Baccio Bandinelli. Paintings and drawings from the Louvre

Baccio Bandinelli. Peintures et dessins du Louvre.
Paris, Musée du Louvre, du 21 février au 26 mai 2008

Only a few weeks after the exhibition on Polidoro da Caravaggio’s drawings ended, the Louvre is opening a new presentation of an Italian Renaissance master who was just as “fascinating but difficult”, to use Carel van Tuyl’s very accurate expression in his remarkable introductory essay for the catalogue. The museum has indeed decided to honor Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560), often relegated to the background of a Florentine stage dominated by Pontormo and Cellini. And although he was commended by Vasari when visiting his workshop, art historians since then have based their judgment on a quid pro quo. By defining him in relation to Michelangelo, the critics unfortunately turned him into his rival, an awkward follower, a pale reflection of the “divine” genius. Understandably, the exhibition’s aim is to distill this misconception [1], by showing the importance and originality of a master of disegno, sculptor and painter, protected by the Medicis throughout his career.

1. Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560)
Portrait of a woman known as Jacopa Doni
Red chalk - 24.2 x18.9 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN - Thierry Le Mage

Still, it would be wise to keep from judging him too enthusiastically and acknowledge Michelangelo’s influence on the young Baccio who, during his stay in Rome, learned how to execute the virile nudes by studying the ignudi in the Sistine Chapel. Bandinelli’s open homage however quickly turned antagonistic politically – Baccio accompanied the Medicis during their exile in 1527, whereas Michelangelo sided with the Republic of Florence – as well as aesthetically. Often a source of misunderstanding, the colossal Hercules and Cacus by Bandinelli, who won out over Michelangelo for the commission, was in fact designed to stand alongside the David on the Piazza della Signoria ; but this inevitable comparison was not in Bandinelli’s favor who could in no way rival in mastery with the David, much less surpass it. This public failure had two negative consequences : the marble colossus remained his most famous work, overshadowing the rest of his production, and it was also considered as representative of his art as a whole [2]. The drawings and sculptures at the Louvre attempt to revise this limited interpretation while also revealing the artist’s career through the museum’s holdings, a welcome move as there are very few studies on Bandinelli and still no catalogue raisonné. The Louvre can boast of being one of the rare institutions to have ever staged an exhibition on Bandinelli, almost twenty years after the Cambridge show on his drawings in British collections [3].

2. Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560)
Male Nude
Red chalk -
42.7 x 29 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN - Thierry Le Mage

His early work with the usual references to Florence, normal at the beginning of the XVIth century, is not really surprising : antique sculpture, more especially Hellenistic in Baccio’s case, and the local masters. The ambivalence of the models, ancient and modern, partly explains why two distinct styles coexisted when he started out. Thus, he adopts a first manner after Vinci, which can be seen in the Portrait of a Woman (ill. 1), a beautiful red-chalk sheet where the lost look and the strange smile recall the cartoon for the Great Saint Anne, exhibited shortly before this drawing was executed. Bandinelli’s contacts with Leonardo seem to have been indirect though ; he trained mostly among sculptors and silversmiths, probably under Rustici. This is revealed in the other graphic tendency of 1500-1510, which will exert the greatest influence on his artistic career, and which is turned towards the lessons of the Quattrocento : favoring a sculptural grasp of drawing, it is inspired by the sweet Florentine madonnas with fluid drapery and emphatic volumes, as well as an expressionism a la Donatello, omnipresent in the variations of the Laying in the Tomb, either by the pathos of the subject, the characters’ exacerbated grief or the very tactile aspects that evoke the sculpted reliefs. All of these searches in which Bandinelli varies the conception of human figures and the use of techniques find their accomplishment in a series of red-chalk drawings for the preparation of the Massacre of the Innocents. This complex composition, engraved in the early 1520’s, enabled Baccio to work with masculine nudes. With these large virile figures, spread over the whole page, Bandinelli reveals his virtuosity in creating postures to describe the soul’s movements. Each of the drawings, including one which was just reattributed recently [4] (ill. 2), constitutes a perfect example of balance in the study of “heroic” anatomy and the light that flows over the muscular bodies, but not overly so.
One should notice that the draughtsman does only one motif per sheet, unlike his fellow artists who “scribble” several sketches on the same piece. Baccio will always remain faithful to his method, even if it meant reworking the same motif throughout a whole series of drawings, each similar to the next. This might reflect a particular concept of varietas, the infinite revisiting of a motif, or else the artist’s wish to treat each of his drawings as individual creations.

