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The awesome effects of the sublime

Earth & fire

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Earth & fire

How did sculptors in Renaissance Italy bring the reality of the human body into sculpture? A unique selection of terracotta sculpture at the V&A museum unlocks some of the secrets of the creative process that revolutionised culture in the late 15th century.

Drawing on techniques used in antiquity, sculptors like Ghiberti, Giambologna and Donatello developed a new way of creating art for a wider audience. Instead of beginning with the most intractable material – stone – they began modelling in wet clay. This material was extremely cheap and could be shaped into the most delicate of forms.

Lorenzo Ghiberti, best known for his spectacular biblical narrative on the portals of Sienna cathedral, found he could model in clay, achieving the most refined effects. It could be glazed so that it looked like more precious materials and sold to the rising middle classes. Thus the humblest of materials could be transformed into the most divine images, in the different meanings of the word “divine”.

The popular image of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus is shown here as presented by Florence’s top sculptors – Michelozzo, Donatello and Luca della Robbia. They incorporate the latest discoveries in perspective, so that the low relief images spring out of the wall as three-dimensional sculptures, playing with our sense of illusion.

In the late Renaissance and Mannerist period that followed, artists like Michelangelo and Giambologna used modelling in terracotta as three dimensional sketching. Most of these models have disappeared over time, but the V&A has unearthed a number of amazing treasures like Giambologna’s River God, which might have been made by Rodin, three hundred years later.

The immediacy of the sculptor’s hand is palpable and exciting. There is a flow of energy as the movement of water which the God represents merges with the twisting of the body in a dynamic spiral.

A group of clay sketches by the protean genius Gian Lorenzo Bernini shows the continuous studies in which he perfected his vision and technique. From sketches on paper and 3-D models in clay he then moved on to the challenge of capturing life in marble.

This exhibition brings together, for example, two drawings and six studies made by Bernini for the famous marble angels which were placed on the bridge of Sant’Angelo in Rome. There are two amazing models for one of his last works, The Blessed Ludovica Albertoni. It is an extremely “baroque” work, showing a woman apparently in her death agony. But the movement of the drapery is so energetic as to portray an ecstatic denial of death – not for the weak-hearted this!

The products of Bernini’s genius and other baroque masters still grace the streets, squares, fountains and churches of his native Rome. But here in London we can see the complex process that enabled him to make his masterpieces as though in frozen moments of evolution. As ever, the unbearable lightness of being is underpinned by a tremendous dedication to skilled labour!

Earth and Fire: Italian terracotta sculpture from Donatello to Canova is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington until July 7. Admission £5/£2.50; 020 7942 2000

 

 

 

 

Bernini: Angel with the Crown of Thorns, 1668
Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas

 

 

 

 

Giovanni Bologna, A River God, 1575
V&A Museum