The collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
(MFA), is as old as the Museum itself—it acquired its first pieces in 1876, when the Museum opened its doors. Since then, the MFA has expanded its holdings of Italian works from one of art history’s most creative periods (1400–1600), such as Donatello’s marble relief, Madonna of the Clouds (about 1425–35), the only sculpture in America that is generally accepted as by the great Renaissance sculptor. The MFA’s collection from the 15th and 16th centuries also includes paintings, maiolica (tin-glazed earthenware), marble and glazed terracotta sculpture, furniture, bronzes, coins, and medals. To showcase approximately 90 of these works—primarily sculpture and decorative arts—a new gallery opens today devoted to the Italian Renaissance.
"The Museum’s Italian Renaissance gallery offers us the opportunity to display some of the finest works of art of the 15th and 16th centuries from our collection," said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA. "These pieces bring to life the artistry and craftsmanship of such acclaimed masters as Donatello, Luca della Robbia, and Giambologna."
The gallery is located on the second floor of the Museum, directly off the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Rotunda. The space’s original terracotta tiled flooring, in place when the MFA opened on Huntington Avenue in 1909, has been refurbished. New lighting has been added, and state-of-the-art glass display cases have been installed, made by Goppion Museum Workshop, Inc., of Milan, Italy, which also is creating the cases for the MFA’s new American Wing. The lead curator for the Italian Renaissance Gallery is Marietta Cambareri, Curator of Decorative Arts and Sculpture in the Art of Europe.
"This gallery showcases the creativity that was at the heart of Renaissance art and society, as sculptors, painters, and potters sought novel ways to present their subjects, aiming at variety, vividness, and expressiveness in their works, developing new methods of sculpting in bronze and clay, perfecting new techniques of carving, and creating inventive uses of paints, pigments, and glazes," said Cambareri.
The 1500-square-foot Italian Renaissance gallery begins with a look at objects made for domestic use, some related to family and marriage. Featured in a large floor-to-ceiling glass case are sculpture in maiolica, marriage portraits, plates with family crests, furniture, and devotional objects made for the home. Notable among them is a Bust of a Woman (about 1490–1500) and Plate with oak leaf designs (about 1525–45), two works of maiolica; Portrait of a Woman with a Pearl Necklace, a painting by Lorenzo Costa; and a Sgabello (late 15th century), a beautifully carved small stool.
Figuring prominently in the gallery is Saint John the Baptist (about 1510–20), an expressive glazed terracotta sculpture attributed to Giovanni Francesco Rustici, a Florentine sculptor who was a collaborator of Leonardo da Vinci. A focal point of the central section of the gallery is Donatello’s marble relief, Madonna of the Clouds (about 1425–35), carved in the artist’s innovated flattened relief technique, which creates three-dimensionality and depth. The MFA’s Italian Renaissance collection is particularly strong in relief sculpture and features a group of glazed terracotta by the renowned della Robbia family, a highlight of which is the exquisite Virgin and child with lilies (about 1460–70) attributed to Luca della Robbia. Also on view are colorful glazed terracotta sculptures by Giovanni della Robbia, Judith and Abundance (both from the first quarter of the 16th century).
Objects inspired by classical antiquity include the Bust of Christ (about 1500), a marble statue possibly by Cristoforo Solari, which was recently conserved, and the Bust of Cleopatra (about 1519–22) by Pier Jacopo Alari Bonacolsi, known as ―Antico‖ for his perfection of the ancient technique of bronze casting. Another masterly example of this technique is the elegant allegorical figure, Architecture (about 1600), by Giambologna (Jean Boulogne), placed in the last section of the gallery, which contains bronze sculptures, including the Bust of Aristotle (early 16th century). Maiolica works with classical themes, coins, and medals are showcased in this last section of the gallery.
In addition to the Italian Renaissance gallery, the Museum is opening two other galleries today— one devoted to 20th-Century Art and another highlighting rarely seen works related to the MFA’s renowned John Singer Sargent murals in the Sargent Rotunda. These new galleries are part of the Museum’s multi-faceted Building Project. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architects Foster + Partners (London), major components are expected to be completed in late 2010 and include an American Wing, the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard, the new Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, the Barbara and Theodore Alfond Auditorium, and new galleries and educational spaces. Building Project milestones to date include the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Visitor Center (which opened in June 2008), the State Street Corporation Fenway Entrance (June 2008), and the Huntington Avenue Entrance on the Avenue of the Arts (April 2009). The Building Project will enrich the ways in which visitors encounter the MFA’s great works of art, improve navigation through its galleries, as well as enhance and increase space for its encyclopedic collection, educational programs, and special exhibitions.