Baccio’s ability to interpret human passion was applied in the same way to marble, at least if one considers the badly damaged Mercury as his. The statue was kept in storage in the Louvre for many years. It had been offered in 1530 to Francois I instead of the copy of the Laocoon by Bandinelli that had in fact been meant for him [5]. Seen under full light, the Mercury is at its best rather than on the dark landing of the Mollien staircase where it is usually displayed and here the eye readily admits the possibility of Bandinelli’s handiwork. One finds the same formal qualities as in the Orpheus produced a few years earlier for the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi : the sweetness of the contours, the gracious limbs, the synuous rhythms, that make Bandinelli a refined interpreter of Hellenistic sculpture. The influence of Antiquity is not only plastic, but also conceptual : Mercury’s exalted look should be seen in the light of the Neo-platonic doctrines on ecstasy, just like the drunkenness of Michelangelo’s Bacchus. A victim of the elements and oblivion, the marble no longer reveals the same subtle matter as in the XVIth century. But at least it did not suffer the tragic fate of another Italian statue offered to the French king, a Hercules by Michelangelo, which “disappeared” at Fontainebleau in the XVIIIth century…

Bandinelli’s ties to the dominant artistic figure in central Italy are never really forgotten, but are reinterpreted here more pertinently than before in art history. This relationship is at the heart of a debate concerning the attribution of a drawing and a painting at the Louvre, two almost identical portraits by Michelangelo. The drawing is absolutely fascinating because of its current condition : severely disfigured, the sheet reveals a ghostly face darkened by a sfumato. This involuntary effect almost recalls the self-portrait lacerated onto Saint Bartholomew’s skin in the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. The painted portrait seems less spectacular by comparison but reveals the same arrangement, a bust in three-quarter view, as the drawing. The curators of the exhibition have put forth the interesting hypothesis that they may be by the same artist, although conceding that the Bandinelli attribution is far from certain. In its ruined condition, the drawing does not have the same luminous qualities as the other sheets on display, and as for the painting, it is difficult to incorporate it into Bandinelli’s painted works since these are still not sufficiently well established [6]. The name of Daniele da Volterra which has been suggested for both of these portraits seems more acceptable to us for reasons of style and personal connections.

3. Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560)
Head of a Bearded Man : Hercules, c. 1525-1534
Pen and brown ink - 21.4 x 17 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN - Thierry Le Mage

A protégé of the Medicis, especially Cosimo I, Bandinelli continuously received commissions in which to unfold the intellectual and graphic qualities of his disegno. The studies for the Hercules of the famous group in the Piazza della Signoria (1526-1534) detail his creative process, apart from the obstacles related to the final execution. Drawn in pen, the head of the demigod (ill. 3) stands out both by the well-defined conception of the future sculpture (thick hair and beard, the distribution of the light on the stone) and a realistic attention to the expression of the face, shaped by the hero’s physical effort and not idealized. As for the full study for the same figure [7], in red chalk, it is only one stage in the development of the whole group, produced in order to study the right position for the protagonist when seen without Cacus. But by limiting his rivalry to Michelangelo to the plastic expression of terribilita, Bandinelli comes close to a pastiche : massive muscles that are almost too heavy, imperturbable immobility, absolute frontal attitude. These are the same mistakes that reappear in the marble group, coldly welcomed by the Florentines who criticized it severely and ridiculed it in sonnets. He was never forgiven for so awkwardly symbolizing the power of the Tuscan city.

