Alonso Berruguete (c. 1486-1561) was the greatest Spanish sculptor of the 16th century. He evolved a personal mannerist style that is highly expressive and emotional.
Alonso Berruguete was born in Paredes de Navas, Valladolid, the son of Pedro Berruguete, Spain's first major Early Renaissance painter. Pedro was trained in Italy, and it is understandable that he would want his son to have an Italian formation. Alonso was in Florence from about 1504, the year of his father's death, until about 1517. He also spent time in Rome during this period.
Berruguete's original purpose was to train as a painter, but he had the opportunity to study sculpture under Michelangelo, whom he is said to have assisted in the execution of some works. Berruguete received minor commissions, such as the completion of paintings and sculptures left unfinished by other artists.
On his return to Spain, Berruguete executed an alabaster relief, the Resurrection, for Valencia Cathedral (ca. 1517), which compares favorably with early works by Michelangelo. It is Hellenistic in its anatomical beauty, multiple diagonals, and range of relief projection. The figure of Christ is the climactic center of interest: a vertical, stabilizing force amid a tumult of diagonals described in the agitated movements of the startled Roman soldiers.
In 1518 Emperor Charles V named Berruguete court painter. When illness prevented Berruguete from sailing to Germany with Charles V in 1520, the Emperor took it personally and turned a deaf ear to Berruguete's subsequent petitions for commissions. He then returned to his native village until 1523, when Charles V named him a scribe of the criminal section of the Chancery in Valladolid.
This gave Berruguete social status, an income, and work he could deputize. Henceforth, he set himself to amass riches and advance socially. He established a studio in Valladolid, hired a number of apprentices, and priced his works above those of all other artists. It was a time of great wealth in Spain; Berruguete had seen sumptuous riches in Italy and was determined to so live that his compatriots would accord him the reverence and acclaim enjoyed by Italian artists.
In 1528 Berruguete built himself a palace in Valladolid, opposite the monastery of S. Benito, for which he created his greatest altarpiece. He succeeded so well in his ambitions that in 1542 he sold the Emperor's benefice for 4,000 ducats. Two years before he died, he became a squire when the regent of Portugal, Princess Juana, gave him the village of Ventosa with its 120 inhabitants.
Berruguete discovered his own style in the mid-1520s. It provoked impassioned discussion, since expression was more important to him than formal considerations. His figures are like exposed nerves: writhing, throbbing, burning, keening, wailing, cursing. The emaciated anatomy is dislocated; the stance is unstable, in defiance of the logic of gravity; and the tortured draperies seem glued to the forms. His art is a projection of his state of mind, which he forces the spectator to share by the stridency of the convulsed forms, the relentless brilliance of color, and the feverish rhythms on a monumental scale.
Berruguete worked mostly in polychromed wood but also in marble, alabaster, stone, and unpainted wood (for choir stalls). It has been said that his genius lay less in sculpture and painting than in a rhetoric that was an eloquent fusion of both arts. Certainly he often painted the lights and shadows for his sculptures with complete indifference to the actual light in which they would be viewed, and sometimes he used his brush to depict cloth coverings which were not carved.
Berruguete's tremendous altarpieces filled the entire apse of the church and were subdivided by architectural elements lavishly decorated and acting as frames for the individual figures and the relief panels. This huge, exotically ornate framework was like a setting for an opera, and Berruguete used it to establish the notes of restlessness and imbalance which his sculptural actors clarified and augmented. He created a single spectacle of extravagant ornament, drama, and personages. The synthesis he intended depends on the total work; yet seeing the altarpiece of S. Benito (1527-1532; now in Valladolid Museum) in fragments, one can know intimately the awesome emotion of Abraham and Isaac in extremis or the exquisite poignancy of the suffering youthful St. Sebastian. In the almost complete altarpiece for the monastery of La Mejorada, Olmedo (1526; now in Valladolid), one can compare the synthesis and the isolated agony.
The consensus of opinion is that Berruguete carved and painted all his polychromed-wood figurative sculpture but relied heavily on assistants to execute such works as the alabaster Transfiguration in Toledo Cathedral (1543-1548) and his last work, the marble funeral monument of Cardinal Juan de Tavera in the Hospital of St. John, Toledo (1557-1561). Indeed, when Cardinal Tavera commissioned the choir stalls of unpainted wood in Toledo Cathedral (1539-1543), he urged Berruguete to execute them not by his own hand but rather "by good apprentices." This fact does not settle the matter; each authority must decide for himself when it is the hand of the master and when not.
A year after Berruguete's death, his widow had to send to Cáceres an unfinished altarpiece which had been commissioned in 1547 and was being executed in Valladolid at the time of his death. Apparently, only the relief of St. Francis was by Berruguete. The stamp of Berruguete's genius was not only that he created a unique mannerist expression of ungovernable passion agitating tense, convulsed forms, the clamor of which claws and burns the soul in a spiritual ecstasy, but that, once having found his creative language, he never made a concession to a client's taste. Such an artist cannot found a school, but equally he does not pass without effect.
The best source on Berruguete in English is George Kubler and Martin Soria, Art and Architecture in Spain and Portugal and Their American Dominions: 1500-1800 (1959). □