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Monday, January 20, 2020

Bertoldo di Giovanni

Shield Bearer, 1470-80, Bertoldo di Giovanni
It's always difficult to say whether the outstanding success of an artist is the result of outstanding art instruction or simply hard work, talent, and persistence on the part of the individual. Both are, of course, important and the answer to that question may well be simply an exercise in intellectual rhetoric, in fact of little importance. Bertoldo di Giovanni was a pupil of the famous early Renaissance sculptor, Donatello. He worked in Donatello's workshop for many years, completing Donatello's unfinished works after his death in 1466, for example the bronze pulpit reliefs from the life of Christ in the Basilica di San Lorenzo di Firenze in Florence. The trademark style of Donatello is easily discernable in Bertoldo's Orpheus, (below left) dating from 1471 (before Donatello's death) and in his Hercules with the Apple of the Hesperides, (below, right) from the period 1470-75, (near the time of his master's death). Bertoldo's Shield Bearer (above) is also from this period.
Statuette of Orpheus,
1471, Bertoldo di Giovanni
Hercules with the Apple
of the Hesperides, 1470-75,
Bertoldo di Giovanni

Although Bertoldo was a better than average pupil, Donatello was in no danger of being eclipsed by his young assistant. That is not the case however with one of Bertoldo's pupil's. Bertoldo became the head of and primary teacher of the informal academy for painters and in particular for sculptors, which Lorenzo de' Medici had founded in his garden. At the same time, Bertoldo was also the custodian of the Roman antiquities there. Though Bertoldo was not a major sculptor, some of the most significant sculptors of their time attended this school, such as Baccio da Montelupo, Giovanni Francesco Rustici, Jacopo Sansovino, and most importantly, a young man named Michelangelo Buonarotti. 

Bertoldo di Giovanni
In 15th-century Florence, Lorenzo de’ Medici financed the Medici Sculpture Garden, an academy for artists that is recognized as one of the most important gathering places in Western art history. The garden was an oasis of Roman marvels enveloped by the cloisters of the Convent at San Marco. In the center of that garden was a sculpture (possibly one of those mentioned above) which attracted Ber-toldo's ambitious, talented, and most prom-ising young student--Michelangelo--inspiring him to study antiquity and produce art for noble patrons.
The Medici family, who ruled Florence for over three centuries, were the period’s most important patrons. Bertoldo occupied a privileged position at the center of the political and aesthetic landscape of Florence. In working for the patron that is the tastemaker of the city, the position gave Bertoldo a bit of artistic freedom, putting him at the center of the dialogue between ancient arts and literature.
Battle with Hercules, 1478, Bertoldo Di Giovanni
With the Medici family behind him and their vibrant art collection at his fingertips, Bertoldo was free to produce art of the highest quality. Bertoldo’s mastery of bronze and skillful reimagining is embodied by a show-stopping battle scene (above, ca. 1478). While the piece mimics the format and subject of classical sarcophagi, it achieves a new level of robust dynamism. The triumphant Roman warriors and their horses rise to the top of the jumbled mass as their barbarian foes suffocate beneath them. Lorenzo entrusted Bertoldo to cultivate the next generation of Renaissance geniuses as the principal educator and curator at the Medici Sculpture Garden. A young Michelangelo was among Bertoldo’s pupils who would become one of the most celebrated artists in history. Little did Bertoldo know that the same pupil that would bring his school great glory would also lead to the destruction of his own legacy.

Bellerophon and Pegasus, 1486, Bertoldo di Giovanni
Michelangelo celebrated and fashioned himself as a self-taught artist who was divinely blessed with his abilities, and therefore obviously Bertoldo would not have played a role in the narrative that he was constructing for himself. Michelangelo is very explicit that no one gave him real training,” Noelle said. The eclipsing of Bertoldo’s legacy was intensified by his death in 1491 and the death of his patron Lorenzo months later. In the 16th century, Giorgio Vasari wrote the foundational text of Italian art history—Lives of the Artists (1550)—and left Bertoldo out of his manuscript almost entirely, having everlasting effects on Bertoldo’s reputation. When you have Michelangelo himself erasing Bertoldo, and when you have a founding art historian (especially an Italian one) negating Bertoldo’s role, coupled with the exile and fall of the Medici, it didn’t create a good environment for Bertoldo’s artwork.

Madonna of the Stairs, 1491,

As one of Giovanni’s most outstanding students Michelangelo, at the age of 15, was invited to stay at the palace and study under Giovanni. While at the school under Giovanni’s instruction Michelangelo’s work included two marble reliefs, Madonna on the Stairs (right) and Battle of the Centaurs. Madonna of the Stairs is a piece that shows much influence from Donatello’s low relief. Battle of the Centaurs (below. left) is a variation of a bronze piece that Giovanni had created, Battle of the Horsemen which Giovanni seemed to have based on an ancient manuscript. While the structure and training process of the school is unknown, it most certainly would have been an educational and inspirational environment in which to learn.
Battle of the Centaurs, 1492, Michelangelo

In the final analysis, we come to the age-old quandary as to whether a young person is more influenced by nurture (Bertoldo's instruction) or by nature (Michelangelo's innate talent). Initially Vasari and es-pecially Michelangelo himself considered his own efforts as solely responsible for his fame--sheer genius--nothing else. It has only been in more recent years that art scholars have chosen to take a closer look at the other side of the coin. That inspiration was at least as important in Mich-elangelo's case as "perspiration." 

Lorenzo de-Medici il Magnifico,
Bertoldo di Giovanni.

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