A Renaissance Scholar's Study

John Haber
in New York City

Andrea Riccio in Bronze

Andrea Riccio was born in 1470, five years before Michelangelo. His most ambitious work, an elaborate candelabrum four meters tall, had pride of pace in the Basilica of Saint Anthony, in Padua. There it stood near altar reliefs and a bronze crucifix by Donatello, the most forceful sculptor of the early Renaissance. Riccio himself worked under a student of Donatello's. He had all the credentials of a High Renaissance master.

One might never know it. Riccio is having his first major exhibition, and the thirty-five works at the Frick amount to much of his known output. One might never know it, too, from his sculpture. His actors seem to belong to ancient Rome more than to northern Italy. Their panache seems remote from the gravity and spatial clarity of his great contemporaries. He may well never share their fame, but his work offers fresh insights into a remarkable period in art. Andrea Riccio's Shouting Horseman (detail) (Victoria and Albert Museum, 1510–1515)

Feeling and scale

As a testimony to his ambition, Andrea Riccio covers that titanic candelabrum with reliefs, many of them with Christian narratives. Low reliefs, almost like painting in space, helped usher in the Renaissance at the start of the century, with gilded doors for the Baptistery in Florence. Known as The Gates of Paradise, they guided painting in its search for heroic forms and a continuous space to hold them. Donatello pushed the form to include greater drama, restless activity, and tragic meaning. Riccio's other work, free-standing figures and related objects, demands viewing in the round. Michelangelo sought the same three-dimensional presence for his David.

For all that, Riccio seems to belong to another world—or at least another decade. In his low reliefs, figures overlap or tumble forward to the point of fighting for space. Unlike Raphael in his Vatican frescos, he does not always give them a clear place to stand. Unlike Ghiberti and Donatello, he does not use architecture, a clearly connected landscape, or single-point perspective incised into metal to define a stage or to focus a vision. Riccio's reliefs in Padua may depict arcane or otherworldly subjects, such as the Vision of Constantine, and it takes effort to pick out the central actors or even the subject. In two versions of Jesus's Entombment, much of the action takes place off to the side, perhaps at the extreme front or rear.

His figures in the round often seem calm where one would expect torment—or vice versa. Satyrs plainly relax and enjoy themselves, and the sculptor adapts the pose of a warrior only slightly for an athlete at ease. Where Donatello's equestrian monument in Padua has a weary dignity, Riccio's riders rise up and shout, mouth wide open. Michelangelo's actors, from David to his late Slaves and Deposition, are pulled to the ground by gravity, their own powerful bodies, death, or despair. One of Riccio's satyrs somehow balances on just his pointed hooves. Where Michelangelo or Raphael gives Mary the youth or torments of a mother, Riccio's two versions of a terra-cotta Madonna remain all but impassive.

Along with disjunctions of weight and feeling, he introduces disjunctions of scale. A sword looks suitably impressive, but one needs a magnifying glass to make out the relief on its handle. From its pose, a recumbent nude here suggests a river god, but he turns out to hold up a mask of death. Here, too, only a scholar could pull together the narrative and the cherubs on the sword pommel above. I can only imagine the effect of the huge candelabrum with its intricate detail. It cannot travel.

In all this, the sculptor seems more at home in a scholar's study or antiquity. The Madonna's mask-like face and wreath-like curls derive from Roman funerary portrait sculpture. Moses has horns, as a traditional reading of the Bible would dictate—but not the straight horns and towering anger of Moses by Michelangelo. Instead, the rigid statuette and its curved ram's horns derive from Zeus Ammon, an Egyptian god. Saint Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar has the clothing and bearing of a Roman cavalry officer, the beggar approaches a heroic nude, and Saint Jerome in the desert wear's the cloak of Jupiter. That leaves all the cherubs, drinking satyrs, boys with a goose or goat, and Orpheus at his lyre.

Much of the work has it practical place in a scholar's study as well. The early Renaissance in Florence or the High Renaissance in Rome flourished in civic spaces, and it made a point of its public or communal purpose. It described the ambitions of a republic, an aristocracy, or the papacy, and it reached out in public, for anyone to understand. Besides telling learned stories, Riccio supplied a scholar's needs. He decorated the sword and oil lamps. The pot held by a satyr doubles as an inkstand. One can see why Riccio found a champion in Gauricus, a humanist who wrote his treatise on bronze at the University of Padua.

From gold to bronze

Riccio may sound remote from the Renaissance. He may sound, in fact, like a Mannerist. Mannerism, which followed the High Renaissance, has more than enough room for his elaboration, exaggeration, and obscurity. Andrea Briosco earned the nickname Riccio for his curly hair, but it could easily describe the filigrees in his work. The Frick's announcements zoom in on the head of the Shouting Horseman. His elaborate headgear, bulging eyes, and gaping mouth—without obvious motivation—all but shouts Mannerism.

