Bertoldo at The Frick

Celebrating the inventiveness of the modest Renaissance sculptor

Anne Holler
November 18, 2019 - 16:04

When I scurried over to The Frick Collection last month to take in the museum’s latest exhibit, Bertoldo di Giovanni, The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence, I had one question in mind: Would The Frick bring up Bertoldo’s past?



Almost 15 years ago, Columbia professor Lynn Catterson offered up some convincing evidence that Bertoldo di Giovanni (1440–91) could very well be the illegitimate son of Giovanni de Medici (1421–63), the younger son of Cosimo the Elder (1389–1464). What does it matter? you might wonder. The point is that in the status-conscious world of wealthy patrons, Renaissance artists and highly coveted commissions, Bertoldo is a bit of a mystery. He led a charmed life for the son of two modest-living German immigrants from the Oltrarno.



As a young man, he hobnobbed with the Medici—no mean feat for an outsider—and sometime in the spring of 1459, he began to study sculpture with none other than Donatello. In her article, Catterson surmises: “A family connection would help to explain how someone otherwise unknown not only gained access to Donatello, but inherited the workshop along with its outstanding commissions, all within a period of less than seven years.”



Catterson has done solid art detective work on Bertoldo’s life. Her analysis of Benozzo Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi in Palazzo Medici Riccardi’s Magi Chapel gives new meaning to this mural. Body language and the direction of gazes are key to understanding who played what role in the motley collection of family members, favored artists, tutors and an equestrian instructor. Everyone has a place. Catterson presents a compelling case for Bertoldo’s presence among the line up of the younger generation of Medici.



This is a long introduction to my curiosity on how the exhibit would explain Bertoldo’s uncanny rise to fame. The answer, I discovered, is that The Frick didn’t go there. What the curators of the show do tell us, though, is that Bertoldo, finding himself in the midst of some heavy-hitting Renaissance talent, was Lorenzo de’ Medici’s favorite sculptor. To top it off, he apparently was an entertaining fellow. Lorenzo valued his company, taking him along on his travels. Bertoldo was “family”.



Appointed custodian and curator of Lorenzo’s antiquities garden near San Marco, Bertoldo met up with a young rising star, Michelangelo. Over time, The Frick curators explain, Michelangelo’s biographers, including Giorgio Vasari, brushed aside Bertoldo’s contributions to Renaissance sculpture in favor of Donatello and, of course, Michelangelo.



The Frick exhibit is determined to set the record straight; there are some gems here. On loan from Florence’s Bargello is Bertoldo’s largest bronze, Battle (c. 1480–85). The source of his inspiration was an ancient sarcophagus in which Roman soldiers are attacking foreigners. Bertoldo borrows the same wild scene of warriors lashing out at each other and horses stumbling. The lines are blurred, however. There are no clear distinctions on who the enemies are. It’s just massive turbulence. The chief warrior takes center stage wearing the helmet of the god Hermes and the lion skin of Hercules.




Bertoldo di Giovanni, Battle, ca. 1480–85. Bronze 17 3/4 x 39 1/8 inches. Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Granted by the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities. Photo Mauro Magliani




Bertoldo created this enigmatic work for the Florentine palazzo of Lorenzo de’ Medici, perhaps to be hung over one of those massive fireplaces. As in many of Bertoldo’s works, there is a something puzzling in the subject matter that encourages reflection and philosophical discussion.



Two almost identical gilt bronze statuettes, one owned by The Frick Collection and the other by Liechtenstein: The Princely Collection, are shown together for the first time in modern history. The reunited figures are another example of Bertoldo’s playful but thought-provoking style. Both statues are named Shield Bearer (c. 1470–80), although The Frick statue sports a tail and horns, while the Liechtenstein figure lacks these attributes. Again, Bertoldo challenges the viewer to wonder why two so similar creatures should, on close inspection, reveal a difference. A Frick press release reminds us that this kind of artistic wit allowed the viewer to join in on “an intriguing game of identification designed to beguile the learned Renaissance mind.”




Bertoldo di Giovanni, Shield Bearer (detail), ca. 1470–80. Gilt bronze H 8 7/8 inches. The Frick Collection, New York. Photo: Michael Bodycomb



In the astonishing bronze Bellerophon Taming Pegasus (c. 1480–82), the raised forelegs of the mythic horse dance in sync with the taut limbs of the monster-slaying Greek hero, who is subduing the creature with an enchanted bridle. Bertoldo designed and modeled the small sculpture, but he employed another artist, Adriano Fiorentino, to cast the statuette.



In dramatic contrast to these smaller works created for contemplation in a quiet interior space, Bertoldo pulled out all the stops for the glazed terracotta frieze for Lorenzo’s villa at Poggio a Caiano (c. 1480s). The Medici family was particularly proud of this colorful medium as it was made from native Florentine earth that had been transformed into gleaming works of art using a secret technique invented by the Della Robbia family of Florence.



The Frick is to be congratulated for its efforts in bringing over the entire Frieze for the Portico of the Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano (c. 1490). Indeed, this is the first time that the original frieze has left Tuscany. (A copy graces the original portico today.) Commissioned by Lorenzo, the embellishment is a parade of warriors, gods, goddesses and chariots, glazed in chalk white against a clear blue background. In choosing an antique theme as well as the ancient medium of terracotta, Bertoldo may have been reinforcing the Medici’s political interest in identifying their family roots with the Etruscan past.



Bertoldo di Giovanni and collaborators. Frieze for the Portico of the Medici Villa at Poggio a Caiano, ca. 1490. Glazed terracotta 22 7/8 x 571 1/4 inches. Villa Medicea di Poggio a Caiano, Polo Museale della Toscana. Gabinetto Fotografico delle Gallerie degli Uffizi




Bertoldo di Giovanni remains a Renaissance artist with a few secrets, but this show at The Frick gives us a glimpse into his inventiveness. Curator Aimee Ng wants us to remember: “What the Frick has done is capitalize on the mysteriousness of and, by extension, his art.”




Source: Lynn Catterson, Middeldorf and Bertoldo, Both Again, Artibus et Historiae, Vol. 26, No. 51 (2005), pp. 85 - 101.




Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence

September 18 - January 12, 2020

1 East 70th Street, near Fifth Avenue, New York

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