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Flemish sculptor and architect, symbol of Mannerist art in Florence, he manages to combine the strength of Michelangelo with the refined virtuosity of contemporary art. Born in 1529 in Doaui, in Flanders, he moved to the Tuscan capital at the age of just 23 and spent most of his life here.
A Fleming in Italy
We don’t have much information about Giambologna’s childhood, born Jean de Boulogne, except that his father was a notary in the town of Douai. Flanders was in these years subjects of the crown of Spain, in particular they were a direct dominion of the emperor Charles V, inheritance of the paternal grandmother Mary of Burgundy. The sovereign has a special relationship with this territory and soon leaves the regency in the hands of his beloved sister Maria. Thanks to the latter, the Netherlands and Flanders were hit by a wave of cultural renewal, especially thanks to the passion that the Habsburg sovereign had for the classical roots of Italian art. In this context, sparkling and facing the modern age, the young Jean grows and is trained.
At the age of just 11, in 1540, he went to Antwerp to study with the sculptor and architect Jacques Du Broeucq, maître-artiste of the emperor also known to Vasari as a protégé of the Habsburgs. He certainly worked with the maestro on a choir loft in Mons and perhaps assisted in the reconstruction works of the castle of Binche, the residence of Maria of Habsburg where the sovereign would create her own personal circle of intellectuals and artists with the aim of rivaling Fontainebleau. It is probably in these years that the young artist comes into contact with the late Gothic and Renaissance models typical of Florentine art. After all, Du Broeucq’s style is clearly inspired by the works of Ghiberti and Sansovino that the master had been able to admire in his youth, during a study stay in Italy.
And in fact, a few years later, in 1550, Giambologna left for Rome, intending to study the works of Michelangelo and his contemporaries. The great Tuscan artist is old but still active and, although there are no precise testimonies, perhaps the two have the opportunity to meet. What is certain is that the young man spent at least two years in the Eternal City, during which he carried out numerous studies in wax and earth, carefully studying the ancient models and the works of the great Renaissance artists. Here he comes into contact with his compatriot Willelm Tedrode and later with Guglielmo della Porta. The relationship with Buonarroti, even if perhaps only of profound esteem, marks him deeply and will influence his stylistic signature throughout his life.
The first stay in Florence – Debut at the Medici court
In 1552, at the age of 23, Jean moved to Florence under the protection of the wealthy collector Bernardo Vecchietti, a member of one of the oldest and richest lineages in the city. For the latter he deals with the modernization of the historic family palace and with several sculptures now lost. It is precisely through Bernardo’s acquaintances that Giambologna comes into contact with the Medici court, first with the scion Francesco I, then with his father Cosimo I and his mother Eleonora da Toledo.
During these first years under the protection of the Medici he had to settle for minor commissions among which we find the Medicean Coat of Arms for the Palagio di Parte Guelfa just restored by Vasari and a bronze Bacchus (1560-1565), now in the Bargello National Museum. This statue bears witness to the admiration that the young artist has for the star of the period, Benvenuto Cellini, who had unveiled his wonderful Perseus a few years earlier. It is precisely the comparison with giants like these that forces Giambologna to still live on small commissions: the two Grand Dukes already had a large group of favorite artists, including Baccio Bandinelli, Bartolomeo Ammannati and, indeed, Cellini. Despite this, the young man did not give up and entered the competition for the construction of the Fountain of Neptune for Piazza della Signoria. Today we know that victory was not his real goal, the sculpture was in fact created by one of Ammannati’s favourites, but the occasion is perfect for showing his young talent to the general public.
The first major commissions – the Samson and the Neptune of Bologna
After successfully exhibiting himself during the competition for the fountain in Piazza della Signoria, he was requested by Prince Francesco for a monumental statue of Samson and the Philistine, now in London. Completed around 1562, this sculptural group made of marble worthily expresses the great mastery of the young artist as well as his tendency to create works that can be admired from many sides. The dynamism of the scene, the curved and spiraling lines are all characteristics that will distinguish him even in maturity and that make his Mannerist works marvels. In the same year he began to receive a fixed salary and to work for the Grand Duchy on various works for public events. To symbolize the slow but stable climb of his career, he was summoned to Bologna the following year to create the famous and gigantic statue of Neptune for the fountain in the city square of the same name. This work of his is part of the large renovation project desired by the papacy for the Emilian city, the northern capital of the papal state.
