I grandi bronzi del Battistero. L’arte di Vincenzo Danti, discepolo di Michelangelo

Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, from 16 April to 7 September 2008

1. Vincenzo Danti (1530-1576)
Julius III (detail), 1553-55
Bronze - 255 cm
Perugia, outside of the cathedral,
south side

When travellers to Florence visit the Piazza San Giovanni, dominated by the Duomo, Giotto’s Campanile and the Baptistery, they may not notice anything missing amid these towering marble wonders. Even most Florentines have not realized that the large bronzes located on the architraves of the north and south doors of the Battistero had been removed in 2006 for restoration. The absence of six statutes is indeed hard to perceive in the Florentine landscape, in the “city of statues” as Charles de Brosses had nicknamed the Tuscan capital. When thinking of the Baptistery, one usually remembers the Gates of Paradise ornated with bas-reliefs by Ghiberti, and tourists often forget to look up before entering (through the north door) or turning around when leaving (through the south door) at the end of their visit, already eager to take in the next marvel. Truth be told, the artists of these bronzes did not go down in art history with as much renown as Andrea Sansovino and his marble Baptism of Christ located above the Gates of Paradise. The names of the two sculptors, although important in their time, no longer sound familiar except to a circle of scholars specialized in Italian Cinquecento : the north door was executed by the “illustrious unknown artist” Francesco Rustici [1] and the south door by a sculptor who was considered by critics as a follower of Michelangelo, Vincenzo Danti. Hoping to correct this lack of knowledge, the Bargello has seized this rare occasion to organize the first retrospective ever on Vincenzo Danti centering it on his masterpiece, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist.

What can we say briefly to introduce this sculptor who is practically unknown to most ? First of all, this anonymity is without a doubt related to the fact that he was active in the Florence of Cosimo I Medici, along with other sculptors such as Baccio Bandinelli, Benvenuto Cellini, Tribolo, Bartolomeo Ammannati, Pierino da Vinci, Giovanni Bandini, Valerio Cioli, Battista Lorenzi, Vincenzo de’ Rossi, etc., all of whom found themselves eclipsed by the gigantic shadow of Michelangelo.
The career of Vincenzo Danti, born in Perugia in 1530 and trained as a silversmith, took off suddenly in 1553 when he was entrusted with an extremely difficult task for someone his age : a monumental bronze statue of Pope Julius III. Emboldened by the success of this veritable masterpiece of large-scale silversmith work (ill. 1), Vincenzo thus turned to Florence where he found the protection of Sforza Almeni, advisor and friend of Duke Cosimo I. His first official commission, a Hercules and Anteus in bronze for the gardens of the duke’s villa in Castello, however, was a fiasco and brought his brilliant debut into question [2]. But he quickly made up for it with very fine bas-reliefs in bronze for Cosimo I and especially with his amazing Honor Triumphs over Falsehood in marble, commissioned by his protector. From then on, the orders poured in and he began an ambitious treatise, later confirmed his reputation with his large Baptistery bronzes inaugurated in June 1571 ; he also tried his hand at architecture and became a member of the Accademia del Disegno. Despite his success in the Tuscan capital, he decided nevertheless to leave Florence in the spring of 1573 to return to his native city. This move is probably explained, at least partly, by the rise of another sculptor, Giambologna, who at that time became the favorite of the great duke Francis I Medici, Cosimo I’s successor.

2. The Exhibition Danti in the Bargello Courtyard
Photo : E. Passignat

3. Vincenzo Danti (1530-1576)
Cosimo I as Augustus, c. 1572
Marble - 280 cm
Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Photo : E. Passignat

