Giovanni da Bologna

The Flemish-Italian sculptor Giovanni da Bologna (1529-1608) was, after Michelangelo, the most important and original 16th-century sculptor. One of the supreme exponents of the mannerist style, Giovanni was an important influence in the development of the baroque.

Giovanni da Bologna, also known as Giambologna and Jean de Boulogne, was born in Douai, Flanders. He received his early training in the studio of the Flemish sculptor Jacques Dubroeucq. About 1554 Giovanni traveled to Italy and spent 2 years studying in Rome. During Giovanni's stay in Florence on his way back to Flanders, the collector and connoisseur Bernardo Vecchietti recognized his talent and offered to support him while he pursued his studies in Florence. Within 2 years Giovanni received his first commission from the Medici grand dukes, and he remained in Florence in the service of the Medici until his death on Aug. 13, 1608.

In 1560 Giovanni competed unsuccessfully for the commission of the Fountain of Neptune in Florence. Three years later he signed the contract for his first major work, the Fountain of Neptune in Bologna (completed 1567). This was followed by a series of fountains for Medici villas and gardens in which Giovanni succeeded in making the sculpture an integral part of the patterns created by the flowing water.

In 1581 a contemporary wrote of Giovanni, "His dearest ambition is to equal Michelangelo, and in the view of many connoisseurs, he has already done so, and may surpass him if he lives." This need to compete with Michelangelo was a vital element in the early part of Giovanni's career. This was made most obvious when Francesco de' Medici commissioned him in 1561 to produce a group, Florence Triumphant over Pisa, to act as a pendant to Michelangelo's Victory group. The survival of the wax model, the intermediate full-scale model in plaster, and the final marble group (now in the Museo Nazionale, Florence) enables us to follow the progressive transformation of Michelangelo's forms into the graceful and sinuous lines so characteristic of Giovanni's style.

His Bronzes

Giovanni's remarkable technical virtuosity is particularly evident in his small bronzes. Designed to be appreciated by connoisseurs, statuettes like Venus after Her Bath (ca. 1564-1565) and Astronomy (ca. 1572) are brilliantly conceived to form an almost incredible variety of subtly interrelated views. The extreme attenuation and delicate balance of the Mercury (several versions produced between 1564 and 1580) would have been impossible in any other medium. The Apollo (1573-1575), one of eight bronze statues executed for the study of Francesco de' Medici in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence, shows Giovanni's preeminence over his Florentine contemporaries. The Medici sometimes sent the autograph small bronzes as diplomatic gifts, and these, together with their numerous copies and the reproductions of Giovanni's other works, were largely responsible for the dissemination of his style throughout Europe.

Late Works

The Rape of the Sabines (1582) in the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, is another of Giovanni's masterpieces whose genesis is well documented by the survival of wax models and, in this case, two small versions in bronze. In a covering letter to the Duke of Parma in 1579, Giovanni writes of one of these small bronze groups that "it might represent the Rape of Helen or perhaps of Proserpine or even one of the Sabines. The subject was chosen to give scope to the science and accomplishment of Art." According to Rafaello Borghini (1584), it was in response to a challenge that Giovanni subsequently worked up this composition into the large marble group, solely to demonstrate his "excellence in Art." In the Rape the characteristic mannerist device of the serpentine figure is extended in a masterly way to embrace the group so that from every angle it retains its graceful poise and balance both as a group and as an abstract interwoven pattern of flowing lines.

Giovanni's equestrian monument of Cosimo I in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence (1581-1595), resulted in three further commissions for similar monuments; they established a standard type of equestrian statue for the 17th and 18th centuries. His last major marble sculpture, Hercules and a Centaur, in the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence (1594-1599), reveals the full extent of his development and shows his great dramatic power.

Further Reading on Giovanni da Bologna

The most recent monograph on Giovanni da Bologna is in Flemish. A very good introduction to the sculpture of the 16th century, which includes valuable information about Giovanni's major works, is John Pope-Hennessy, Italian High Renaissance and Baroque Sculpture (3 vols., 1963). John Shearman, Mannerism (1967), is a stimulating discussion of the esthetic ideals of mannerism.