At the Louvre, Quattrocento sculptors between grace and fury

Do you find this fall gloomy? If there is still time, run to the Louvre, where the poet Orpheus, dancing to the accents of his stringed instrument, opens the ball with a superb assembly of Italian Renaissance sculptures!

In 2013, the museum presented the first bouquet of this flowering that began in Florence at the beginning of the 15th century, around Lorenzo Ghiberti and the young Donatello. Here is the continuation, covering the second half of the Quattrocento, and this time extended to all northern Italy then to Rome, where Tuscan innovations spread, after the Peace of Lodi (1454). The subject is complex, which multiplies the play of echoes from one work to another, the regional variants, not always explicit for lack of developed labels.

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Some Roman works first recall how much this “Renaissance” is primarily that of ancient models. Donatello feeds on it, in search of a narrative art favoring movement and emotions, “The Body and the Soul », Depending on the title chosen for the exhibition.

The Roman dancers or nymphs, with delicately choreographed gestures, drapes swollen like sails and aerial loops, embodiments of very gentle feelings, of a “Grace” Apollonian, inspire her just as much as the “Fury” Dionysian (according to the distinction of the historian Aby Warburg), who is unleashed in the naked battles of centaurs and giants, carved on the ancient sarcophagi.

Stirring and sonorous scenes of the Passion

This new expressiveness then influences both sculptors and painters such as the young Mantegna, active in Padua when Donatello stayed there for ten years. Under the influence of Devotio moderna, religious scenes, especially in northern Italy, see a whole theater of the Passion unfurling, agitated and sonorous: Madeleine convulsed and arms raised in the sky, screaming executioners, Virgin passed out, Saint John weeping, face hidden in hands …

At the Louvre, Quattrocento sculptors between grace and fury

We are grateful to the Louvre for making us discover, here, alongside big names, a host of remarkable artists. Here, for example, the Florentine Bertoldo di Giovanni, the sculptor of our Orpheus dancing, but also with a sumptuous relief of the Crucifixion where the holy women combine the pathos of his master Donatello with the beauty of Graces by Botticelli. Here again is the Sienese Francesco di Giorgio, who opposes violent scenes of battle or flagellation to the unchanging serenity of noble architecture.

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Others like Antonio Mantegazza translate the exacerbation of feelings through broken folds, like crumpled paper, then typical of Lombard art. We find them in those, frozen Risen Christ, painted by the Milanese Bramantino, on loan from the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid!

Further on, in a spectacular section that brings together polychrome sculpted religious groups, almost life-size, it is the Modenaese Guido Mazzoni who captures us with his ultra-naturalistic portraits, such as this head of Saint Francis in ecstasy, open mouth, hypnotized gaze.

The return of a dolce style

At the dawn of the Cinquecento, the duel between Leonardo and Michelangelo called to paint frescoes of battles (now no longer there) at the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, begins a turning point. Leonardo imagines a furious hand-to-hand combat, entangled men and horses, as shown by two amazing terracottas by his pupil Rustici. On the other hand, Michelangelo prefers to focus on the moment preceding the fight, when the Florentine soldiers, surprised naked, in the middle of a swim, hastily come out …

Because in Florence already, voices condemn the dramatic excesses inherited from Donatello. Echoing Savonarola’s sermons, the time returns to simplicity, to harmony in the paintings of Perugino, the white-enamelled terracotta by Andrea della Robbia, the San Sebastian serene, sculpted by Benedetto da Maiano, or in Venice, the Bacchus and Ariadne, tender and dreamy, by Tullio Lombardo.

Featured guest at the Louvre, the Cupid (1497) by Michelangelo, found by a stroke of luck in the 1990s in a mansion in New York acquired by the Embassy of France, is part of this “dolce style”, by resuming the pose of theOrpheus of Bertoldo, his first master. The tactile rendering of the bust and the hips, however, already reflects all the genius of the sculptor of the “modern way”, the master of ideal nudes, like his two Slaves sculpted for the tomb of Julius II, who greet us at the end of the tour.


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