Lorenzo Bartolini: Scultore del bello naturale. Galleria dell’Accademia (Florence) until November 6th.
The nineteenth-century rebellion against French academicism was carried out on several fronts. A variety of new themes, subjects, and techniques were used as ammunition, and the expanding international market widened the battlefield. It was more than a two-sided contest between “conformists” and “non-conformists,” for there were multiple camps of non-conformists each of whom eventually found something else to champion.
Lorenzo Bartolini (1777-1850) and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres championed ancient art and that of the Quattrocento, albeit with a unique, personal touch and a foundation in the Neo-Classical principles inherited from Jacques Louis David. Taking up residence in David’s relocated studio in the Capuchin Convent, they assimilated their teacher’s emphasis on drawing and the use of live models, but they were also captivated by Englishman John Flaxman (1755-1826), whose illustrations and sculpture exhibited a range of freedom previously unknown to continental Neo-Classicism. This marked the beginning of a road that would lead Bartolini back to his Italian homeland enflamed with a passion for natural beauty and minute detail.
Born to an artisan family of the Prato region, Bartolini enrolled in the Florentine Accademia di Belle Arti at the age of twelve and subsequently apprenticed with Pietro and Giovanni Pisani. He gradually became frustrated with the limited opportunities in Florence and moved to Paris, where he earned a respectable second in the Prix de Rome of 1802. This gained him a steady stream of commissions that would endure throughout his life. Bartolini remained in Paris until his appointment to the sculpture department at the Accademia di Carrara in 1808. He was subsequently granted an honorary lectureship at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Firenze, where he vehemently preached the superiority of natural over ideal beauty. At fifty-four, he married Maria Anna Virginia Boni, with whom he had four children. He reached his life-long goal in 1839 when Leopold II appointed him master sculptor at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, giving him an even higher platform from which to rail against Neo-Classicism and share his passion for natural beauty. To emphasize the point, he brought in a hunchback to serve as a model for his students, insisting that everything is beautiful with respect to its subject, and that anyone able to copy nature can do anything else besides.
Given the large collection of plaster models in the Gipsoteca, it is most fitting that the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze should host a show dedicated exclusively to Bartolini. The chronological ordering retraces Bartolini’s development in exploring the great themes of sensation, memory, purity, and civic virtue. The first section focuses on his Neo-Classical period and the patronage of Napoleon. A second section introduces the heightened importance of ethical value in his work and a wider international market. A third and final section showcases his ever-increasing attention to detail and natural truth.
When in Paris, Bartolini devoted himself not only to ancient sculpture but literature as well. He and his roommates at the Capuchin Convent took part in the lively debate between the reconstructed “Greece” of modernity and the Greece being discovered through historiography and archeology.
This is evident in a comparison of the different representations of Thetis begging Zeus to avenge her son Achilles after the latter forfeited his favorite slave to Agamemnon. “… (Thetis) rose from under the sea and went through great heaven with early morning to Olympus, where she found the mighty son of Saturn sitting all alone upon its topmost ridges. She sat herself down before him, and with her left hand seized his knees, while with her right she caught him under the chin and besought him” to give the Trojans an advantage over the Achaeans until her son was redeemed (Illiad, Book I, trans. Samuel Butler).
The most famous picture of the episode (signed “Roma 1811”) is by Ingres who, in accord with David’s principles, utilized live models for the preparatory sketches. Ingres combined bold Neo-Classicism in the figure of Zeus with the structureless, abstract form of Thetis. Conversely, John Flaxman’s illustration (1805) shows Zeus in profile and Thetis resting her right arm atop his left knee rather than reaching for his chin. In the drawing by Bartolini featured in this exhibition, the bodies of Zeus and Thetis are much closer than in Flaxman’s composition — a closeness Ingres alludes to by having the right toes of Thetis and Zeus touch ever so lightly. Ingres’s originality seems in large part due to Bartolini’s visualization of the scene. Both were inspired by Toussaint-Bernard Émeric-David’s description of Phidias’s statue of the same subject, acknowledged as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Cicero, Émeric-David believed, could not have been serious when he wrote that Phidias worked from a pure concept of ideal beauty, for Cicero himself taught that truth is the most beautiful rhetorical device and the soul cannot know anything without the intermediary of the senses.
When Bartolini returned to Italy after Napoleon’s death, he was disparaged for being too “French” in mannerisms, politics, and artistic taste. Although he staunchly opposed the standards of Neo-Classicism, he found acceptance among a circle of foreign patrons whose commissions kept destitution at bay. He authored portraits of Florence’s most distinguished figures including Maurizio Bufalini, the Marchese Pierfrancesco Rinuccini, Giorgio Gallesio, and the Grand Duke. His proclivity for the Quattrocento is exemplified by Portrait of a Woman (c. 1820) which bears an unmistakable resemblance to Andrea del Verrocchio’s Lady with Primroses (1475-1480). A plaster model of the former is on display. Not only the flower, but the inclusion of arms in the bust testifies to Bartolini’s close study of Verrocchio.
