In 2019, several museums exhibited artists who were previously best known as teachers of some of the greats. For instance, Verrocchio, master of Leonardo, had two major exhibitions in Florence and Washington, DC.
With Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence, the Frick Collection focuses its spotlight on Bertoldo di Giovanni (1440–1491), an understated, yet pivotal figure during the early and high Renaissance, long described as a disciple of Donatello and a tutor of Michelangelo. Ever an elusive figure, he was largely ignored until 1895, when art historian Wilhelm von Bode rediscovered him and published a monograph on him in 1925.
Bertoldo’s surviving work is limited to six bronze statuettes, five bronze reliefs, six medals, one polychrome statue, one terracotta frieze, and a series of stucco reliefs. While that’s not much to work with, the exhibition succeeds in presenting an insightful intellectual portrayal of the sculptor.
What stands out is his use of classical mythology in the form of allegory to extol the virtues of the Medici family and the subjects of his medals, who ranged from Ottoman dignitaries to Venetian noblewomen. Antonio Graziadei, a Franciscan friar who was both an astrologer and an ambassador, is portrayed in a medal alongside Apollo, Diana, the Muses, and Mercury — figures who reinforce his erudition and his ambassadorial authority.
The exhibition’s most imposing work is a frieze that originally adorned a Medici villa in Poggio a Caiano depicting scenes from classical mythology (for instance, the ascent of the god Jupiter, the seasons, Mars emerging from the temple of Janus, and the birth of the day after the night). As an allegory of the deeds of Lorenzo de’ Medici, whose motto was Le temps revient (“the age returns”), it refers to the journey of the soul and the fate of the just and the unjust, inspired by the Platonic myth of Er, a dead warrior who witnesses the treatment of the souls in the afterlife; the presence of Apollo, the Sun god, underscores the presentation of Medici as a ruler.
Bertoldo’s style — marked by muscular nudes in twisted poses — was described by art historian James David Draper (the first scholar since the 1920s to take a close interest in the artist) as a “divine, light-handed, winning lyricism,” in an interview with curatorial fellow Alexander J. Noelle that appears in the museum catalogue. “He is the pioneer of the male nude,” Draper adds (also noting the “gay factor” in his interpretations of the male form).
The sculpture “Bellerophon Taming Pegasus” (1480–82) is among the most statuesque male nudes of the Renaissance. It shows the eponymous hero in a contorted display of physical strife as he subjugates Pegasus. Likewise, his twin gilt-bronze statuettes known as “Shield Bearers” (1470–80) evidence a similar insight into the male physique. The so-called “Frick Shield Bearer,” for example, is young, lithe, and supple, while the twin figure, on loan from the Princely Collections in Liechtenstein, is heavier and more muscular.
While there is little evidence to establish just how central Bertoldo actually was in the Renaissance, Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence delights viewers by showcasing Bertoldo’s mythological themes and his freewheeling display of artistic and formal innovation.
Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence continues at The Frick Collection (1 East 70th Street, Manhattan) through January 12.