Surely, Baccio was more comfortable in complex compositions demanding less precision to detail. But this talent was not really appreciated and many of his projects were never completed, or remained simple sketches. This is the case for two large religious scenes, the Resurrection of Lazarus and the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, part of a fresco commissioned by Pope Clement VII for a San Lorenzo Chapel and never painted by Bandinelli. There are also ambitious drawings in which a crowd of people stand within a vast architectural space, never neglecting the visibility of the central action. These large works on paper, with a perfect mastery of figures in space, prove that Bandinelli not only looked at Michelangelo’s work in the Vatican, but also that of Raphael and his workshop in the stanze : besides the spatial model, here and there one can discern traces of the Signature Chamber or that of Heliodorus. Along with these major references to the Classical Art in central Italy, Bandinelli also adds Mannerist scenography : the architecture from Antiquity in the background with a strong symmetrical axis, the effects of openings and the play on spatial planes, reflect a concern for dramatical theatrics, a precursor to the tragic scene from the second book on perspective from Serlio’s treatise. Had Bandinelli painted the frescoes, they would probably have been highly successful ; as it is, the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence was striking enough to have been engraved early on and then enjoyed a certain following in the fresco by Bronzino on the same subject for…the San Lorenzo Chapel.

During the short period of disgrace endured by the Medicis from 1527 to 1529, Bandinelli left Tuscany to work for another powerful family in Genoa. In this maritime city, Andrea Doria offered him the opportunity to execute a monument celebrating his military genius by which he defeated the Turks and gained the attention of Charles V. Wishing to have a tribute worthy of his feats, the admiral called on Bandinelli to design a complex work, combining reliefs and full-standing statues on several levels. The ensemble studies and the sketches for details on the monument correspond to the patron’s ambition : Bandinelli blends allegory and personifications in illustrating the eminent Genoese’s glorious feats, all within a framework of Antique architecture adapted to the circumstances – improbable fantastic figures evoking the world of the seas, friezes of shells, and sailing vessels. Some motifs seem to play only a decorative role, but others bring to life in inventive ways Andrea Doria’s wishes, such as the Atlantes in chains a reference to the defeated. Ingeniously spread throughout the monument, this ornamental vocabulary narrates different moments of Andrea Doria’s glorious naval career, each one an apotheosis. As for the naval battle imagined in the most accomplished of the sheets here, as concise as it is expressive, its composition announces the representations of the battle of Lepanto. Alas, what was to be a sculpted ode of glory was never completed and the stiff statue of Andrea Doria as Neptune, a pale reflection in stone of the works on paper, is only a décor for a fountain in Carrara…

4. Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560)
The Annunciation
Pen and brown ink – 25 x 40.3 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN - Thierry Le Mage

Few sculptures have come down to us from the stay in Genoa. Even the Descent from the Cross, of which the first cast was offered as a gift in 1529 to Charles V on his trip to the city, is only a posthumous version, perhaps from 1600. Nonetheless, it is one of Bandinelli’s masterpieces, excelling in relief art. Although the plaque is not very thick, the sculptor executed a remarkable work in its fluid and rhythmic treatment in the great Florentine tradition since Donatello. Extremely expressive, this representation of the Passion avoids a saturation of the figures by scattering them subtly in a space where the planes are distinct – the crucified victims, the stunned crowd, the grieving relatives – depending on the position and identity of each one. Moreover, this Descent from the Cross corresponds to the pious demands of religious fervor imposed by the Catholic monarch : this support for personal devotion, a figurative response to the new ideas espoused by the Counter-Reformation, accents the pathos of Christ’s death by the varying attitudes of dismay at the dramatic events. Some of the drawings take up this elaborated interpretation of biblical themes, notably an Annunciation (ill. 4) that multiplies the characters surrounding the traditional group of two. This original manner of treating the subject is perhaps the result of a mystical reflection on the revelation of Christ, during times of much speculation and interrogation concerning the foundation of Christian dogma.

Once the Medicis returned to favor in Florence, Bandinelli practically never left his native city again, and if so only to respond to prestigious commissions in the Eternal City. There is good reason to think that a drawing for a papal mausoleum is a first draft for the tomb of Clement VII, commissioned in 1536 for the Roman church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Despite the major differences between the design and the execution, the style of the sheet refers to these years, whereas the final formula, with its ornaments and different levels, follows some of the same inspiration as the Doria monument. The analogy with the tomb of Julius II is not to be overlooked, although the number of planned states is significantly different : like Michelangelo, Bandinelli first imagined a series of richly ornamented levels, dominated by the vigorous statue of the sovereign pontiff. In the end though, he carried out a more measured ensemble, in the shape of an arch of triumph against the church wall. On paper, the artistic creation projects a feeling of power : at the base, a pair of caryatides frames a dynamic Lamentation over the Dead Christ, in deep contrast to the pope’s haughty likeness.
The most original element, however, is the decorative use of bones to emphasize the transition between the two levels, a reminder that this monument of strong commemorative overtones is above all funerary. Death is no longer eluded, it is suggested, with the almost playful evocation toning down its tragic dimension. In the macabre play of the skull that surmounts the backbone, there is a forewarning of Ligozzi’s cartouches.

