Michelangelo by Old Towne Gallery



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Touched by the Hands of God:
Along with Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was one of the leading masters of the Italian High Renaissance, whose innovations in sculpture, painting and architecture extended into the mannerist period and influenced later developments in Baroque art. In contrast to the methodical, scientific precision of Leonardo’s creative process, Michelangelo is more popularly known for his use of concetto, an inspired imaginative concept or form of lyrical intuition that in the Renaissance was believed to be instilled by the divine. Although this has become part of the cultural mythology associated with Michelangelo, he actually relied extensively on exacting preliminary studies, both in the form of detailed anatomical drawings and bozzetti, small sculptural models fashioned from malleable materials like wax, clay, and wood. While there has been little published scholarship focusing on the artist bozzetti, they provide crucial insights into the preparatory technical methods and aesthetic intentions Michelangelo followed in executing his monumental carved works.

The bronzes in this exhibition were cast from bozzetti by Michelangelo in the collection of the Museo Casa Buonarroti in Florence, Italy. These six bozzetti have been the most widely authenticated by scholars and represent a unique publication of bronze cast that has been undertaken cooperatively by the Museo Casa Buonarroti and the Henry and Karly Spell Foundation. Due to their extreme rarity and fragility, Michelangelo’s sculptural models cannot be loaned for exhibition. This important creation of bronzes allows for Michelangelo’s bozzetti to be made available to a wider viewing public and serves to preserve knowledge of his sculptural designs in a durable form that is closely related to art historical views concerning Michelangelo’s own methods of working in bronze. These bozzetti were part of a larger cache of models discovered in a hidden armoire in the Casa Buonarroti around 1846 by Rosina Grant-Vendramin, the wife of Cosimo Buonarroti. However, an inventory of the art collection of the Casa Buonarroti compiled as early as c. 1684 includes models by Michelangelo in a description of its holdings. Michelangelo’s use of sculptural models has been well-documented, even during his own day, with numerous references in contemporaneous biographies, contract, payment documents, letters, sonnets and artistic treatises from the 16th century. Scholars have also often cited the famous historical anecdote of Michelangelo giving his beloved but destitute assistant, Antonio Mini, two boxes of his coveted clay and wax bozzetti in 1513 to sell in France. Moreover, various portraits of Michelangelo in his studio depict the master surrounded by his unfinished projects, artistic implements and bozzetti, attesting to the important role preparatory models played within his sculptural practice.

During the 15th century in Italy, the use of sculptural models became a more common artistic practice, owing in part to a revival of techniques from Greco-Roman Classical sculpture, which included the use of preliminary clay models, a fact known to the Renaissance artists through their interest in Pliny the Elder’s encyclopedic writings on ancient art in Natural History (77 CE). With the growing number of architectural and sculptural commissions in the 15th century, there was also an increased emphasis on models, as many of these projects were awarded through competitions in which artist submitted their proposed designs in the form of drawings and models. As a result, within Renaissance artistic culture, there was a greater professional and creative stress on the importance on models in transmitting the essential aesthetic concepts and distinctive formal details of a finished work. Many notable Renaissance sculptors such as Ghiberti, Donatello and Luce della Robbia relied extensively on bozzetti as preparatory aids and they were influential in advancing many of the technical procedures associated with the use of models. While Michelangelo’s own reliance on models followed established sculptural traditions in the 15th and 16th centuries and should be studied in the context, the philosophical complexity and experimental nature of his approach served to raise the more prosaic technical function of sculptural models to a high level of creative artistry and conceptual significance.

