Culture, Florence

What We Can Learn From the Style and Stories in Renaissance Sculpture

Published on 3 minutes read
Words by Lara Johnson-Wheeler, Imagery by Courtesy of Museo Nazionale del Bargello
"Such drama to be told in a bust rivals even that of the television shows we might have caught ourselves deep in during lockdowns."

Promoting the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature and art during the 14th century to the 17th century, the Renaissance is a period that is rich with inspiration. Of course, a renaissance can happen at any time. When a renewal of interest, a new sense of understanding of classical works occurs, we bring forth their ideas into our modern era. As we emerge to enjoy art, sculpture and craftsmanship as well as the people we love and miss, there are many lessons to learn.

As our global understanding of the world after a pandemic continues to shape itself, we may look back at the year 2021 as a renaissance of sorts. For how, if not as a rebirth, can we define the feeling of venturing out into the world again? And, to look back to the centuries in which antiquity once again became in vogue, where better to turn to than Florence? The capital of Italy’s Tuscany region, the city’s influence of art and cultural activity is still felt keenly. One of its preeminent institutions, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, holds multiple wonders that hark back to this time. Its rooms are filled with pieces by the likes of Donatello, Michelangelo and Verrocchio, on show to inspire thought and scenarios we might wish to take with us into the post-pandemic era.

Take, for instance, the bust. It is a sight we have seen much of in the past year — the admirable shoulders and heads of our virtual companions floating before us, cut off at the clavicles by the screen of their Zoom. On screen, we’ve been made into modern marble, inadvertently reflecting the pose favoured by many Renaissance sculptors in portraiture.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Bust of Costanza Bonarelli from 1656 is one of the museum’s most important works. Considered among the most personal of Bernini's pieces, the bust depicts a woman the artist fell passionately in love with before finding out his brother had been having an affair with her, too. Such drama to be told in a bust rivals even that of the television shows we might have caught ourselves deep in during lockdowns. One could anachronistically describe the bust of Costanza as impressionist, romantic, and rococo. Critics have commented on her wild gaze, and Bernini’s genius for making her stillness seem in motion. To look upon her, we might learn to cherish intimacy again — and reignite the very human passion for storytelling through art.

Bust of Costanza Bonarelli, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1656.

Another member of the Bargello’s extraordinary collection of busts of Florentine personalities is Giuliano Finelli’s Bust of Maria Barberini Duglioli (c. 1626). Currently placed at Paris’ Louvre, the piece immortalises Pope Urban VIII’s niece, who died five years before its commission. A lesser-known apprentice of Bernini, Finelli’s attention to detail is excellently shown in this depiction. So precise are the details of the insertion lace surrounding the bust’s ruff that it is deceptively realistic. One might think it's made of textile, when in reality it's delicate and intricately carved marble. Even the minute string which binds the beads of the figure’s necklace is visible.

Such pieces are somewhat reflective of how fashion has evolved after many months at home. Inspiring maximalist dressing from the waist up, adornments on the ears, necklines and head are ever-more important. Oversized collars — the style of which the late Lady Diana Spencer pioneered — may have been 2020’s take on this look, but may I urge the ruff, à la Maria Barberini, to make a comeback?

And how about the wreath of ivy leaves, re-emerging as next season’s key headwear, tipping bejewelled headbands, hair clips and claw clips off our heads? We might look to Michelangelo’s Bacchus for inspo here (pictured above). Posing while proffering a goblet of wine, the androgynous attitude of the Roman god of wine is not only an eternally hedonistic symbol of gender fluidity, but it asserts a certain elusiveness. And indeed, not only a prescient reminder of the need to raise a glass, to celebrate each living moment and to revel in the joys of the grape, (now of course, surrounded by friends and family in real life, rather than in isolation) this depiction of Bacchus certainly shows a Renaissance-style influencer.

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