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Burnishing Bertoldo: The Frick Spotlights Donatello’s Pupil/Michelangelo’s Teacher (with video)

Bertoldo di Giovanni, a favorite of Lorenzo de’ Medici and now the subject of a compact but comprehensive Frick Collection survey (to Jan. 12), is a Florentine sculptor who has been overshadowed by his more illustrious teacher (Donatello) and revered pupil (Michelangelo). As with last year’s Leonardo show at Yale, which explored the blurred lines between Italian Renaissance masters and members of their studios, the Frick’s examination of Bertoldo is an impressive exercise in curatorial connoisseurship but only moderately successful in producing reputational revisionism.

The Bertoldo owned by the Frick—his only statuette residing outside of Europe—was the seed from which the exhibition grew. For the first time in modern history, this bronze statuette (on the left, below), which was part of Henry Clay Frick‘s bequest, has been paired with its companion piece:

“Shield Bearers,” ca. 1470–80, Frick Collection (left) and Liechtenstein: The Princely Collections, Vaduz-Vienna (right)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As with several other works in the show, the Frick’s “Shield Bearer,” on close examination, reveals a secret that complicates its meaning. As seen from the rear, the muscleman sports pan pipes (on left) and a tail:

Trying to make sense of all this, the Frick’s curators say their shield bearer and his counterpart “present multivalent identities, combining the iconography of wild men (legendary forest dwellers who were covered in hair and unnaturally strong), fauns (half-goat, half-human woodland creatures), and Hercules (the hero of Greek myth).” This “intriguing game of identification [was] designed to beguile the learned Renaissance mind,” according to the Frick.

I might have missed an intriguing detail on the reverse side of the lively, lustrous “Hercules on Horseback,” my favorite Bertoldo in the show, had I not seen Alexander Noelle, the Frick’s curatorial fellow, pointing it out to another preview attendee, below:

Hercules on Horseback, ca. 1470–75, Gallerie Estensi, Modena
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s what they’re scrutinizing: Hercules’ right hand, extended behind him and slipped into the mouth of the trophy head of the lion that he had slain:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A nifty feature of the Frick’s website is that it includes an animated slideshow for each sculpture, which oscillates between views of the front and back. As you can glimpse in two of the photos above, the exhibition also includes sections of Bertoldo’s (and collaborators’) glazed terracotta frieze (ca. 1490) for the Portico of Villa Medici at Poggio a Caiano, not to mention his bronze relief of a chaotic Battle (ca. 1480–85) from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, a major lender.

While benefiting from the Frick’s deep scholarship, Bertoldo still comes across as a lesser player among Italian Renaissance masters, including the two luminaries mentioned at the top of his post, as well as Verrocchio (subject of a current retrospective at Washington’s National Gallery) and, of course, Leonardo (about to get the full Louvre treatment).

That said, the Frick’s presentation, said to be the first monographic display devoted to Bertoldo, lets us encounter almost all his known surviving sculptures, accompanied by a sumptuously illustrated, 496-page catalogue chock full of the erudition that Frick projects are known for.

The exhibition’s unsettling showstopper is thought to be only part-Bertoldo: His teacher, Donatello, gets top (albeit tentative) billing on the label for this nearly lifesize figure:

Probably Donatello & Bertoldo di Giovanni, “St. Jerome,” ca. 1465–66, Pinacoteca Comunale, Faenza
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here’s a bloody close-up:

The Frick suggests that Donatello “may have begun the sculpture toward the end of his life and left it to Bertoldo to execute.” Recent conservation uncovered the original eyes (one intact; one fragmentary) of what had been previously understood to be a blind man.

In our masochistic moment, this is New York’s second painfully self-flagellating “St. Jerome” currently on loan from abroad. (The other, by Leonardo, is at the Met.) Composed of painted wood and heavily modeled gesso (which defines the figure’s pronounced veins and musculature), it would have fit right in with last year’s Like Life exhibition at the Met Breuer, which had included this famous Donatello bust:

Donatello, “Bust of Niccolò da Uzzano,” 1430s, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I had encountered Bertoldo only once before in my journalistic journeys: He was thought to have sculpted the marble statue of a slender youth that had its home in the rotunda of the French Cultural Services’ Manhattan headquarters until art historian Kathleen Weil-Garris Brandt ambitiously reattributed it to Michelangelo.

After consulting three distinguished Michelangelo experts (Leo Steinberg, Creighton Gilbert, James Beck), I had expressed skepticism about that upgrade in the statue’s status in my 1996 article for the Wall Street Journal.

The Metropolitan Museum’s then Curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, James Draper, author of the definitive catalogue raisonné for Bertoldo, had helped clinch the Michelangelo attribution by endorsing it, overruling his own previously published opinion that it was a “poorish piece” and “too obviously unanatomical to be a Michelangelo.”

James Draper with “The Young Archer,” ca. 1490, at the Met in 2009
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

It now resides at the Metropolitan Museum, dubbed, “The Young Archer,” and thought to represent Cupid. Its 10-year loan to the Met from the French State, Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, was renewed, just last May, for another decade. The Frick describes this unfinished piece, the largest of Bertoldo’s statuettes, as the inspiration for the young Michelangelo’s similarly posed “Young Archer”:

“Orpheus,” ca. 1471, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The current show can be seen, in part, as a homage to Draper, who was a close colleague of the Frick’s director, Ian Wardropper, when both were in the Met’s Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts (with Wardropper as its chairman). Draper was accorded a place of honor in the Frick’s Bertoldo catalogue, with an opening Q&A with Noelle that is more personal reminiscence than scholarly analysis.

The show felt “compact” (as I mentioned at the top of this post), even though it includes almost all of Bertoldo’s known surviving works, because it was crammed into the Frick’s claustrophobic basement galleries—always an inhospitable space for exhibitions:

Frick Chief Curator Xavier Salomon addressing the press scrum at the Bertoldo preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Mercifuly, the planned expansion, for which the Frick expects to break ground next year, is expected to repurpose this area for more suitable functions—coatrooms and bathrooms.

Here’s the model for the Annabelle Selldorf-designed expanded Frick, on display on the museum’s main floor:

When I visited last week, the Russell Page-designed “view garden” (at the right in the above model) was in the process of getting a facelift:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

For now, let’s go back to the press preview, where Frick curator Aimee Ng dissects the “painfully nude” St. Jerome and its uncertain attribution:

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