Despite its modest size, the new exhibition at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, “Donatello, Michelangelo, Cellini: Sculptors’ Drawings From Renaissance Italy,” gives even the magnificent Goya exhibition across the road at the Museum of Fine Arts a serious run for its money.
On the face of it, it mightn’t sound quite as enthralling. Yes, the title boasts the names of two of the four Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, along with a sculptor — Benvenuto Cellini — who was responsible for the best-known artist’s autobiography ever written.
And yes, the show boasts a fragile bozzetto — the sculptural equivalent of a sketch, in terra cotta — by Michelangelo that has never been shown in the United States before, and more works by Cellini, including a dazzling bronze relief from the Bargello museum in Florence, than have ever previously been exhibited together outside Italy. It also presents two of the Gardner museum’s greatest works, its famous Michelangelo drawing and its self-portrait by his bitter rival, Baccio Bandinelli, in a fascinating new light.
And yet, still, the show’s raison d’etre might nonetheless seem, to some, discouragingly nerdy. In essence, the curators, Michael Cole and Oliver Tostmann, have tried to ask: What was the relationship between Renaissance sculptors and drawing?
It’s actually an excellent question, because we don’t already know the answer. We do know that drawing held enormous prestige in central Italy during the Renaissance. So it’s strange, in a way, that not many drawings by Renaissance sculptors survive.
Giorgio Vasari, the period’s great chronicler, claimed that while central Italian painters based their practice on drawing, sculptors tended not to. Was he right? (And if so, why?) Or was he perhaps misleading us? Sculpture, after all, was one area in which he himself had no training.
The show’s answer is that Vasari was partially right and partially wrong and, well, for lots of reasons, it was complicated. . . . Sculptors came in different categories and belonged to different guilds, and they were not always just sculptors — they could be architects and painters and goldsmiths as well. So how to generalize?
Some sculptors drew because it helped them conceptualize their sculptures, others because it helped them communicate instructions about the fabrication of their sculptures. Others hardly drew at all.
But an ability to draw was often connected with literacy (not by chance, Renaissance drawings are often covered in writing). And as a result, during a period when not every artist was literate, drawings carried a certain prestige. Showing them off — as Baccio Bandinelli does in his self-portrait, the painting which instigated the idea for this show — could present the sculptor in a better light: less of a craftsman and more of an intellectual, an originator of things, even a genius.
All this I find fascinating. But there’s another way — not unrelated, but perhaps more dramatically engaging — to think about this exhibition: as a show about rivalry. A show about a tussle for recognition and supremacy between intensely competitive people, taken to quite brutal extremes; a tussle in which drawing played a key role, simply because, as Cole writes in the catalog, “drawing became a matter of status. It was the medium through which the sculptor could pursue fame.”
A little note of caution: Before you enter the show, you might want to let go of any lingering impulse to approach these figures with the piety their names usually inspire, and any tendency to associate all things attached to the word “Renaissance” with decorum, high-mindedness, and nobility. Much better to acknowledge that, as James Fenton once put it: “the Italy these artists worked in was a place of the most vicious rivalry and backbiting, maneuverings for commissions, anglings for patronage, plots, triumphs, and disappointments.
“You had to wait literally for years to be paid,” continues Fenton. “If your work was deemed ugly, you soon learnt about it from lampoons or pasquinades. You got stabbed in the back. Anonymous denunciations for sodomy would arrive, as regular as parking tickets.”
For Michelangelo, the notion that there might exist other artists with whom he might be obliged to compete was all but intolerable. His formidable personality permeates this show, which is just as he would have wanted it. Clearly, he was a prodigious and prolific draughtsman. But there are relatively few extant drawings by him. (Five Michelangelo drawings grace the walls here, along with the terra cotta bozzetto.) He guarded them jealously from potential plagiarists. He was so paranoid that, near the end of his life, he disposed of most of them in two huge bonfires. When he died, not a single drawing was discovered in his studio.
Nor was Michelangelo interested in nurturing protégés or students. There is a famous story — Fenton tells it well, relying on testimony by Filippo Baldinucci: The young Flemish sculptor Giambologna, newly arrived in Rome, boldly brought to Michelangelo, the great master, a small sculpture he had designed himself and modeled in wax, bringing it up to an extraordinary degree of finish.
Michelangelo took a look, then picked it up and completely destroyed it. He smashed it and kneaded it in front of Giambologna, and then set about remodeling it in his own manner. When he had finished he said: Now go and learn the art of modeling before you learn the art of finishing.
