Bronze Statuette Offers a Preview of Next Year’s Fall Exhibition

statue of man holding shield and club

Permanent Collection: Bertoldo di Giovanni’s Shield Bearer

The Frick Collection is the only institution outside of Europe fortunate enough to have a statuette by the Italian sculptor Bertoldo di Giovanni. The diminutive Shield Bearer, measuring just over 8.5 inches high, will be featured next fall in Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence, the first exhibition devoted to the sculptor, who was one of the most inventive artists working in Italy during the fifteenth century.

The Shield Bearer depicts an idealized youth, naked save for the garland of leaves woven through his curly hair and the tendrils of vines encircling his waist and chest. He stands contrapposto, with a shield in one hand and a club in the other. The bronze is rich in detail, with much painstaking work completed by hand after the metal was cast. The areas of gilding that remain are original, indicating that the statuette’s entire surface once gleamed luxuriously, drawing even more attention to the intricacies of its design and execution. In the mid-fifteenth century, Bertoldo, along with other Florentine artists including Donatello, Verrocchio, and Antonio del Pollaiuolo, began to produce such statuettes, which were inspired by ancient bronzes of similar size and subject matter. These small-scale works reward close examination and extended contemplation through the revelation of unexpected details. Such objects were prized by erudite collectors, who displayed them in their studies within larger assemblies of ancient and Renaissance artworks.

The Frick statuette’s early provenance remains unknown. Its first recorded owner was the American art historian Charles Loeser, who had the bronze in his renowned collection in Florence at the turn of the twentieth century. Presumably, Loeser sold it to the Parisian dealer Emile Lowengard, who in turn sold it in 1905 to J. P. Morgan, one of his most illustrious clients. In 1912, the statuette, along with the majority of Morgan’s art from his London home and other objects from his collection that had been on view at the Victoria and Albert Museum, were shipped to New York for an exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. To display his collection at the Met had long been a dream of Morgan’s, but he died unexpectedly in 1913, a year before the exhibition opened. The show nonetheless proved a massive success, attracting 8,000 visitors on the first day and more than a million during its first year, including Henry Clay Frick. Two years later, Frick bolstered his Renaissance holdings by purchasing a number of Limoges enamels and fifty bronzes from the exhibition, including the statuette.

The bronze has been known by various names: upon its sale to Morgan, it was identified as a “faun disguised as Hercules”; at the Met, it was displayed as a “Heraldic Wild Man”; and on entering Frick’s collection, it was described simply as a “Heraldic figure.” Over the past century, scholars have continued to debate its iconography. The club held by the youth is often associated with Hercules, who is frequently depicted with such a weapon. The medieval myth of the “wild man,” however, is most often cited. These creatures supposedly inhabited the depths of the forest, embodying the primal instincts of early man. As is the case with the statuette, a wild man is generally shown with vines wrapped around his body and leaves crowning his head, often holding a club and, at times, a shield bearing a familial coat-of-arms. The defining characteristic of a wild man, however, is a thick layer of hair from head to toe, a trait the Frick statuette notably lacks. Close study of the figure reveals three additional details that make the traditional identification of the figure as either Hercules or a wild man problematic: the pan pipes at his waist, the horns emerging from his forehead, and the tail at the base of his spine. These attributes are characteristic of a faun. Originating from Roman mythology, fauns are related to the satyrs of ancient Greek lore, both being woodland deities that are part man and part beast. This identification, however, is also imperfect: fauns have the bodies of men but the legs and hooves of goats, which are clearly absent in the Frick statuette.

The iconographic inconsistencies may well have been intentional, as such statuettes were prized for their ability to inspire conversation and debate. It is possible that Bertoldo invented this hybrid figure by combining disparate elements of these characters, or that he derived the iconography from a now-lost text or image. Florence, at the time, was a crucible for the artistic reinterpretation of the ancient literature and art circulating among the city’s most powerful patrons. Artists contributed to the idea of a new Golden Age in Italy with their classically inspired creations, promoting an idealized ancient past. The Shield Bearer references heroes and creatures of Greek and Roman mythology, while at the same time offering an unfixed identity designed to intrigue a learned Renaissance mind.

While the precise meaning of the statuette’s iconography remains uncertain, its attribution to Bertoldo has been uncontested since its reemergence at the turn of the twentieth century. Bertoldo di Giovanni was born in obscurity in Florence to immigrant German parents. The sculptor developed his technical skills under the master Donatello, eventually gaining the patronage of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the most important political figure and patron of the arts in Renaissance Florence. Their relationship developed over decades; Bertoldo became a familiare of the city’s de-facto ruler, moved into the Medici palace, and created statuettes, reliefs, and medals for the family. Bertoldo’s responsibilities went beyond sculpture; he took part in creating spectacles for festivals, devised entertainment for the Medici entourage, and traveled with the Florentine retinue at Lorenzo’s whim. He was also the curator of Lorenzo’s famed garden of antiquities and instructed the city’s most gifted pupils, whom Lorenzo himself had invited to study at his informal academy. One such student was the teenage Michelangelo, whose creative genius flourished under Bertoldo’s guidance. Upon Bertoldo’s death, Bartolomeo Dei, a local notary in the service of the Medici, described him as “a most worthy sculptor and an excellent maker of medals, who made fine things with Lorenzo the Magnificent . . . who is now very troubled for there is no other artist in Tuscany or perhaps even Italy of such grand ingenuity and artistry in these things.”

Visitors to the Frick will have the opportunity to experience Bertoldo’s genius in the fall of 2019, when his entire extant oeuvre will be reunited for the first time. Works of art ranging from bronze medals to wooden statues to terracotta friezes will highlight his innovation across media. The exhibition also marks the first comprehensive campaign of technical examinations conducted on the sculptor’s works, illuminating his creative process. Together, the exhibition and catalogue will bring into focus Bertoldo’s unique position at the heart of the artistic and political landscape in fifteenth-century Florence.

Bertoldo di Giovanni (ca. 1435–1491), Shield Bearer, early 1470s, gilded bronze, The Frick Collection

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