Today is the anniversary of the death of Jacobo Sansovino, who was born in Florence in 1486 and died in Venice in 1570. You may not be familiar with his name, gentle reader, but because of one single piece of art he created, he helped spur on the development of the Renaissance in Western Art, which of course had a far greater impact on world history than simply serving as decoration. In one sculpture, Sansovino helped convince his contemporaries that not only had they managed to rediscover the knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, but in fact they were reaching the point at which they would be able to surpass those who had come before them – and for this he certainly deserves a memorial toast.
In 1510 Sansovino was commissioned to sculpt a statue of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, for the Florentine aristocrat Giovanni Bartolini. It was to be placed in a niche in the classically designed gardens of the latter’s home, the Palazzo di Valfonda, alongside statues of other gods and heroes from Greek and Roman mythology. Fortunately for us, ever since the sculpture was later acquired by the Medici family, it has been housed in a museum for many centuries. If the statue had been left outside, what makes this particular sculpture so special might very well have been lost, as a result of exposure to the elements.
When the work was completed in 1512, it astonished viewers because of a single factor, which may not be apparent unless you think about what you are looking at. We see the figure of a nude young man, crowned with a wreath made out of grapevines. He is striding forward, while at his lower right a small faun is trying to snatch a cluster of grapes from his hand. All of this seems very ordinary at first, if we have seen Greek and Roman sculptures before. Yet what is truly remarkable about this particular piece is that the figure of the young god holds his left arm aloft, bearing a drinking vessel, and that left arm has no visible means of support.
Up until this time, sculptors were extremely reluctant to attempt this type of carving in stone, since they had little or no remaining evidence from the past that such a thing could be done successfully. Typically, when they were carving limbs that would be held away from the body, ancient sculptors would carve the arms of their statue separately and attach them later, since the weight of the heavy marble arms and the lack of support would tend to cause this part of the sculpture to crack and fall off, were it carved from a single block. For example, in the famous example of the now-armless “Venus de Milo” in The Louvre, on the right side of the torso one can see a hole, which originally held a metal strut to support the now-vanished right arm of the statue, carved separately and attached later in situ.
Moreover, not many patrons would be willing to pay for such a feat, which would likely end in failure. In a lightweight material such as wood, where things could be hollowed out or pinned together, gravity was not such a significant issue, but when it comes to stone, its heavy weight can be its undoing. Thus it was considered so difficult and risky to attempt to carve a statue with an arm held aloft in a single piece of carved stone, that until Sansovino made this bold attempt most sculptors – including Michelangelo – simply avoided the challenge altogether.
The arm alone is not the only innovation however, for here Sansovino is not simply copying his artistic forebears. He is portraying a classical subject in stone, of course, which would have been familiar to the ancients, but there is a more natural sense of motion and fluidity in the body than one would often find in classical sculpture. Admittedly this is not a universal observation, and there are notable exceptions, particularly from the Hellenic period. Yet here we have a sense of movement in the pose of the figure, and indeed of boldness on the part of its sculptor, to create a sense of liveliness caught in a split second, rather than portraying someone standing still or at rest, which is what Classical sculptors tended to do.
In his later career Sansovino moved to Venice, where he became an engineer and a brilliant architect, helping to spread the aesthetic ideals of High Renaissance Florence and Rome to that city. In fact, this native Florentine became so beloved by the Venetians, that when he died he was buried in the great Basilica of San Marco. Yet this single work from when Sansovino was only an up-and-coming artist in his mid-20’s, competing with dozens of other young sculptors in the artistic hotbed of Renaissance Florence, can be admired not only on its own merits, but more importantly as part of a whole.
Achievements such as this in the arts, sciences, literature, and so on, had a profound impact on the thinkers and writers of the Renaissance. These people became convinced that they were on the right track to achieve an even greater civilization than the ancients, to whom they had previously felt so inferior. As we are all aware, in the end this change of attitude had a profound impact on the entire history of humanity.
“Bacchus” (detail) by Jacobo Sansovino (c. 1510-1512)
The Bargello, Florence