Art history has been debating what happened after the High Renaissance almost from the moment it ended. Did Mannerism represent the continuation of the Renaissance or a reaction against it, the bitter weight of Italy's failures or the elegance and assurance of new patrons? Either way, coming after Leonardo and living through the High Renaissance, Riccio might have been ahead of his time—or was he? Besides its university and the Donatello altar, Padua has a fresco cycle by Giotto. Michelangelo made sketches after Giotto, but would he have gone to look at the candelabrum?

Riccio's art truly is of its time, like the art of Jan Gossart in the north. His humanism continues Renaissance ideals that would have made sense to Donatello or Michelangelo. Riccio borrows from perhaps the most learned painter of the fifteenth century, Andrea Mantegna. He has none of the distortions and heightened anxiety of the first Mannerists—Pontormo, Parmigianino, or Andrea del Sarto. When the Frick not long back borrowed the latter's Sacrifice of Isaac, all I could see was the terror in Isaac's eyes.

Most of all, he lacks a defining characteristic of the late Renaissance—a need not just to repeat but also to reflect upon Renaissance models. It has something in common with Postmodernism's obsessive reflection on Modernism, as well as contemporary art's sense of going nowhere fast. The Frick's earlier show of another sculpture in bronze, Willem van Tetrode, helped one to see Mannerism as a kind of Post-Renaissance. Sure, Riccio quotes others, such as Mantegna, but all Renaissance artists saw themselves as students of the recent past and the Classical era. Mostly, however, he goes about his business in search of just that, all without calling undue attention to himself.

Riccio somehow bridges two periods, but less by his wildness than by his principal medium and by his audience. He necessarily appeals to a new class of exclusive patrons. He started under his father as a goldsmith, and he continued to work on objects for use. The candelabrum cannot travel because of its size and preciousness, but also because it still serves in church rituals. Historians speculate that he changed to a more forgiving medium—bronze cast from soft wax or from an intermediate, in plaster or clay, that permits multiples—owing to gout or other pain in his hands. However, his work and long career show no loss of vigor, so perhaps he just sought a medium better suited to bridging craft and narrative art, private and public concerns.

He bridges periods in time as well as in style, too. His late start in bronze means that he finished the candelabrum in 1516, at age forty-six. Michelangelo completed the Sistine ceiling four years earlier. He lived until 1532, but pretty much the entire show dates from a few years before and after 1520. Those years brought the challenging first Mannerist works. As a scholar's artist and an artist's scholar, he might have stood apart from a generation of change and grappled with it all as well.

Two footnotes

The Frick comes down hard on the side of Riccio as a major Renaissance artist. Like other artists, he is outlining a long history culminating in the New Testament and the word to the gentiles. Did he adapt pagan models for Christian scenes? Michelangelo has his sibyls in the Sistine Chapel. Does Saint Martin dress as a soldier and nobleman of the empire? In the story, he was.

Again, maybe or maybe not. Maybe Riccio really did have his heart in Rome, a city he probably never saw. Maybe, too, he really was a secondary artist in lesser media. Ironically, he continues in the craft tradition at almost precisely the moment when humanism was giving the artist greater independence from the workshop and a new status. However, it makes sense for the Frick to treat craft seriously along with fine art. Art history and contemporary art alike have been challenging the distinction, the Frick's director formerly served as curator for decorative arts in Boston, and the Frick owns one of the lamps.

The Frick presents an exemplary exhibition. It has a thesis, but it never lets that get in the way of the facts. The Met has had too many shows with dubious claims to puff up its loans, its holdings, or its curator's career. If anything, this exhibition takes care to peel away questionable attributions. Perhaps it has to do so, to leave a worthier creative artist. In the Saint Martin, Riccio's interest in motion and instability even anticipates the diagonal composition, horse, and fallen figure of The Conversion of Saint Paul by Caravaggio—and so the Baroque.

Riccio offers a slim handle for revisionists. He left few works and no real documentary evidence for them. Attributions have to turn on style, quality, careful measurements to distinguish close replicas, and his inclusion of self-portraits in half a dozen cases, none of them in New York. Historians even debate whether and when he made multiple casts from one original. Maybe he truly does count as a footnote to art history, only a very revealing one. Some writers hide the good stuff in the footnotes anyway.

Along with this show, the Frick has put on display a new acquisition, by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin. It comes from last fall's exhibition of the Rococo painter, and it shows him at his most traditional—as a painter of the female nude—and not the most fun. Two medium-term loans include another footnote, but to the Nicolas Poussin retrospective recently at the Met. From an anonymous private collector, it shows Hannibal Crossing the Alps riding an elephant. The Carthaginian general dominates the composition, or rather the elephant does.

Poussin appears to have painted it fairly early. The blond light on flesh, dark patches, and muddy facial structure recall his early shepherds in Arcadia. They also have me wondering how much has suffered from paint loss and abrasion. Still, it testifies to Poussin's sense of balance, in the soldiers at left as counterweight to the army's advance, and honesty, in their weariness. Like Riccio, the French artist may have loved Rome, but he shows obvious empathy with the triumph and suffering of its enemies. Besides, the big elephant with its mottled texture is alone worth the price of admission.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

"Andrea Riccio: Renaissance Master of Bronze" ran at The Frick Collection through January 18, 2009.

 

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