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La Pietà

Bartolomeo di Giovanni d’Astore dei Sinibaldi known as Baccio da Montelupo

Firenze, 1469 – Lucca, 1534

Material: Earthen

Size: 69,5 x 64 x 42 cm

review by prof. giancarlo gentilini e david lucidi

Virgin Mary gazing upon Jesus’ body is portrayed with such a realism in order to emphasize exactly the moment when she, astonished and deeply sighing, is supposed to sadly relive her son’s birth. All those loving moments, however, were meant to foretell his earthly experience would have ended, as it had begun, within her mother’s womb.

According to Madre Dolorosa  iconographic features, Mary’s piety and devotion are emphasized by her position. As she sits, her widely striking monastic dress hides almost completely the seat as well as her body, except for her face and hand skin.

Her dress folds down to emphasize its deeply sharp hems and its lively wavy cuffs. This is a typical feature of the late fifteenth century Florentine artistic school: several Tuscan artists – such as Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Lorenzo Di Credi and Benedetto Da Maiano – used it very often.

The main character of the sculpture is Mary, whose pyramid shaped structure expresses in the best possible way the chiasmus technique. Her right leg harmonizes with her head moving downward: such an artistic feature emphasizes the magnificence and the dynamism of the sculpture.

The artist’s virtuosity mainly results not only from making Jesus’ body totally surrended  to gravity, but also from letting us appreciate his huge knowledge of human anatomy.

He carefully portrays the harmonious features of Jesus’ refined body and his well defined smooth limbs, although the pains of his martyrdom due to the crucifixion. All his muscles give out a brighting light breaking on his finely moulded abdominals. It creates some contrasting effects on his chest whose surface shows such a refined deep wound.

Both the characters’ hands are portrayed with a sublime descriptive naturalism. On the one side, those of Mary are quite rounded while her wrists are as swollen as any peers’. Jesus’ hands, on the other, are tapered and smooth with their fingers sliding towards the groin where his hands cross each other, according to the funeral rites.

The somatic traits of their lengthened and oval shaped heads are well defined. On the one side, we can appreciate their protruding cheekbones and noses as well as their swallow-shaped eyebrows. On the other, the facial muscles are smooth and well defined with two wrinkles around the lips only: however, they don’t change the characters’ gentle somatic traits at all.

The single-piece artwork expresses all the artist’s technical great skills: it’s open on its back, for instance, as he wanted the material which it’s composed of to completely dry out.

Jesus’ shape ends at its knees, where some signs of a previous restoration are clear even now. We can then appreciate the traces of its original chromatic features on Mary’s dress only. The sculpture, however, was likely to be completely covered with an uniform film.

Baccio da Montelupo’s earthen work was published for the first time in 1970  on “Paragone”, a prestigious art and literature magazine, by Hildegard Utz. The German author, however, ascribed it to Giovanni Della Robbia at first. She  compared it with two alleged earthen works of his which are kept both at Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Then, Utz stated all three works were sculpted by Della Robbia, but later she realised she was completely wrong. As Andrea, his father, whose “Pietà fittile” is kept at Bargello Museum in Florence, Giovanni Della Robbia was inspired by the same classic theme. Though with a lower success, he realised his “Pietà invetriata” kept at Santa Maria Della Scala hospital first and at Bargello Museum then.

However, because of Giovanni’s too formal and traditional artistic flair, as his “Pietà invetriata” shows, several author criticised Utz’s statements. Then, they ascribed the artwork we’re analysing to Baccio Da Montelupo, by dating it back to 1495.

In that period he was realising the earthen “Compianto” at San Domenico church in Bologna. That was affirmed by Gentilini in 1991, it was supported by Turner in 1997 and it hasn’t been rejected yet.

Furthermore, one of the artworks Hildegard Utz thought to be realised by Giovanni Della Robbia – the “Maddalena” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – was unanimously ascribed to Baccio.

His “Pietà”, moreover, is very similar, by a stylistic point of view mainly, to the Compianto sculptural complex originally realised for San Domenico church in Bologna.

Today we can appreciate only two of the eight items it was initially composed of. The  superb crocifix he sculpted in 1496 is now kept at San Marco church in Florence, while the smaller one within Savonarola’s cell at the nearby museum. They are said to be the peak of Baccio’s artistic career before the sixteenth century.

By comparing the Compianto complex to Baccio’s “Pietà” we can appreciate a lot of similarities. Their characters’ facial traits are clear and smooth as well as their wide and embracing clothes. Baccio’s artistic virtuosity gets the top by sculpting the winding course of their hair in order to give each character a secretly painful look. That’s well emphasized by their sad faces and their unfolded mouths on the one side.

