Giambologna: Gods and Heroes: Genesis and Fortune of a European Style in Sculpture
Florence: Museo Nazionale del Bargello/Milan: Giunti, 383 pp., $48.00 (paper; in Italian only)
Giambologna: Triumph of the Body
Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum/Milan: Skira, 311 pp., $49.90 (paper; in German only)
During the second half of the sixteenth century, one man dominated the making of sculpture in Europe. Known chiefly by his nickname, Giambologna, he was a Flemish artist who worked for the Medici court in Florence. A figure of remarkable creativity and unflagging industry, for nearly fifty years he ceaselessly produced sculpture in every medium, from wax and clay to marble and bronze, and on every scale, from the miniature to the gigantic. Although originally conceived to meet the needs of the Medici and the refined literati of their circle, Giambologna’s sculptures soon had a degree of popularity without precedence in the history of post-classical art. Every king and connoisseur sought work by his hand and his bronzes were exported throughout Italy and the continent. Such was the appetite for his sculpture that his workshop remained open for business long after his death, and some of his models stayed in production for one hundred years or more. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
Giambologna was the first artist since antiquity whose success lay primarily in making sculptures that depicted secular rather than sacred figures and stories. Most celebrated works of earlier Florentine sculpture show heroes from Judeo-Christian history, for example Donatello’s Saint George or Michelangelo’s David. By contrast, Giambologna’s most popular subjects were drawn from classical mythology—Hercules, Venus, Apollo, and the like. This change in subject matter was related to profound changes in basic assumptions about the nature of art. Giambologna and his patrons had new ideas of what works of sculpture could represent, where they should be placed, how they should be viewed, and what they should be used for—in short, they created a new sense of how sculpture and the other visual arts could be part of one’s life.
Despite Giambologna’s importance, modern scholars have often treated him as an artist too rarefied to be of interest for a wide audience. When a major exhibition of his work was held in Europe in 1978, no American museum was willing to show it; and although there are many specialist studies, the standard account of the artist was written in Flemish fifty years ago, and there is only one biography available in English. To remedy the oversight, a pair of related exhibitions have been mounted this year: one show that recently closed at the Bargello in Florence, and another exhibition now on view at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna; an excellent short book in Italian has also just been published. The two shows display many of the same works, and the catalogs share some of the same essays. Yet they were organized independently by different curators and they bring to the foreground very different aspects of the artist’s work and career.
Giambologna was born in Douai in Flanders around 1529, and his initial training was in the workshop of Jacques Dubroeucq, the sculptor to Mary of Hungary, Charles V’s sister. Around 1550, when he was about twenty-one years …