The earliest information regarding Michelangelo’s training in clay modeling and the making of sculptural studies relates to his artistic education from 1490 to 1492 under Bertoldo di Giovanni, who oversaw the antiques in Lorenzo de’ Medici’s garden of San Marco in Florence. There, Bertoldo, who had trained under Donatello, instructed art students in the importance of learning the technical foundations of figurative sculpture by first modeling clay and executing small-scale copies of both ancient and contemporary sculptural masterpieces. In fact, during the Renaissance , acquiring skill in modeling (integrated with the rudiments of drawing) was viewed as integral to the formal training and development of aspiring artists. Another possible early influence on Michelangelo was the sculptor Benedetto da Maiano, who was an active modeler and innovative in terms of the importance he placed on incorporating models into sculptural practice; Benedetto’s workshop was located next to the painting studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio and it has been speculated that due to Michelangelo’s apprenticeship under Ghirlandaio in 1487 he could have easily been introduced to Benedetto’s groundbreaking methods and sought to emulate them. Moreover, in 1494, during his early artistic career, Michelangelo also had a lengthy artistic sojourn in Bologna, which at that time was recognized as a leading center for the production of terra cotta and he may have been exposed to the expressive artistic potential of working in clay through the sculptures of artists like Guido Mazzoni. While Michelangelo id most widely revered as the preeminent sculptor of carved works in the 16th century, art historical evidence indicated the his formative artistic training and sensibility were strongly grounded in the technical and aesthetic considerations of modeled sculpture.

As noted, Michelangelo’s own use of models followed many of the standard preparatory procedures of other Renaissance sculptors in the practical technical execution of their works. Michelangelo is most popularly known for working entirely from inspiration, a romantic view that is reflected in the celebrated account of the artist glimpsing a vision of David encased within the marble block which he then released through an impassioned, spontaneous act of carving. As Frederick Hartt has noted, Michelangelo would have to rely on extensive preliminary planning with the use of drawings and models in order to control the complex formal and proportional relationships of such a large-scale figurative design. The bozzetto Nudo Virile (fig.1) is a prime example of the preparatory studies associated with the creation of the David (1501-1504). Michelangelo used his bozzetti for a variety of preparatory purposes, such as determining the basic structural form of a sculpture so that an appropriate shape of marble block could be quarried by stone cutters. As Giorgio Vasari recounted in his famous The Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550), one of Michelangelo’s favored preparatory methods was to create a wax model that he would place horizontally in a vessel of water. Referring to the model and drawings, he would then outline the principal views od his figurative design in a stone block. As work on the sculpture proceeded, the model was continuously raised above the water, exposing its uppermost sections, which served as a reliable guide for carving the parts of the figure. Small-scale models were sometimes created for the more exacting purpose of determining the mathematical dimensions of a finished piece; this required developing systems of proportional measurement, in which the mathematical dimensions of a model had to be converted and transferred to the larger marble block through various mechanical methods like squaring or the use of calibrated scales. For the most precise preliminary development of carved statuary, artists would frequently produce a modello, a larger refined model based on the more rough, sketchy bozzeto that would often have the exact scale and details intended for the finished sculpture. Although it is widely accepted by scholars that Michelangelo utilized such full-scale models for his sculptural projects, the only authenticated surviving example is the River God (1524) in the collection of the Museo Casa Buonarroti. Fashioned from clay covering an armature of wood and wire, the reclining figure of the River God was created as an architectural model for a wall tomb in the Medici Chapel. Many scholars, most notably Charles de Tolnay, have cited the bozzetti Dio Fluviale (fig. 3) in this exhibit as also being one of the key models for the Medici Chapel that represents a recumbent River God. For certain sculptural projects, it would have been necessary to create models, either a bozzetti or a modello, to demonstrate key ideas to patrons or as a guide for assistants to complete works. In fact, Michelangelo’s models may be the most accurate, direct expression of his sculptural concepts, as many of his carved statues were to some degree executed and polished be assistants.

