of St. Stefano, Empoli, Italy). These altar figures are part of the oratory of the Annunciation in the church of St. Stefano. In these two sculptures, Bernardo was influenced by the sculptural styles of Donatello, Ghiberti, and Michelozzo.

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.

Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini, white and colored marble, by Desiderio da Settignano, between 1453-1464 (Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence). Desiderio’s design for this tomb was based in that of Leonardo Bruni’s Tomb by Bernardo Rossellino (see picture above). This seems quite appropriate since Marsuppini had succeeded Bruni in the position of Florentine State Chancellor and had been mentored by him just as Desiderio had received his training from Bernardo Rossellino. Desiderio’s architectural composition also includes the motif of the triumphal arch containing a sarcophagus and an effigy bier but expanded on the decorative elements, even the epitaph is here longer and more laudatory than in Bruni’s tomb. In this tomb, Desiderio placed standing putti holding heraldic shields on either side of the sarcophagus, draped long festoons from an ornate candelabra which surmounts the semi-circular arch, and positioned a decorative frieze running above the pilasters which frame the funeral niche. In the niche itself he ignored the symbolism of the Trinity (clear in Bruni’s tomb) by using four instead of three panels as the background for the sarcophagus. To increase the visibility of the deceased, Desiderio tilted Marsuppini’s effigy forward toward the viewer and carved elaborate floral decorations on the rounded corners of the lion-footed sarcophagus. The decorative motifs used are all inspired in Classical art. Desiderio’s technique defies the marble and resembles wax, glowing like illuminated alabaster.
Some reliefs of Madonnas by Desiderio da Settignano: Top left: Panciatichi Madonna, marble, 1460 (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). The relief’s name relates to the place in which it was located before it was stored in the Bargello: a baroque tabernacle on the corner of the Palazzo Panciatichi on the Via Cavour in Florence. Top right: Virgin and Child, marble, ca. 1450 (Galleria Sabauda, Turin). In this relief, Desiderio employed the schiacciato relief (flattened relief) approach that Donatello invented, but his language was more refined and less connected with classical antiquity. Bottom left: Virgin and child, marble, ca. 1460 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). This is also an example of “schiacciato” relief. Bottom right: The Foulc Madonna, marble, ca. 1460 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, U.S.A.).

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.

Tomb of the Cardinal of Portugal (Infante James of Coimbra), white and colored marble with traces of polychromy and gold, by Antonio Rossellino, between 1461-1466
(Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, Florence).
Saint Sebastian, marble, by Antonio Rossellino in collaboration with Francesco Botticini, between 1475-1480 (Collegiate Museum of the Church of St. Stefano, Empoli, Italy). St. Sebastian’s twisted body probably derives from a Hellenistic model, and shows both the high technique achieved by Antonio in giving marble the most sophisticated effects of luminosity, and his remarkable mastery in rendering the human anatomy, a character that distinguished him from his brother Bernardo’s work.

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.

The Moon, marble, by Agostino di Duccio, ca. 1456 (Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini). The decorations of the Cappella dei Planeti (Chapel of the Planets) include reliefs representing the 12 signs of the Zodiac and the 7 planets (in the 15th century the Sun and the Moon were thought to belong to the planets).
Allegory, marble decorative relief in the chapel of St. Sismondo, by Agostino di Duccio (Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini).
Some decorative reliefs with Musician Angels in marble by Agostino di Duccio carved between 1450-1455 for the Chapel of the Angels (Chapel of Isotta) in the Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini. In these angelic figures for the Tempio Malatestiano, Agostino di Duccio created a highly personal style where figures are delineated within swinging linear and volumetric masses that spread out over the surface of the relief.
The facade of the Oratory of Saint Bernardino of Perugia (Italy) is notable for its multi-colored reliefs by Agostino di Duccio carved between 1457-1461. The general composition includes reliefs depicting scenes from the life of St. Bernardino of Siena (to whom the Oratory is dedicated) and figures of the Annunciation and of the patron saints of Perugia placed inside tabernacles (these last not by Duccio). Most of the work on the facade though is attributed to Agostino himself: the relief in the lunette over the doors, depicts St. Bernardino in Glory with musical angels, the fine frieze running above the double portal includes an interesting relief of St. Bernardino’s “bonfire of the vanities” (see picture below) with the signature of Agostino below it.
One of Agostino di Duccio’s decorative reliefs for the facade of the Oratory of St. Bernardino in Perugia (see picture above).
The frieze above the doors of the Oratory of Saint Bernardino in Perugia by Agostino di Duccio, it represents Bernardino of Siena organizing the vanities bonfire.
Some examples of Madonnas by Agostino di Duccio. Top left: Virgin and Child between four angels (also known as “Madonna d’Auvillers”), marble, ca. 1464-1469 (Museé du Louvre, Paris). Top center: Virgin and Child with five Angels, marble, ca. 1450-1460, the style of this relief resembles those by Duccio’s executed for the Tempio Malatestiano at Rimini (see pictures above) (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). Bottom left: Madonna del Carmine, marble (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). Bottom center: Madonna and child with Angels, relief in polychromed terracotta, around 1465-1480 (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence). Right: Madonna and Child between two angels, marble, 15th century (Museé du Louvre, Paris).

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.

Fragment of the Sarcophagus of Pope Paul II, in part by Mino da Fiesole (Vatican Grottoes, Saint Peter’s Basilica). The recumbent effigy was sculpted by Giovanni Dalmata, the decorative figures and bas-reliefs by Mino da Fiesole.
Tomb of Ugo, count of Tuscany, marble and porphyry, by Mino da Fiesole, finished in 1481 (Abbey and Church of Badia Fiorentina, Florence, Italy).
Decorative details (angel, rosettes, palmette and flower vase frieze) of the Tomb of count Hugo of Tuscany (see above) so characteristic of Mino da Fiesole’s work.
Pulpit with decorative panels, marble, by Antonio Rossellino and Mino da Fiesole, between 1469-1473 (Prato Cathedral, Prato, Tuscany, Central Italy). The parapet includes reliefs by Antonio Rossellino, portraying the Assumption and the Stories of St. Stephen, and by Mino da Fiesole, portraying the Stories of St. John the Baptist. The base is decorated with sphinxes.
Virgin Annunciate (?, St. Catherine of Siena?), polychrome stucco, by Mino da Fiesole, 15th century (Musée du Louvre, Paris).


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.