Speaking of Giambologna, which allows us to move on to the exhibition after this short biography, it is tempting to compare this Danti retrospective to the exhibition devoted to the former’s work by the Bargello in 2006 [3]. Of course, Vincenzo Danti has indeed suffered for a long time from an unfair comparison to the Flemish artist, but similarities will be drawn here only in the choice of works displayed. Nevertheless, there remains a reflection of the vast difference in the careers and fame of the two sculptors, one who spent his life between Perugia, Rome and Florence and the other whose works were sent to the major cities and the most important rulers throughout Europe [4].
When entering the Bargello courtyard, the eye is drawn to the center, occupied for the most part by a large installation for a show [5]. Thus the visitor is guided through the exhibition by curved pastel green partitions which snake along the wall under the portico (ill. 2), instead of long red drapes. For those who may recall the Giambologna show, which took over the whole ground floor as well as the loggia in the museum, Danti’s work takes up a relatively small space since it fits in the two rooms normally used for temporary exhibitions ; in the same way, instead of the high panels and the large red rugs enveloping the works of Danti’s contemporary, here the setting is much more austere and discrete. Let us note, however, that some works by the Flemish artist exhibited in 2006 have remained there and it is impossible to incorporate a part of the Michelangelo salon in the temporary exhibitions as was the case previously. Therefore, instead of once again removing, at great cost, the monumental Bacchus, Mercury and Florence Triumphs over Siena by Giambologna, this time Honor Triumphs over Falsehood by Danti and the Tondo-Pitti and the Apollo-David by Michelangelo have crossed the courtyard to join the exhibition space.

Before entering the rooms at the other end of the portico, the long ondulating band brings us to a stop in front of the first monumental marble statue surrounded by a curved backdrop (ill. 3), a formal device adopted a few months earlier at the Furini exhibition on the other side of the Arno at the Pitti Palace [6]. The contours of the backdrop allow the visitor to discover the statue of Cosimo I as Augustus progressively, but the installation tends to get in the way and one never dares to approach the work [7]. From a conceptual point of view, the statue of Cosimo is a good introduction to Vincenzo Danti’s sculpture by underlining the importance of this patron in the artist’s career. But, soon after, the visitor is attracted to the group glimpsed in the doorway at the back.

4. Vincenzo Danti (1530-1576)
Honor Triumphs over Falsehood, 1561
Marble - 187 cm
Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Photo : Soprintendenza

In the first room, which is rather small, there are at least eleven sculptures, half of which are monumental in size. The first space is devoted to Honor Triumphs over Falsehood, placed in the center of the gallery to better appreciate its many facets (ill. 4). The artist treats here one of his favorite subjects, that of the dominator and the dominated, inspired by the famous Spirit of Victory by Michelangelo. Although at first glance one is taken by the graceful and carefree pose of the young Honor, an aspect which is emphasized by the curators since this is the one seen first from far away when entering the courtyard in the Bargello, the museum goer is then drawn to walk around the group and thus discovers the violence of the scene. The figure of Falsehood is reduced to extreme contorsions and ensnared in Honor’s unremitting and powerful clutch. A brilliant piece which elevated the young Danti to the rank of a new Phidias and which constitutes a veritable manifesto of Mannerist aesthetics based on an attentive elaboration of the “vedute” (points of view) of the statue. Next to this work, there are a bozzetto in terracotta and a bronzetto on the same theme but with obvious variations as opposed to the marble. Their proximity makes a comparison of the three Honor Triumphs over Falsehood particularly interesting. Specialists have in fact long wondered if the terracotta was a preparatory work for the marble or a later production by the sculptor. Claudio Pizzorusso attempts to resolve the debate by suggesting a new attribution : according to him this could be a work by Valerio Cioli inspired by Danti’s group. Another delicate point as concerns attributions is the Pythian Apollo which has been overlooked by everyone (on deposit at the Accademia delle Arti del Disegno) except Detlef Heikamp who studied it in 1997 and tied it to Danti’s workshop : the iconography and the style could, however, support Claudio Pizzorusso’s hypothesis in ascribing it directly to Danti himself. Let us also note, just a few steps away, the beautiful Leda and the Swan which was for a long time considered to be a work by Michelangelo (ill. 5), and also Venus Anadyomene executed for Francis I de Medici’s Studiolo (ill. 6), placed here next to Michelangelo’s Apollo-David to better emphasize the close ties.

5. Vincenzo Danti (1530-1576)
Leda and the Swan
Marble - 138.3 x 65 x 45 cm
Londres, Victoria and
Albert Museum
Photo : V&A Image

6. Vincenzo Danti (1530-1576)
Venus anadyomene, c. 1572-1573
Bronze - 98 cm
Florence, Palazzo Vecchio, Studiolo of Francesco I De’Medici
(deposited in Museo Nazionale del Bargello)
Photo : Soprintendenza