In addition to Michelangelo’s adherence to these more widespread procedures, there are significant aspects of his bozzetti that reflect the innovative nature of his own sculptural practice and theory. Moreover, while specific issues associated with Michelangelo’s models reveal them to be a unique form of expression within his sculptural oeuvre, they have also surprisingly served to shed light in his broader activities as a painter. A distinctive, evocative feature of Michelangelo’s bozzetti in this exhibit, most notably Torso Virile (fig. 2), Dio Fluviale (fig.3) and Nudo Femminile (fig. 5). An examination of the figurative models reveals his creative emphasis on dynamic torsion, a radical tendency in both his sculptures and paintings to rely almost exclusively on the expressive twisting and bending of the torso as a primary motif for conveying dramatic and religious narrative. The use of sculptural studies allowed Michelangelo to devise forceful contorted poses that would have been difficult for a living model to sustain and this expressive bodily language associated with the bozzetti can be related to the artists’ strong interest in Neo-Platonic thought. Neo-Platonic philosophy was developed in the 3rd century CE by the Greek philosopher Plotinus. Based on ancient Platonic philosophy, Neo-Platonism combined elements of Eastern mysticism with Judaic and Christian theology. In Christianized terms, as a means to overcome the Platonic separation between the Ideal and Form (material reality), Neo-Platonism posits a single divine source known as the One, or God from which all existence emanates and with which the individual soul seeks to be mystically reunited. Neo-Platonism also aims to discern the animating presence and inspirational force of God within human experience and the finite physical world. While it was believed the Christian soul was corrupted by its association with base, senseless matter, it was possible for it to achieve transcendent union with God through the act of religious reflection and contemplation of beauty. This meditation on beauty in the physical world serves to awaken the soul to the superior image of the divine in material form. Humans occupy a central position between a brute world of base matter and the realm of the divine and through the artist’s inspired creative intelligence, she or he can as a conduit for revealing spiritual reality. Just as God implanted beauty in the physical world, the Renaissance artist through concetto, a flash of divine insight, was seen as being capable of drawing out a matter a glimpse of this higher divine truth.

From 1490 to 1492, a period that coincided with his early artistic training, Michelangelo attended the Humanist academy in Florence that was founded by the Medici along Neo-Platonic lines. Exposed to the Renaissance Neo-Platonic theories of Marsilio Ficino at the academy, Michelangelo’s artistic thought and practice was strongly influenced by Neo-Platonic philosophy. As noted, Neo-Platonists argued matter itself was a complete negation of the divine and depended on a creative soul inspired by the force of God to endow and shape it with life. It the case of Michelangelo’s models, it is important to recognize their close relationship to these Neo-Platonic artistic doctrines. The strong sense of an inspired, expressive immediacy associated with Michelangelo’s creation of his bozzetti clearly relates to the notion of spiritual concetto. Yet, the very act of manipulating a model, the turning and twisting of the wax figure in innumerable positions, was itself imbued with a complex spiritual meaning for Michelangelo. The artist’s creative control over the figurative model, the sense of it being captive to the artist’s will, served as a metaphor for the artist himself being possessed and directed by the inspired force of God’s will.

Although art historians have tended to concentrate on the technical and artistic role of Michelangelo’s bozzetti in the production of his large-scale carved works, there has been important research on his early training in the modeling and the use of models for bronze casting. Michelangelo’s sculptural studies were mainly executed in wax or clay and in many cases models like Torso Virile and Nudo Femminile were never fired and exist as terrasecca clay figures. Consequently, the artist’s remaining bozzetti have survived in a highly fragile condition which has made it impossible for them to be loaned and exhibited outside the Museo Casa Buonarroti or to undergo the potentially damaging process of traditional casting methods. However, through highly advanced technology supported by Eiger Labs, molds were produced without touching the precious bozzetti using laser scanning and rapid prototyping and were cast at the foundry of Art Casting of Illinois, Inc. (for more detailed discussion of these procedures, see the technical statement by Dr. Henry Spell). While this casting project was motivated by current concerns regarding the educational study and preservation of Michelangelo’s models, the creation of these bronzes actually involves aesthetic considerations and the processes closely associated with the history of the artist’s sculptural practices.

