Art Critique in Renaissance Florence

Updated: Jan 25, 2019


In 16th century Italy, the unveiling of statues was a great event for both artists and the public. While it took artist to work often several years or even decades before meeting a commission, the people of Florence would be impatient to express their views about the newly displayed figure. As soon as night fell, they would hang their praise or critique in the dark straight onto the newly inaugurated work. They would do so, moreover, not in simple words, but in different types of rhythmical poetry, composed in the specific verses of sonnets, epigrams or satire.


The Italian Giacomo da Lentini invented the sonnet form in 13th century Sicily originally to express courtly love. The earliest metrical form consisted of 14 lines, the first eight lines repeating the similar ABBA structure to be finished with six lines with the different CDE or CDC structures or the variations thereof.


In the tense political climate of the return of the Medici family from exile (1494 to 1512), the unveiling of Bandinelli’s stucco Hercules in 1515 saw the emergence of a new form of critique, the statue parlanti or “speaking statue”. It consisted in authors’ giving satirical words straight into the mouths of the statues populating a public place, letting older statues converse with the newcomers.


Many artworks’ nicknames known today originate from the Renaissance contemporaries, including Ghiberti’s famous Gates of Paradise, to Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Fountain of Neptune. The latter’s central Neptune figure, inaugurated in 1565 owned him the nickname of ’Il Biancone’, or The White Giant, presumably due to its oversized proportions. Florentines shared the opinion that the ten-year long work on the statue was no more than a waste of marble.


This was not the case of Michelangelo’s David, baptized earlier but similarly after its huge size as ’Il Gigante’, or The Giant. This time, the nickname’s credit goes to members of the woollen cloth guild who decided on the fate of that huge block of marble hardly carved by Agostino di Duccio that was lying more than 26 years in the courtyard of the Florence Cathedral. It is as if it was waiting for Michelangelo to grow up and earn the commission. Michelangelo was 26 year-old when he convinced the committee that he is most entitled for the task of carving David’s figure out of the marble block.


Thanks in part to the size and concomitant weight of the marble, upon completion the statue was deemed too heavy to be mounted to the cathedral’s roofline where originally intended. The statue’s final placement in front of the city hall led to a re-contextualization of its religious meaning to a political symbol of the power of republican Florence against tyranny.


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