Bandinelli’s style became in fact more psychological, in order to better respond to the demands of the generous Cosimo I de Medici, his principal patron at the end of his artistic career. Cosimo’s allegorical representation as Hercules holding the golden apples represent the good deeds of his governance and becomes thus a homage to the great protector of the arts. This heroic portrait rejects the force of the group of Hercules and Cacus and instead opts for a peaceful vision of the mythological figure. In just a few years, the treatment of the anatomy has undergone a radical change, sacrificing its expressive potential for the ideal balance of a perfect body. The drawing might almost be mistaken for a simple copy from antiquity, except that Cosimo’s likeness is recognizable in his serene and confident look. The personification of the State is attained through the projection of “tranquil force” in a style by which Bandinelli has managed to unite a Classicism inspired from Antiquity and a form of realism in the hero’s features.

6. Baccio Bandinelli (1493-1560)
Christ of Sorrow
Pen and brown ink - 27.9 x 39.7 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Photo : RMN - Thierry Le Mage

In 1547, Cosimo entrusted Bandinelli with one of his last major projects, the decoration for the enclosure of the choir in Santa Maria del Fiore. Based on the Old Testament, the program was prepared by a series of fully accomplished drawings, among some of the artist’s best, but also some of his most somber and violent. In Cain Condemned by God the Father for the Murder of Abel (ill. 5), the strokes are sharper, and even angular in the drapery, with slight imbalances that are purposefully drawn on the three protagonists’ bodies. This very graphic manner is not only due to the influence of the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel ; there is also a reference to German engravings, familiar thanks to the numerous prints circulating at the time in Florence and in the rest of Italy [8]. Meant for the same program, two variations on the Dead Christ announce one of the recurring themes in Bandinelli’s last years : amazingly similar to his early work, these sheets evoke indiscriminately Donatello and Rosso in their frenetic agitation and the effects of matter in the figures surrounding the body of Jesus (ill. 6). The lines in Bandinelli’s art have never flowed as smoothly as in these extreme representations of sorrow, where the hair and the drapery seem to run like the tears of the violently inconsolable mourners. The importance of the subject will also be felt in his sculpture, notably Christ Dead with an Angel (Florence, Santa Croce), a mastery of restraint, prepared on a red chalk sheet where the heavy cadaver conveys the feeling of still warm flesh, ready to be reborn. This concern for intimacy culminates in the Pietà that Bandinelli designed for his own tomb (Florence, Santissima Annunziata) where the artist is holding the body of Christ. In this powerful connection between the two figures, there is both a sign of piety that goes beyond man’s earthly existence as well as an introspective form of self-portrait : veritable “son of Saturn”, Bandinelli draws a parallel between his suffering and that of Christ in what was to be his last creation and thus his material testament [9] and will, letting emotion spring from the marble. A comparison can be made here between the Pieta and the Head of Bearded Man, the latter being considered in the exhibition as a self-portrait as well. It is true that there is a similarity in the wrinkled features furrowed by the torments of the old man and the resigned face sculpted on Bandinelli’s tomb. And yet the artist clearly wished to leave another image of himself for posterity, evident in the sculpted Self-Portrait owned by the Louvre : proudly draped and seen in profile, Bandinelli affirms himself as an eminent and confident figure [10]. The impression is confirmed by different sources, relating how Bandinelli was convinced he was a great artist. Despite this pride, he was indeed not mistaken.