Moving past this first circular space, we come to the presentation of the main protagonists of the exhibition, that is, the large Baptistery bronzes. After the Baptism of Christ sculpted by Sansovino between 1502 and 1505, completed by Danti in 1569, Saint John the Baptist Preaching by Francesco Rustici between 1506 and 1511, Vincenzo Danti was entrusted with the last commission for the Baptistery doors between 1570 and 1571 (ill. 7). To avoid a drastic separation from their original context, the three bronzes are placed in front of a large photographic reproduction of the Baptistery façade. These three figures reveal the remarkable work in their attitudes and expressivity achieved by the sculptor in bronze. Here, one discovers the myriad details which are impossible to detect in their usual location. Salome seems to show a slight repulsion as she bends gracefully while awaiting the end of the execution, the platter in her arm. Special note should be made of her intricate hairdo, very much à la Michelangelo, in which small figurines are concealed (ill. 8). As for John the Baptist with the splendid face in prayerful resignation (ill. 9), his tense and contrasting attitude, although elegant, betrays a shudder at the approaching blade. Designed according to a remarkable “figura serpentinata”, another fundamental Mannerist precept, the body of the executioner is turning to gain speed for his swing ; he is about to act. The look in his eyes is impossible to see when the visitor observes him on top of the Baptistery doors : his wide-open eyes reveal the fear he feels at his own gesture (ill. 10)

7. Vincenzo Danti (1530-1576)
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1570-71
Bronze - Salome : 243 cm, Baptist : 164.2 cm,
executioner : 268 cm
Florence, Battistero di San Giovanni, south facade

8. Vincenzo Danti (1530-1576)
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1570-71, Salome, (detail)
Florence, Battistero di San Giovanni, south facade

9. Vincenzo Danti (1530-1576)
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1570-71,
Baptist, detail
Florence, Battistero di San Giovanni, south facade

10. Vincenzo Danti (1530-1576)
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1570-71,
Executioner (detail)
Florence, Battistero di San Giovanni, south facade

11. Vincenzo Danti (1530-1576)
Equity and Rigor, 1564-66
Marble, - H. : 2 m each,
Florence, piazzale des Offices
Photo : E. Passignat

The visit is organized basically according to type of works by Danti : a chronological presentation would not have been of any interest. Thus, in the first gallery we see statues in marble and bronze, with a separation between secular and religious iconography. In the second room, one finds the rest of his production, especially the bas-reliefs. The only exception to this organizing principle is the monumental marble Virgin with Child, from the basilica of Santa Croce, which apparently could not be fitted into the first gallery along with the Beheading, and could not be placed alongside Venus, Leda and Apollo. The statue does indeed blend in better with the mostly religious works in the room. The Virgin with Child from Santa Croce, which according to a hypothesis by Charles David might have been intended for a tomb for Benedetto Varchi, is placed in front of a wall of photographic reproductions. On one side, Saint Luke in stucco from Santa Croce, on the other the Funerary Monument to Charles de Medici from the cathedral in Prato. Above it, there are also reproductions of Equity and Rigor (ill. 11) taken from the famous tombs of Lorenzo and Giuliano de Medici executed by Michelangelo. To make up for the absence of these statues perched in front of the Serlian windows at the back of the Uffizi courtyard and emphasize their direct ties to the Medici tombs, one can see the plaster models of Dawn and Twilight, cast in 1570 directly on Michelangelo’s marbles, by the sculptor’s brother, Egnazio Danti and Timoteo Refati. Vincenzo took them with him to Perugia in 1573 and donated them to the Academy which he helped to found that same year.

12. Vincenzo Danti (1530-1576)
Moses and the Brasen Serpent, 1559
Bronze - about 82 x 170 cm
Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello
Photo : Soprintendenza

Besides these free-standing sculptures which occupy a large part of the room, the visitor should especially notice the bas-reliefs, both those on display on the floor or those reproduced, due to their absence, on the walls. They are in marble, bronze, stucco or terracotta and assemble the artist’s total known production. Thus, one can compare the two different approaches to the theme of the Flagellation (the one at the Musée Jacquemart-André and the other in Kansas City). There is also the surprising Door to Cosimo I’s Safe in bronze, a safe in which the duke kept his confidential documents next to his Tesoretto in the Palazzo Vecchio (at the time known as the “scrittoi segreto”, or secret desk). Danti’s masterpiece in this section is the famous Moses and the Brasen Serpent which is technically remarkable (ill. 12). It is currently undergoing scientific studies as well as a complete cleaning. This large relief was cast in one piece in 1559, left "brut de fonderie" as the sculptor did not carry out any of the usual finishing of the surface, corresponding in a brilliant way to the “fare di getto” recommended by Vasari. It is a pity that this bas-relief can no longer be admired from the back, visible until 2006. At that time, it had been presented in the Michelangelo salon in a perpendicular hang to the wall, close to the bust of Cosimo I de Medici and of Florence Triumphs over Pisa by Giambologna. Today, the works of the Flemish artist have taken over the room used now for the Florence and the famous Flying Mercury. Once again, we see how Giambologna manages to eclipse his contemporary...

