Giambologna (né Jean Boulogne) is one of those major sculptors you may never have heard of before. There is a new exhibit on him, Giambologna: gli dei, gli eroi (Giambologna: Gods and Heroes), at the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence. Apparently, he is largely overlooked in Italy, too: this is the first exhibition there devoted to his work. I learned about it thanks to an article by Roderick Conway Morris (Showcase for a too-little-known sculptor, May 19) for the International Herald Tribune:
Joshua Reynolds thought Giambologna a greater sculptor than Michelangelo, an opinion one suspects shared - although it would have been, and perhaps still is, virtual sacrilege to say so - by some of the Italian artist's contemporaries, including the Medici Grand Dukes who were his principal patrons. Why, then, is Giambologna - the essential bridge between the eras of Michelangelo and Bernini, the High Renaissance and the Baroque, and the man who advanced Western sculpture in so many ways - the least familiar of the three great titans of Italian sculpture? [...]The article provides a very thorough overview of Giambologna's career. His most famous piece, instantly recognizable to just about anyone, is the Medici Mercury. Much of the work in the exhibit is owned by the Bargello, but not always on display, and there are a number of pieces on loan from other institutions. The show is open through June 15.
Though he had little or no previous experience sculpting in marble, Giambologna was a supreme artist in bronze, a medium never employed by Michelangelo. However, he soon set about tackling marble and became a master in this medium as well. It was in marble that he created his most vertiginous, spiraling composition, the "Rape of the Sabine," for the Loggia dei Lanzi of the Uffizi: a Herculean young man standing astride the crouching figure of his vanquished older rival, lifting a deliciously curvaceous young woman high in the air, like a prima ballerina projected aloft by her male partner at the climax of some thrilling dance drama. With no primary viewing point but designed to be seen from every side and angle, this was a landmark in sculpture, ancient and modern.
The display of such riotous nudity in a public place - the city's main square, no less - was, of course, sanctioned by its putative Classical theme. Yet for Giambologna the particular mythical event was unimportant, his essential aim being to produce a tour de force combination of three figures intertwined in violent action in wildly different poses, swirling upward in Michelangelo's ideal "flamelike" formation. Even the title of the piece was only settled upon some time after its completion. Thus Medicean Florence offered the sculptor the freedom to create art for art's sake and pursue dreams some of which Michelangelo had shared but never realized, such as unified multifigure compositions, and others that derived from Giambologna's own determination to expand the boundaries of three-dimensional art.