Earth and Fire: Italian Terracotta Sculpture from Donatello to Canova
Yale University Press, 311 pp., $75.00
University of Chicago Press, 228 pp., $50.00
Impressionist Still Life
Phillips Collection/Abrams, 240 pp., $45.00; $25.00 (paper)
It is surprising that there should exist no general history of Italian terracottas, those clay models of figures or groups that are to sculpture in marble and bronze what drawing is to painting. And then again, perhaps it is not so surprising, for there exists no general history of Italian drawings either. Many things that you would expect to find done (even if badly done) in the world of art history have not even been attempted. If you wish to find out about Italian terracotta, you must turn to the catalogs of various exhibitions that have been devoted to individual collections (the Arthur M. Sackler Collection, the Farsetti collection in St. Petersburg, the Palazzo di Venezia collection in Rome) and piece the story together for yourself.*
The exhibition assembled by Bruce Boucher and others at Houston, which moves on to the Victoria and Albert Museum in March, is the latest in this series of special shows, but it differs from nearly all of its predecessors in not being drawn from a single collection (indeed it is drawn from all of the greatest public collections in the world) and in the scope of its catalog, which is a well-produced book designed for an independent life. It is not the general history we should like to see, but it is the nearest thing so far. The exhibition itself is a fine achievement. After the attacks of September 11, the staff at Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts thought that their show was definitely sunk: no one would lend. In fact, only one oil painting was withheld, out of over eighty exhibits.
The installation in Houston was not the best thing about the show. The lighting was overdramatic, casting sharp shadows where they were not wanted, and some unfortunate lines from the joins in perspex display cases. Worse than this because less obvious were the numerous wrong calculations for the ideal height of the plinths. Sculpture shows are difficult to install because the objects arrive from all around the world, in the company of their various curators, and must be placed in their permanent position while the curator is still present. Once the curator from, say, the Louvre has gone back to Paris, the objects from the Louvre may not be shifted again until his or her reappearance at the end of the show. Whereas it may be easy to rethink the hang of an exhibition of paintings, and to improvise, to an extent, on the spot, an exhibition of sculpture has to be planned correctly ahead—and this one somehow wasn’t.
But in all other respects it is remarkable. All of the major model-makers in the tradition, with the exception of Michelangelo, are represented, often by some of their finest works. Michelangelo’s absence is not surprising. According to an estimate by Jeannine O’Grody, in her catalog essay, only eight small-scale models by the master have survived, three of them in clay (all in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence), four in wax, and…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.