As Paul Joannides has emphasized in his research, Michelangelo is most widely known as a carver with little interest in bronze and modeled media. However, this view is inaccurate and despite the fact that examples of Michelangelo’s bronze statuary do not appear to have survived (or have not been widely attributed to him), references to his major projects in bronze are documented in commission records, artistic accounts from the first part of the 16th century and some of the artist’s own extant correspondence. For example, one of the most notable such projects was a bronze life-size statue of David, which was commissioned on August 12, 1502 by Piero Soderini, governor of Florence, on the behalf of Pierre de Rohan, the Marechal de Gie. Rohan had admired Donatello’s celebrated bronze David (c.1440s) in 1494 during the French occupation of Florence and expressed desire for a copy of the work. Michelangelo agreed to produce his version in six months, but rather than it being a copy, he accepted the commission as a form of artistic rivalry against Donatello and as a means to demonstrate that by working in bronze he was a master of all sculptural materials. The sculpture was actually not completed for six years, after Michelangelo’s departure for Rome, and the duty of finishing the casting and chiseling of the work went to Benedetto da Rovezzano. The sculpture has since been lost, but a drawn sketch for the statue exists in the collection of the Louvre Museum and various scholars have referred to the bozzetti Nudo Virile as a model for the bronze due to the fact that the figure itself is a wax cast made from models.

As part of Michelangelo’s extensive artistic services to Pope Julius II, he was also commissioned to create a large bronze statue of Julius in 1507-1508, which was to be installed above the main portal of San Petronio in Bologna. This fourteen-foot statue of the Pope was evidently one of the largest single figure bronzes cast in Italy during the Renaissance and was widely acclaimed at eh time of its completion. It was later destroyed in 1511 during the Bologna uprising against Juliud. More importantly, with regard to his sculptural work with bozzetti, there is evidence that Michelangelo had casts made of some of his sculptural models as a means to promote his work among patrons and to publicize his ideas. According to Joannides, such an example is a small bronze model of a Captive Slave from the Tomb of Julius II, which is dated c. 1513 and is in the collection of the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan. It is possible Michelangelo was trained in the rudiments of casting by Bertoldo so Giovanni during the young artist’s training in the garden of San Marco. Bertoldo was a prominent bronzista (bronze sculptor), whose dedicated work in bronze and specialized aesthetic was very likely imparted to Michelangelo. Although all Renaissance sculptors would have employed sculptural studies in some fashion, bronzista was especially committed to the creative imperative that models must be conceptually close to the final work. The bronzista’s model “emphasizes wholeness over the assemblage of parts, a dominating conception over conformity to appearances, rhythm and excitement over stasis and solidity.” Moreover, Michelangelo conceived his bozzetti and free-standing marble sculptures in the manner of a bronzista, who visually approached the figurative form as an independent, immediately perceivable, coherent whole.

1. Nudo Virile, bronze, c. 1501-1504, 25 ½”. This figure of a lithe muscular male youth stands in a pronounced contrapposto pose and denotes a sense of concentrated, poised energy. The model has been regarded by scholars as an early design for Michelangelo’s marble David with its mirror-image relationship to the statue. Both Figures display a pensive expression and a pronounced hipshot pose with a raised foot and slender supporting legs. As discussed above, the model has also been related to the lost bronze David commissioned by Pierre de Rohan in 1502. In fact, the original bozzetto, which dates from c. 1501-1504, is a wax cast made from several piece molds. Given that the figure was cast, various scholars, most recently Michael Hirst and Jeannine A. O’Grody, have ventured that the statuette should be considered a model for a Michelangelo work in bronze. This model and drawings from the period make clear that from 1501 to 1504 Michelangelo was engaged with a series of inventive figurative designs exploring subtle forms of narrative pose and expression which informed both the marble and bronze versions of David. With regard to the casting of this bozzetti in bronze, it is interesting to note Michelangelo’s surface treatment of the figure with its delicate pitted marks. If Michelangelo had intended this model to be cast in bronze, this texture may indicate the artist’s concern to reduce bright sheen on the surface and create a more subtle play of shadows to articulate the figure’s refined musculature. This bozzeto may be an important example of the theory that Michelangelo did cast some of his models in bronze as a means to present his ideas to patrons or more widely to publicize his designs. It may also support Joannides’ argument that Michelangelo did partly work as a bronzista and executed small-scale designs in bronze. In Giulio Cacccini’s portrait of Michelangelo in his studio in the collection of the Museo Casa Buonarroti, this model can be discerned prominently in the background. Nudo Virile was of great interest to a number of artists in the 16th century and was actually more frequently copied that the marble David. It is possible Mannerist astists were attracted to the figure’s slender proportions and the artful, sinuously balanced contrapposto stance. For example, a notable drawing of the model viewed from the rear was executed by Parmigianino in the 1520’s and is in the collection of the British Museum of London.