Verrocchio also inspired Bartolini’s l’Ammostatore (Grape Presser, c. 1820), a work executed several times after a plaster model dating between 1816 and 1820. Bartolini evokes Verrocchio’s David (1464-1469) but reinterprets the pose with new formal significance and a fresh narrative scheme. The version displayed in this exhibition, belonging to the Hermitage Museum, seems to be the original commissioned by Count James-Alexandre de Pourtalès-Gorgier in the 1820s and “lost” during an 1865 auction of his collection. Although this first l’Ammostatore went unnoticed by the critics, it marks a turning point in Bartolini’s development towards a purer naturalism, showing softer lines and an ease of feeling absent from the work of his contemporaries. Apparently the replica commissioned by Count Tosio Martinengo of Brescia and praised by Pietro Giordani for being “finemente scelto e studiato”(finely chosen and studied) was far more beautiful. The American artist Horatio Greenough was profoundly moved by this piece during an Italian sojourn.
La carità educatrice (1817-1835) is equally Quattrocento-like even though it represents a wholly modern political worldview. It was commissioned by Ferdinand III for a niche in the chapel of the Villa del Poggio Imperiale. Unfinished at Ferdinand’s death, his successor Leopold II not only approved it but commissioned a bust of himself immediately upon seeing Bartolini’s work. La carità educatrice was so outstanding that Leopold agreed not to have it tucked away in his chapel so that a wider audience could appreciate the values of charity and education it stood for. It also served as a convenient reminder of the Duke’s paternal authority and openness to scientific progress.
Bartolini himself relied on the scientific method of observation and recordkeeping. He worked with models not only in the initial phases of a project, but even after putting chisel to marble. He was convinced that there were no perfect models, but that nature “drops perfection onto a body between two defects.” He would strive to discern perfection in the smallest detail of every model.
One wonders whether the incessant stream of models may not have risked transporting him back to the ideal. For all its exquisite beauty, one gets that impression after viewing Faith in God (1834-1835), a piece carved for Rosina Trivulzio Poldi Pezzoli in memory of her husband Giuseppe Poldi Pezzoli. Rosina was gushing with praise for this consoling piece that perfectly expressed her abandonment of faith after the death of her spouse. Pietro Giordani praised the artist’s ability to realize in marble an idea Bartolini had long contemplated in silence.
There is no doubt that Faith in God adheres to the highest standards of naturalism based on human anatomy. The tenderness of the gently rounded knees, clasped hands, and overlapping toes is exquisite. Yet one cannot help but notice similarities with Ingres’s Baigneuse de Valpinçon (1808), and in doing so, wonder if Bartolini has crossed the line into maudlin sentimentality. It is ironic that critics took the piety represented by this piece too seriously, as evidenced by Arrivabene’s remark in the Figaro that the title must have been coined by “some pious Florentine priest.” Giordani, no less anti-clerical than Arrivabene, defended Faith in God by pointing to its “sublimità di concetti, finezza di lavoro e varietà di rappresentazione.”
The first two qualities are fair enough, but the third raises a question of what exactly is “represented.” Insofar as the chosen pose is a highly innovative way of representing faith, Bartolini deserves the accolade. If, however, Giordani means that the pose discloses several different aspects of faith simultaneously, then his comment loses its punch, for the ultra-naturalness of the statue leaves little room for a disclosure of faith’s multi-facetedness. The viewer is completely absorbed by the artwork, not the multi-facetedness of what the artwork represents. The same could be said of the Nymph and the Scorpion (1845), although in that case, we are supposed to be absorbed by the piece and not by anything the piece signifies beyond itself.
Bartolini engaged in his art at a time when taste meant everything. He was intent on refining the best the Greeks and humanists had to offer, but always with a touch of personal style. Without being decadent, his art was nonetheless self-indulgent: not in the sense that he was indulging himself, but that his art was entirely focused on the product — nothing more, nothing less. In striving to separate himself from the trend of art representing ideals, he brought about the idealization of art. It is an art that wallows in the truth of natural beauty but seems to shirk from the truth of nature itself.
In this year celebrating the 500th anniversary of Giorgrio Vasari’s birth, a final word must be added about Bartolini’s contribution to the Loggiato degli Uffizi. His statue of Niccolò Machiavelli (1845-1846), commissioned for one of the palace’s niches, was a project that involved Bartolini intellectually and emotionally. He used the famous portrait by Santi di Tito as a guide but was entirely intent on recreating the quintessential statesman down to the finest detail. He obtained accurate descriptions of Machiavelli’s clothing and two funerary masks to render the face. His reanimation of the “philosopher-thinker” was unveiled in June of 1846 together with statues of Amerigo Vespucci by Gaetano Grazzini and Cosimo Pater Patriae by Luigi Magi.
In the mid-nineteenth century, with his wry expression signifying impeccable reasoning, Machiavelli stood for the strong and tightly knit Italy that was the goal of the Risorgimento. Machiavelli, resting his book on a shattered Roman column inscribed with the coats of arms of foreign oppressors, seems deeply troubled by the state of affairs on the peninsula. Here we have an extraordinary integration of individual personality and collective aspiration that makes this a remarkable piece of monumental art. In its own way and at its own time, it embodied the Florentine spirit no less than Michelangelo’s David.