Designed in the same spirit as Polidoro da Caravaggio – notably with Dominique Cordellier’s participation once more as curator – this presentation of Italian drawings elicits the same criticisms, above all positive ones, that we had detailed in the review for the Polidoro exhibition. The pedagogical efforts here have redoubled in strength as the artist is unfamiliar to museum goers and the explanations do a good job in informing a large audience. The Louvre seems to be orienting itself towards less “exciting” names than Michelangelo and Fragonard, recently showcased, and does its best to present an index of its graphic arts collections through monographic catalogues. Although the publication formula is the same one as for Polidoro, we would like to qualify our opinion of this work, successful on the whole, in the light of some new elements. After speaking with Dominique Cordellier, we learned that the drawings ascribed to Polidoro da Caravaggio in the computerized catalogues, but not considered for the exhibition, had undergone a new attribution while the second exhibition was being prepared. This remarkable work is to be commended for helping to broaden the scientific knowledge of the collections, but it is unfortunate that the catalogues for Polidoro and Bandinelli do not include a section on rejected drawings – a remark which also applies for other monographic catalogues published previously, perhaps due to restrictions in volume size allowing only for exhibited works. As regards the Bandinelli exhibition, there is however a serious lack : the one on sculptures in the Louvre, rarely studied in the past and which could have been newly explored, particularly the Mercury that we mentioned above. Nevertheless, it would be extremely unfair to dwell only on the flaws of the exhibition and its catalogue when they are in fact one of the most beautiful rehabilitations of Baccio Bandinelli’s art to have taken place outside of Italy.

Carel van Tuyll (ed.), Baccio Bandinelli, Cinq Continents 2008, 96 p., ISBN-EAN : 9788874394531, 20 €.

Visitor Information : Paris, Musée du Louvre (Denon wing, rooms 9 and 10). Open Wednesday through Monday, 9 h - 18 h, Wednesday and Friday through 21 h 30.

Benjamin Couilleaux, dimanche 13 avril 2008


[1] One should add that he was easily carried away by his temper and very proud, earning him the steadfast enmity of some of his contemporaries, notably Cellini who despised him as shown in his autobiography (Vie de Benvenuto Cellini, écrite par lui-meme).

[2] In his masterful essay of 1970, Florentine Renaissance Sculpture, Charles Avery does not hesitate to describe the “extraordinarily bad taste” of the subjects of Bandinelli’s compositions for the choir of Santa Maria del Fiore !

[3] Baccio Bandinelli, 1493-1560 : drawings from British collections (Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, 3 May – 3 July 1988). Let us also point a recent work entirely devoted to Hercules and Cacus : L’Ercole e Caco di Baccio Bandinelli, by Carlo Francini (Florence, Alinea, 1999).

[4] It was formerly ascribed to the circle of the Cavalier d’Arpin, due to the pronounced Mannerist elongation of the body, an effect that is softened by a certain gracefulness.

[5] Kept over the years by the Medicis, the mate to the celebrated antique (in its “completed” condition) can be found in the Uffizi Gallery today.

[6] The reader may consult the recent study by Sylvie Beguin and Philippe Costamagna concerning this aspect of the artist’s career, « Nouvelles considérations sur Baccio Bandinelli peintre : la redécouverte de la "Léda et le cygne" », Cahiers d’histoire de l’art, n°1, 2003, p.7-18, about a painting held at the Sorbonne, rectorate offices.

[7] To be compared with an older red-chalk work, after the Belvedere Torso, today at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, or the Hercule mingens at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.

[8] These remarks also apply to other drawings for this décor, especially the Sacrifice of Isaac, and Creation of Adam, both at the Albertina in Vienna or Noah Watching the Animals Enter the Ark at the Musee Conde in Chantilly. A copy of God the Father Orders Noah to Build the Ark at the Musee Bonnat in Bayonne also shares these same characteristics.

[9] The association of Christ in the Pieta to the figure of the artist is not a unique phenomenon in the XVIth century, nor the fact that it is his last work : the most familiar examples are, of course, Titian in painting (Venise, Accademia) and Michelangelo in sculpture (Florence, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo) – although the date of the latter is debatable and might precede the Pietà Rondanini (Milan, Castello Sforzesco) which was never finished.

[10] On the same note, it is interesting to compare this sculpture with the canvas Self-Portrait (Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), one of the rare paintings generally ascribed to Bandinelli. In this typical Florentine artist’s portrait of the Cinquencento, the red-chalk work that Bandinelli is pointing to seems to represent Hercules and Cacus, but it is difficult to trace it to a known work.

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