Twenty Objects for Twenty Years: Bust of Giovanni Chellini, 1456

If you’ve visited the Medieval and Renaissance galleries recently, you may have noticed that a familiar face is missing.  The portrait bust of Giovanni Chellini by the Florentine sculptor Antonio Rossellino, usually to be seen in Room 64b at the end of the first floor galleries, is currently away at the exhibition ‘Florence and the Springtime of the Renaissance’ at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence (until 18 August).   The Chellini bust is one of five objects generously lent by the V&A to this major exhibition, a reminder of the importance of our collection of Florentine renaissance sculpture.

Bust of Giovanni Chellini, 1456

Antonio Rossellino, “Giovanni di Antonio Chellini”, Italy (Florence), 1456, Bust, Marble.  In Storage, Mus Ref: 7671-1861 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Giovanni Chellini was an eminent doctor and a lecturer at the University of Florence who died in 1462, aged 83 or 84.   Among his patients was the famous sculptor Donatello, who in return for treatment presented Chellini with a small circular bronze relief of the Madonna and Child, as the doctor recorded his journal in 1456.  Donatello’s Chellini Madonna is also in the V&A, and together with the bust has returned to Florence for the exhibition.  Chellini’s bust was also made in 1456, six years before his death, as we know from an inscription inside its hollow base, which identifies the sitter and gives the date.  The inscription also includes the name of the artist, Antonio Rossellino (1427-1479), one of the leading Florentine sculptors of his day.

Bust of Giovanni Chellini, 1456, Inscription on base

Antonio Rossellino, “Giovanni di Antonio Chellini”, Italy (Florence), 1456, Bust, Marble.  In Storage, Mus Ref: 7671-1861 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It is one of the earliest works by Rossellino, and also one of the earliest examples of the renaissance portrait bust, an art form inspired by examples from classical antiquity and revived in Florence in the mid fifteenth century.  It must have seemed extraordinarily modern when it was first on view in Chellini’s house in Florence (we know from contemporary sources that portrait busts were often displayed over doors, as if imbuing a room with the sitter’s presence).  As well as reflecting Chellini’s awareness of all’antica art forms, it also exemplifies the growing trend amongst Florentines of his class to have one’s features recorded for posterity.  It was well known that the great men of antiquity had been celebrated in portraiture, and – as Chellini’s near contemporary, the Florentine architect and writer Leon Battista Alberti remarked – ‘Painting [portraits] … makes the absent present … [and] represents the dead to the living many centuries later, so they are recognised by spectators with pleasure and deep admiration for the artist’.  The inscriptions identifying sitter and artist within Chellini’s bust bear eloquent testimony to these ideas.

Though sculpted in an unusual brownish marble rather than painted, Rossellino’s portrait of Chellini certainly succeeds in conveying a sense of his physical presence. Its remarkably lifelike quality is the result of Rossellino’s powers of observation combined with his superb technical skill.  The face was probably based on a life mask, a not uncommon practice which involved taking a plaster mould of the features (there is a detailed description in the Libro dell’ Arte, a technical handbook for artists written by the Florentine painter Cennino Cennini around 1400).  During this process, a linen band would be tied around the head to protect the hair, resulting in the ears being being pinned back.  In Rossellino’s wonderfully true-to-life depiction, this detail has been accurately reproduced.

Bust of Giovanni Chellini, 1456, Ear Detail

Antonio Rossellino, “Giovanni di Antonio Chellini”, Italy (Florence), 1456, Bust, Marble.  In Storage, Mus Ref: 7671-1861 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Over and above this, he renders details such as the veins on Chellini’s temples, his sagging jowls, and the buttons at the neck of his gown with dazzling skill.  It manages at once to be highly sympathetic and to suggest the sharp intellect that made Chellini one of the most distinguished men in his sphere.

Bust of Giovanni Chellini, 1456, Left Profile

Antonio Rossellino, “Giovanni di Antonio Chellini”, Italy (Florence), 1456, Bust, Marble.  In Storage, Mus Ref: 7671-1861 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In Palazzo Strozzi, Chellini is to be seen in the company of other Florentine portraits busts depicting men he would have known, in the final room of the exhibition, which is devoted to portraiture in the domestic setting.  I like to think that he’s gone back to where he came from, though I’m looking forward to seeing him again in the V&A next year.  After the exhibition closes in Florence it moves to the Musée du Louvre, Paris (26 September 2013 – 6 January 2014).  It’s well worth visiting if you happen to be in either of those cities in the coming months, but if you don’t catch him there, look out for him back home at the V&A in the new year.

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