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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Bronze Sculpture in the Renaissance

Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin (as opposed to brass, an alloy of copper and zinc) to which other elements may be added in smaller amounts. A durable material, bronze can receive various patinations, such as gilding. It was used for the casting of artillery and utilitarian objects such as mortars, but in the fifteenth century it came increasingly into use for the casting of sculpture. Many European cities had bronze foundries, but Florence saw the first true flowering of bronze sculpture. The main monuments there are the two pairs of bronze doors by Lorenzo Ghiberti on the Baptistery (1404–24 and 1425–52) and several key works of Donatello. To the north, as in the Vischer family’s Shrine of Saint Sebaldus in Nuremberg (1507–19), a brassier metal was preferred, but the lustrous reddish bronze of Florence set the standard.

Collectors’ taste for bronze statuettes coincided with an upsurge of interest in classical antiquity. The Mantuan Antico earned his nickname with highly refined reductions of Greco-Roman antiquities. Many of the first makers of statuettes were trained as goldsmiths, like Antico and the Italian Andrea Briosco (called Riccio) (2009.58).

Throughout the Renaissance, bronze was cast by the lost-wax method. Around 1500, founders developed the technology for replicating compositions. The first great entrepreneurs in casting and exquisitely patinating statuettes were the Flemish-born Mannerist Giovanni Bologna—known as Giambologna—and his assistants in Florence in the second half of the sixteenth century. Monumental bronze works had been carried out with éclat in Florence, notably Benvenuto Cellini’s well-loved Perseus (1545–54). It was Giambologna, however, who was most influential in translating monument into statuette, and his sinuous art, based on the compositional principles of the figura serpentinata, was echoed by court sculptors all over Europe, including the Dutch-born Adriaen de Vries and the Munich-based Hubert Gerhard.