The Little-Known Sculptor Who Taught Michelangelo and Studied under Donatello
Bertoldo di Giovanni, Shield Bearer, ca. 1470–80. Photo by Michael Bodycomb. Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.
In 15th-century Florence, Lorenzo de’Medici financed the Medici Sculpture Garden, an academy for artists that is recognized as one of the most important gathering places in Western art history. The garden was an oasis of Roman marvels enveloped by the cloisters of the Convent at San Marco. It attracted the period’s most promising young artists like Michelangelo to study antiquity and produce art for noble patrons.
At the garden’s center was Lorenzo’s chosen instructor and favored artist: Bertoldo di Giovanni. Bertoldo is best known as a student of Donatello and a teacher of Michelangelo, but is only now getting his due as an artist in his own right with his first solo show. “Bertoldo di Giovanni: The Renaissance of Sculpture in Medici Florence,” featuring works that traverse size, subject matter, and medium at the Frick Collection in New York City, presents a missing piece of Renaissance history and gives insight into the incomplete view of the golden age of art history we embrace today.
Bertoldo di Giovanni, medal commemorating The Pazzi Conspiracy (Lorenzo de' Medici), 1478. Photo by Mauro Magliani. Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.
Bertoldo got his start as an apprentice to Donatello and later rose to prominence as a live-in artist in the Medici palace. The Medici family, who ruled Florence for over three centuries, were the period’s most important patrons. “Bertoldo occupied a privileged position at the center of the political and aesthetic landscape of Florence,” said Frick curatorial fellow Alexander Noelle. “When you’re working for the patron that is the tastemaker of the city, I think it gives you a bit of artistic freedom, and it puts you at the center of the dialogue between ancient arts and literature.”
With the Medici family behind him and their vibrant art collection at his fingertips, Bertoldo was free to produce art of the highest quality. Bertoldo’s mastery of bronze and skillful reimagining is embodied by a showstopping battle scene (ca. 1480–85). While the piece mimics the format and subject of classical sarcophagi, it achieves a new level of robust dynamism. The triumphant Roman warriors and their horses rise to the top of the jumbled mass as their barbarian foes suffocate beneath them.
Bertoldo di Giovanni, Battle, ca. 1480–85. Photo by Mauro Magliani. Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.
Lorenzo entrusted Bertoldo to cultivate the next generation of Renaissance geniuses as the principal educator and curator at the Medici Sculpture Garden. Among Bertoldo’s pupils was a young Michelangelo, who would become one of the most celebrated artists in history. Little did Bertoldo know that the same pupil that would bring his school great glory would also lead to the destruction of his own legacy.
“Michelangelo really celebrated himself and fashioned himself as a self-taught artist who was divinely blessed with his abilities, and therefore obviously Bertoldo would not have played a role in the narrative that he was constructing for himself. Michelangelo is very explicit that no one gave him real training,” Noelle said.
Bertoldo di Giovanni, Orpheus, ca. 1471. Photo by Mauro Magliani. Courtesy of the Frick Collection, New York.
Michelangelo Buonarroti, Cupid, ca. 1490. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The eclipsing of Bertoldo’s legacy was intensified by his death in 1491 and the death of his patron Lorenzo months later. In the 16th century, Giorgio Vasari wrote the foundational text of Italian art history—Lives of the Artists (1550)—and left Bertoldo out of his manuscript almost entirely, having everlasting effects on Bertoldo’s reputation. “When you have Michelangelo himself erasing Bertoldo, and when you have a founding art historian (especially an Italian one) negating Bertoldo’s role, coupled with the exile and fall of the Medici. It didn’t create a good environment for Bertoldo’s artwork,” Noelle explained.
Yet, Bertoldo’s influence has lived on in the works of others, even the students who wanted to consign his name to oblivion. “[Bertoldo] was ingenious, creative, inventive, and also historically important—he wasn’t just a footnote to three major figures, but he was a major figure himself,” Noelle said. The Frick exhibition finally allows the forgotten Renaissance master to enter the spotlight.