By their sightly wrinckled foreheads – whose double engraving is one of Baccio’s trademarks – and their gently tapered hands, on the other.

If San Marco crucifix recalls Baccio’s “Pietà” because of the similarities between their main characters, as we can notice by looking at their Jesus’ facial and body muscolar traits, the tinier sculpture within Savanarola cell is even more similar to the one we are analysing.

Focusing on their lengthened heads, we’ll surely agree upon two main aspects. On the one side, the analogies between their tough swallow-shaped eyebrowns – another trademark of Baccio’s – as well as their sharp noses and their wavy hair up to the shoulders. On the other, the similarities between their chests and abdonimals, both resulting from the artist’s great skill in realising each detail carefully.

However, the work we’re analysing is strictly connected with another artwork of Baccio’s: the wooden crucifix next to the high altar of Santa Lucia church in Settimello.

We can appreciate several similarities between their main characters, such as the well defined muscles and the lengthened limbs. Focusing on their mouths, the way they are realised allows us to get their pathos.

Then, if we’re asked to set a date to Baccio’s “Pietà”, we’ll surely date it back to the period between 1494 and 1500, as the great part of the works we have just considered.

Because of its several similarities to Arezzo abbey crucifix, which is very likely to be realised in the early sixteenth century, we may date back Settimello wooden artwork to the same period.

Baccio was born in 1469 in Montelupo, a tiny town close to Florence, where the earthen was widely employed. He’s likely to be steered to arts by some local craftsmen. In the late Eighties of the fifteenth century he moved to Florence  where he was allowed to work at Benedetto Da Maiano’s thriving workshop.

According to Vasari, Baccio realised a huge amount of wooden crucifixes in his early years at Lorenzo Il Magnifico’s court with his great friends Michelangelo Buonarroti, Giovan Francesco Rustici, Pietro Torrigiani, Andrea Sansovino, Giuliano Bugiardini and Lorenzo Di Credi.

After experiencing at Bertoldo’s art drawing workshop, as a hugely versatile artist he mainly joined his name to San Marco church – where Benedetto, his brother, was ordained priest in 1487 –  and to Girolamo Savonarola.

Baccio’s latest fifteenth century works were the Dominican reformer’s main representational expression because of their simple and strong style, far from any intellectual conjecture.

Savonarola aimed at leading people to a more painful liturgical experience and at making them live according to the most important ascetic values. He wanted the Catholic Church to be reformed according to such a pauperistic idea to emphasize, for instance, Saint Anthony and Giovanni Dominici’s main religious precepts.

Although it is one of the most tragic moments during Jesus’ Passion, his deposition from the Cross – as well as the placement of his body within the Holy Sepulcher – hasn’t been officially codified yet.

However, as it was the theme Baccio was inspired by to realise its “Compianto”, a lot of artists, scholars and mystics explained the pathos coming from the scene Baccio had shaped. 

Thanks to an apocryphal text which was ascribed to Nicodemo, we can imagine the moment when Jesus was carried off the Cross. Several grieved people – as Maddalena, San Giovanni Evangelista and a hugely crying Mary – were around him and we can appreciate Baccio’s great virtuosity to get the intense pain out of the scene.

The suffering strenght of the Compianto complex expresses the main aspects of such a religiousness several mendicant orders used to preach fanatically between the XIII and the XIV centuries, according, for instance, to Meditationes vitae Christi Franciscan essay.

Nevertheless, reliving Jesus’ passion in a more moderate way to focus mainly on the motherly love coming from the scene was more and more needed in that period.

Such a demand resulted in the iconographic items Baccio’s “Pietà” was inspired by. Instead of describing an event by a narrative point of view only, as the Compianto complex, the “Pietà” was intended to be a religious icon to pray to as the wider Madonna with Child image.

We can therefore assume Baccio’s “Pietà” is symbolically closer to this than the Compianto which, on the contrary, is more similar, by an iconographic point of view, to Christ’s Nativity icon.

Piety underlaying theme caught on the early decades of the XIV century sculpture over French and German areas especially, as local people used to recite the vespers – corresponding to Christ’s Deposition, according to the Breviary – in front of Jesus lying on Mary’s arms. This kind of prayer was then named Vesperbild.

Coventional and quite recurring artworks like these were made of stone, wood and earthen mainly. They were widely popular in Italy thanks to some itinerant Northern craftsmen and, shortly afterwards, some important local artists imitated them. However, they added their own artistic and cultural knowledges to the original iconographic items to realise a huge variety of artworks starting from the same theme.

We can’t then ignore those Dello Delli, Alberto di Betto D’Assisi, Lorenzo Di Pietro better known as “Vecchietta” and Michelangelo Buonarroti realised. Michelangelo’s “Pietà Vaticana” (1498-1499), though it’s made of marble, is quite similar to Baccio’s “Pietà” as he’s likely to have employed the same iconographic scheme.