Why? wonders Fenton: Was this just a rather extreme example of constructive criticism, Renaissance-style? Or was Michelangelo warning Giambologna off? Had he sniffed a rival, and decided here was his chance to crush him?
In this show, there is a portrait of poor Giambologna. (Don’t feel too sorry for him; he went on to become a great sculptor, celebrated especially for his exceptionally smooth and lifelike finishes.) It’s a large painting, attributed to Peter Candid, and shows the sculptor in his studio.
Well-groomed and sumptuously dressed, Giambologna sits at a desk covered in a red cloth. He twists around to face the viewer, holding a compass, which he has evidently been using to make a drawing. It’s quite a fancy drawing, we’re led to assume. Perhaps an architectural drawing: the compass suggests “correct proportion” and “right measure,” and so on — intellectual activities.
Through a window, one sees into the artist’s workshop, where one of his sculptures stands on a plinth, catching the light coming in through two windows. Dry, dusty, and monochrome, this second space seems redolent of hard labor and dirt. Whatever nobility it has, the portrait seems to be saying, is owing to the intellectual work — the drawing — engaging Giambologna in the foreground.
Certainly, that’s one way of looking at things. But just as often — as the story of Giambologna’s earlier encounter with Michelangelo attests, and as Michelangelo’s own bozzetto implies — sculptors worked out problems and ideas in three dimensions, with malleable wax and clay.
In letting himself be presented this way, Giambologna was clearly out to prove something. So was Bandinelli, in the Gardner’s great self-portrait which hangs in the center of the exhibition. He shows himself wearing a heavy gold chain with a shell, the emblem of the Imperial Order of Santiago, which was bestowed on him by the Emperor Charles V. He points at a large drawing in red chalk to his left, a drawing he made for his sculpture of Hercules defeating Cacus. That sculpture was commissioned by the Florentine government and intended for the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio, right beside Michelangelo’s “David.”
It’s certain that Bandinelli would be better known today if, during his lifetime, he hadn’t been so widely despised. Vasari was withering about him. He described him as abusive, arrogant, ugly.
But of course, Vasari was very much Michelangelo’s man. He was so damning of Bandinelli in part because, unlike Michelangelo, Bandinelli had managed to stay on the good side of the Medici family during their exile from Florence. That meant that, when the Medici returned to power, he was rewarded with prestigious commissions — commissions Michelangelo wanted for himself; above all, the second sculpture for the entrance to the Palazzo Vecchio.
And Cellini? He was even more damning about Bandinelli than Vasari. In his autobiography, he called him a liar, a brute, and a beast, and he ridiculed the “Hercules and Cacus,” famously comparing Hercules’s shoulders to “the two pommels of an ass’s pack saddle” and the muscles of his body to “a big sack full of melons set upright against a wall.” (The image calls to mind Clive James’s memorable description of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a “condom full of walnuts.”)
So was Bandinelli, in his self-portrait — which, by the way, Isabella Stewart Gardner acquired in the belief that it was a portrait of Michelangelo! — making an elaborate point about the relationship between sculpture and drawing, and about his own status as a sculptor who could draw?
Undoubtedly. The point is reinforced by an engraving elsewhere in the exhibition showing Bandinelli supervising a dozen students in his own academy, all of them working by candlelight, surrounded by books, skeletons, and figurines. The intellectual atmosphere is palpable: You can almost feel their brains vibrating.
But was Bandinelli also thumbing his nose at Michelangelo? You can be sure of it.
It’s vaguely embarrassing to have to acknowledge all this. How petty and small-minded these great heroes of the Renaissance can seem in their jealousies and ambitions, all so nakedly displayed. But rivalry seems to have been a very big motivator during the Renaissance. We may need to continue considering the phenomenon closely, since it definitely produced winners and losers.
After all, it’s telling, surely, that even though Baccio Bandinelli is at the very center of this show — even though his self-portrait is on the cover of the catalog, and there are more works by him than by either Donatello, Michelangelo, or Cellini — his name is nowhere in the title. Their names are.
I began this piece cheaply hinting at a spot of rivalry between the Gardner and the MFA. It doesn’t exist, of course. But isn’t it wonderful that one of the great rivals of Michelangelo not represented in this show is to be the subject of an exhibition of drawings at the MFA next spring? His name, of course, is Leonardo da Vinci.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.