The exhibition catalogue does not claim to replace the monographic studies by Summers (1970), Santi (1989) and Fidanza (1996), but rather to continue their reflections and complete them with new ones. The reader should already have a basic knowledge, however, of the sculptor and his period, as he will not find any essays on his biography nor a chronological listing which might briefly recall his career. The essays constitute the most interesting part of the catalogue with a total of eleven, three of which were written by Charles Davis. In addition, there is a fascinating group of four accounts on the restoration of Danti’s works. In all, of the 400 and some pages contained in the volume, it is true that only sixty or so are devoted to the catalogue per se with some entries for the works being extremely terse. This is perhaps due to a lack of time in preparing the catalogue as pointed out by Charles Davis at the beginning of a note in one of his essays. Nonetheless, the contributions assembled here by him and by Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi are indeed very interesting. Let us take the example of Marco Collareta and his thoughts on the problem of the sculptor as a silversmith and the presence of silversmith work in the debate which compares the different arts ; of Cristina Acidini on the relationship between the sculptor and Michelangelo ; of Charles Davis’ extensive contributions on Danti’s bas-reliefs. The reader will be highly entertained by Claudio Pizzorusso’s essay : the author recounts his analysis of Honor Triumphs over Falsehood in the form of a fictional investigation with a police detective and an elderly art history professor as the main characters.

The concise contents of the show assembling Danti’s corpus is an advantage for the visitor who thus has plenty of time to take each work in fully and enjoy observing it at leisure, a luxury not always possible in most exhibitions where one is not allowed to wander back and forth, either because of the crowds or by the length and complexity of the display. Although in some ways, the Danti exhibition at the Bargello has taken less care in its communication efforts with the public than it did for the Giambologna show, it is nevertheless of real scholarly interest and presents a full picture of current knowledge on the sculptor, which, again, is not always the case in all exhibitions. The Bargello has thus contributed in large measure to a revalorization of one of “Michelangelo’s students”, who for a long time was considered to be only an imitator, follower, a second rank artist, like all of those, in fact, who are grouped under the pejorative label of Mannerism.

Charles Davis et Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi (ed.), I grandi bronzi del Battistero. L’arte di Vincenzo Danti, discepolo di Michelangelo, Giunti Editore, 408 p., 45 €. ISBN : 8809059026.

Visitor Information : Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Via del Proconsolo, 4, Firenze. Phone : + 39 055 2388-606. Open daily except second and fourth Mondays from 8.15 through 18.00.

Emilie Passignat, lundi 23 juin 2008


[1] The expression belongs to Philippe Sénéchal in his important and very recent monographic study on the sculptor, Giovan Francesco Rustici : 1475 - 1554 ; un sculpteur de la Renaissance entre Florence et Paris, Paris, Arthena, 2007.

[2] The melting of Danti’s Hercules and Anteus failed three times. The art of melting bronze was not a simple task for sculptors in general : let us recall for instance the mishaps of Cellini’s Perseus which almost failed and started a fire in his workshop.

[3] Giambologna, gli dei, gli eroi. Genesi e fortuna di uno stile europeo nella scultura, (Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, 2 mars - 15 juin 2006), Florence, Giunti, 2006.

[4] Danti’s corpus of works is indeed rather small compared to Giambologna’s : of the 23 works exhibited here, as opposed to 67 for the Flemish artist, two are by Michelangelo, one by Danti’s brother after Michelangelo, four are of dubious attribution, and another one is a undated cast as seen from the statue of Julius III.

[5] A play is being staged at the same time and recalls Danti’s Beheading ; this is Erodias by Giovanni Testori, from 13 May to 6 June.

[6] Un’altra bellezza, Francesco Furini (Florence, Museo degli Argenti, 22 décembre 2007-27 avril 2008), Florence, Mandragora, 2007.

[7] The statue of Cosimo I as Augustus in fact remains in its usual place in the museum ; the partition serves to incorporate it into the other Danti works.

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