Such a simpler iconographic item, although often enhanced by Maddalena and San Giovanni Evangelista’s images, swept through Florence with a great success in the early decades of the sixteenth century, when Savonarola’s preaches were about to get their peak.

As he was strictly careful to get what religious artworks caused among his devotees, he improved the Dominican representational list with a lot of pure and austere images, as Christ body worship’s.

As Baccio wanted to comply with Savonarola’s words, he emphasized Mary’s  ascetic pain by depriving her solemn image of any expressive detail which could avoid people to get away from their liturgical activities. Her noble, austere and strict image was intended to express in the best way the solemn gravitas of classical Italian art as well.

Therefore, on the one side Pietas theme was able to move devotees deeply when they were on their own mainly, in Florence at that time especially, because of the huge cultural background of the city. On the other, it was able to recall some traditional values such as austerity and solemnity, especially if the artworks inspired by them were made of materials such as earthen.

It was said, for instance, to recall the virtues, such as rectitude and uprightness, Plinius wanted art to be inspired by and he used to emphasize in contrast to the immoral opulence undermining Rome at his time.

Thanks to Wilhaelm Bode’s innovative studies – the first scholar who analysed Pietas theme when related to sculpture (1887) – Savonarola’s religious concepts and late XV century Florentine art are meant to be the cultural background of such an artistic production.

They also affected the following critics, as they had been minimizing it for a long time because of its alleged low class origins.

As Franco Caglioti recently (2007) stated, Savonarola’s teachings were only the peak of the pauperistic revolution hugely affected the Catholic Church as well as the Italian artistic scene.

However, three works only are said to be its main result. On the one side, the painting Perugino realised for San Giusto Alle Mura abbey and now kept at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. On the other, the polychrome earthen “Pietà” Leonardo Del Tasso, one of Benedetto Da Maiano’s most skilled apprentices, moulded in 1441 (according to Gentilini, 1991) and the sculpture Andrea Della Robbia realised in 1505 (now kept at Bargello Museum).

Therefore, we can’t ignore the “Pietà” Benedetto Da Maiano shaped between 1480 and 1490, before Savonarola’s strict religious teachings caught on, for Lapi family’s altar within Santa Maria Nipotecosa church.

Unfortunately, only Mary’s bust – at Amedeo Lia Museum in La Spezia – and Maddalena’s whole shape – as a part of a private collection in New York – have remained. The last one, moreover, was the main model for similar sculptures later realised, as the 1494 artwork Francesco Talducci wanted for his family chapel within Santa Trinità church in Prato.

Between the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, two earthen models of Pietas theme caught on. On the one side, in addition to those we’ve just described, the works kept today at New York Metropolitan Museum and Philadelphia Museum of Art. They are composed of four characters, although we’ll mainly focus on Jesus’ body with San Giovanni Evangelista and Maddalena holding his head and feet up.

On the other, as inspired by nordic Vesperbilds, the less common sculpture shows Mary holding Jesus’ body up, whose looking downwards face emphasizes the gravitas of the scene, as in San Pietro a Seano and San Giovanni in Valdarno artworks.

However, as the ones at San Michele in Capugnano and San Vivaldo in Montaione, some other sculptures emphasize not only Mary and Jesus, but also Maddalena and San Giovanni Evangelista which, although as side images, interact with Christ’s body laying on Mary’s knees.

Such a scenic structure is said to be very similar to the original scheme of Baccio’s early artworks. As an instance, a polychrome 69 cm high San Giovanni Evangelista sculpture from a private collection is hugely similar to them by a stylistic point of view mainly.

We can’t ignore, however, that Baccio’s “Pietà” is smaller and more refined than them, as the artworks realised for private purposes such as a decorative item for domestic altars or chapels of noble families. That aspect means to suggest its original scenic scheme was composed of two characters only, as two similar paintings may prove.

On the one side, the picture realised by Bartolomeo Caporali from Perugia and now kept at Capitolare Museum in the Umbrian city. On the other, the painting Maestro di Memphis, one of Filippino Lippi’s apprentices, realised in 1497 approximately and now kept at Santa Verdiana Museum in Castiglion Fiorentino.

The refined and adorned background curtain of Caporali’s artwork recalls a scenic technical device Baccio employed to improve the solemnity of his crucufixes, in accordance to Savonarola’s strict religious teachings.

Santa Verdiana painting is thought to be inspired by Baccio’s earthen “Pietà” because of its evident similarities with it which, therefore, is said to be one of the most important artistic adaptations of this theme.

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