The Return to Florence – The Ocean Fountain and the Apennines
By now consolidated his fame, even before the eyes of an exceptional client like Pope Pius IV, he returned to Florence where he created various works for the Grand Duke and his family. Among the most fascinating, it is impossible not to mention the Venus Anadyomene, or who wrings her hair, for the Garden of the Villa di Castello. This bronze statue is placed on top of the Fountain of the Labyrinth designed by Tribolo for the center of the splendid park and is soon chosen as an allegory of the city of Florence. Again as the culmination of Tribolo’s work, he created the Ocean Fountain for the Boboli Gardens around the first half of the 1970s. At the center of the composition stands the majestic figure of Neptune-Ocean, standing on a granite basin very dear to Grand Duke Cosimo I. All around, the three figures of the Nile, the Ganges and the Euphrates which pour their waters at the feet of the protagonist. This work, with its articulated composition, bas-reliefs and water features, is a clear expression of the Mannerist taste that was increasingly gaining ground in Florence at the time.
In the same years, the Venus was born, still today located inside the Grotta del Buontalenti and the gigantic Apennines for the Villa of Pratolino. This last mammoth work is an allegory of the mountain range that separates Tuscany from Emilia-Romagna. Crouched on an artificial lake, covered with concretions that imitate the snow on the peaks of the mountains, the colossus hides numerous secret rooms, one even frescoed by the court painter Jacopo Ligozzi and containing an octagonal fountain. The design of this Mannerist marvel includes not only a complex set of water features and figures taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but also a series of hidden conduits which allowed the Apennines to weep and to exude water from the head and along its stone skin. This curious shrewdness caused the giant to cover itself with ice during the coldest winters, just like the mountains whose name it bears cover themselves with snow in the cold months.
Maturity and immortality
By now an established sculptor and much appreciated by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Giambologna finally reaches the acme of his fame also thanks to the progressive disappearance of the greats of the previous generation who had given him little space in his youth.
Particularly fascinating is his production of small bronzes. The most striking example is the Flying Mercury, created around 1580 and replicated in various subsequent versions. Now preserved in the Bargello, this dancing, dynamic and virtuous figure depicts the god Mercury captured in a graceful upward leap. Thanks to the numerous replicas made by Giambologna himself, this bronze made an enormous contribution to the diffusion of the Mannerist language in all European courts, so much was it appreciated by his contemporaries.
But the absolute culmination of Giambologna’s career takes place, again in 1580, with the completion of the artist’s most famous work: the Rape of the Sabine Women. This huge sculptural group of over 4 meters in height, now exhibited under the Loggia dei Lanzi, depicts a girl being lifted by a young man who holds a more mature man between his legs. The parallelism with the homonymous episode of the legendary foundation of Rome seems to be a later interpretation and not a direct intention of Giambologna. With this sculpture, the artist simply wants to reaffirm his talent, breaking with the classical tradition. The sculptures of previous centuries were in fact designed to be admired from the front, while the Rape of the Sabine Women, with its spiral, dynamic and serpentine structure, wants to be observed from all angles. Heir to the theories of Benvenuto Cellini, who hypothesized at least eight different views for each sculpture, this work represents one of the greatest expressions of Italian art of the second half of the 1500s, a real testament to the mastery of its creator.
Jean de Boulogne died in 1608, in the Florence that welcomed him, after a splendid career as court artist. Even today his works inspire the public, timeless figures with a universal impact.
Cover photo: Portrait of Giambologna, 1591, Hendrick Goltzius, Teylers Museum, Haarlem, Netherlands
L’antico Palazzo del Podestà di Firenze ospita oggi il Museo Nazionale del Bargello. Dedicato principalmente alla scultura, fa parte dei “Musei del Bargello” insieme alle Cappelle Medicee, ad Orsanmichele, al Palazzo Davanzati e a Casa Martelli.
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La Galleria degli Uffizi, costruita tra il 1560 e il 1580 su progetto di Giorgio Vasari, è tra i musei più importanti al mondo per le sue straordinarie collezioni di sculture antiche e di pitture (dal Medioevo all’età moderna).
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