2. Torso Virile, bronze, c. 1513, 8 ¾ “. This dramatically curved male torso is subtly modeled and twists slightly back, creating an emphatic S-curve pose associated with the more active and sinuous bodily movement seen in late Classical Greek statuary. This sculptural study was created to examine and record the shifting muscles of a human torso as it stretches back with its weight positioned on the right leg. Most Scholars agree that this model was created for one of the Captive Slave figures intended to decorate the tomb of Julius II, a project which was originally commissioned in 1505 and re-commissioned in 1513 but never fully carried out. Although Torso Virile has been compared to the tomb figures of the Atlas Slave and Awakening Slave, the slender proportions, soft modeling of the musculature and distinctive shifting of the muscles are much more closely related to the Dying Slave in the Louvre Museum, a similarity that is made more apparent by comparing the two figures from the rear. The Captive Slaves were carved from 1513 to 1515 for the second project of the Tomb of Julius II and the stylistic characteristics of this model correspond closely to this earlier period of Michelangelo’s career. The expressive strained movement of the model, which follows the pose of the Louvre Dying Slave, may have significant connections to Michelangelo’s interest in Neo-Platonic theory. The sense of inner transition in the Slave figures has been interpreted as symbolizing the Neo- Platonic notion of the divine soul attempting to transcend and free itself from the physical confines of the body and be reunited with God. As with Nudo Virile, the evocative twisting posture of this figure, made more emphatic by the headless and limbless torso, captivated artists in the 16th century and was copied in drawings by Andres Commodi.

3. Dio Fluviale, bronze, c. 1516-1518, 9 ¾ ” X 4 ½ “. This powerfully modeled recumbent figure is displayed resting on its right hip with the torso supported by the right elbow. The muscular left leg is suspended, bent at the knee. Although the left arm and head of the model are missing, it seems likely that the figure originally had a head as there are remnants of glue in the cavity of the neck. Scholars have debated the correct position and the purpose of this model, speculating that it was meant to be seen vertically and may have served as a study for one of the Slaves for the Julius tomb. A more common view is that this is a reclining figure associated with the River Gods for the tombs of Giuliano and Lorenzo de’ Medici in the Medici Chapel, San Lorenzo, Florence (1519-1534). The only surviving full-scale architectural model for this project is the River God in the collection of the Museo Casa Buonarroti. Originally, the designs for the tombs featured allegorical statues of Time reclining on the end of the sarcophagi and below were to be places recumbent figures of the River Gods. Although full-scale models were created for the River Gods, the final Sculptures were never completed. The symbolic figures in the tombs have been interpreted as containing a Neo-Platonic iconographic meaning referring to the soul’s ascent through the levels of the Neo-Platonic universe. The River Gods on the lowest level signify the underworld of brute matter while tense, contorted figures of Time (the cycles of Dawn, Day, Evening, and Night) represent humanity’s existence in the temporal world as a state of pain, anxiety and frustration.