20 October 2020

Jacopo della Quercia - sculptor

Innovative work said to have influenced Michelangelo

Jacopo della Quercia was a leading influence on many artists
Jacopo della Quercia was a leading
influence on many artists
The sculptor Jacopo della Quercia, regarded as one of the most original artists in his field in the early 15th century and an influence on a number of leading figures in the Renaissance including Michelangelo, died on this day in 1438.

Della Quercia’s most notable works include the Fonte Gaia in Piazza del Campo in Siena, the sculptures around the Porta Magna of the church of San Petronio in Bologna, the tomb of Ilaria del Carretto in Lucca Cathedral, and Zacharias in the Temple, a bronze relief for the baptismal font in the church of San Giovanni in Siena.

His attention to proportion and perspective gave his creations a particularly lifelike quality and his innovative work put him at the forefront of his generation.  Art historians consider that his work marked a transition in Italian art from Gothic to Renaissance style that was taken forward by Michelangelo and contemporaries such as Francesco di Giorgio and Niccolò dell’Arca.

Born, it is thought, in 1374, he was baptised as Jacopo di Pietro d’Agnolo di Guarnieri.  He took his working name from his home village, Quercia Grossa - now Quercegrossa - situated a few kilometres outside Siena.  He came from a family of craftsmen; his father, Piero d’Angelo, was also a sculptor, and his brother Priamo was a painter.

The tomb of Ilaria del Carretto in Lucca cathedral brought together Gothic and Classical styles
The tomb of Ilaria del Carretto in Lucca cathedral
brought together Gothic and Classical styles
Jacopo’s early influences are likely to have been the paintings of Nicola Pisano and Arnolfi di Cambio in Siena’s duomo, and the ancient Roman statues and monuments exhibited in the cemetery at Lucca, where he moved with his family at the age of 12. 

His career began to gather pace in his early twenties. It is thought Della Quercia's earliest work appears in the Lucca cathedral, in which a statue of St John the Evangelist, an impressive Man of Sorrows at the Altar of the Sacrament, and a relief on the tomb of St Aniello. 

In 1401 he entered a competition to design the bronze doors for Florence's Baptistery, along with Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi, who would go on to design the cathedral’s famous dome.  Ghiberti won but the exposure enhanced Della Quercia’s standing further and in 1403 he sculpted the marble Virgin and Child for the Ferrara cathedral, winning considerable acclaim. 

Returning to Lucca in 1406, he received a commission from the city's ruler, Paolo Guinigi, to begin work at the tomb of his second wife Ilaria del Carretto in the Lucca cathedral. The end result, in which an elegantly dressed woman rests on top of a sarcophagus decorated with Roman-style winged cherubs, combines elements of Gothic and Classical styles, and is seen as signalling the imminent dawn of the golden age of Renaissance art.

The Porta Magna of the church of San Petronio in Bologna
The Porta Magna of the church of
San Petronio in Bologna
For all his brilliance, Della Quercia had a tendency to frustrate his clients by accepting too many commissions simultaneously, which led to him working on one at the expense of another.  For example, while the Fonte Gaia was completed in five years between 1414 and 1419, he may have been commissioned to do the work as early as 1406, certainly 1409.  At the same time, however, he was working on the statue of an apostle for the exterior of the cathedral at Lucca, the Trenta altar for the Church of San Frediano in Lucca, and tomb slabs for Lorenzo Trenta and his wife.

He may have started working in earnest on the Siena fountain later still had he not had to flee Lucca in haste in 1413, having been accused of crimes including robbery and rape for which one of his assistants spent three years in jail.

The original commission was to build a new fountain in Siena’s Piazza del Campo, to replace one that featured a statue of the pagan goddess Venus that had been blamed for an outbreak of plague in the city.  Della Quercia came up with a rectangular fountain built in white marble, dedicated to the Virgin, with statues carved into the three sides. It remains an attraction for tourists, although what they see now is a copy by Tito Sarrocchi, installed in the 19th century. The original is in the loggia of the town hall.

Similarly, Della Quercia was commissioned to create two gilt bronze reliefs for the baptismal font in San Giovanni in Siena but completed only one, the second being assigned to Donatello.

The design of the round-arched Porta Magna of the San Petronio church in Bologna, for which he accepted a commission in 1425, would keep him busy for much of the last 13 years of his life and it is considered by some to be his masterwork. 

The sculpture around the portal features 10 scenes from Genesis, including The Creation of Eve, five scenes from the early life of Christ, reliefs of the prophets and the statues of the Virgin and Child with Saints Petronius and Ambrose,  The sense of depth in the work, on which he was assisted by artists from his Bolognese workshop such as Cino di Bartolo, has been compared with the paintings of Masaccio.  Michelangelo, who visited Bologna in 1494, conceded that his Genesis on the Sistine Chapel ceiling was based on Della Quercia’s scenes. 

While working at the Porta Magna, he was asked to design the Loggia di San Paolo, close to the Piazza del Campo, but died before he could finish the commission.  In 1435 he was knighted by the government of Siena and appointed to a prestigious role overseeing Siena Cathedral.

Della Quercia’s biography is included in Giorgio Vasari’s seminal work, Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. After his death, he was buried in the San Agostino church in Siena.

The Fonte Gaia is situated in the historic Piazza del Campo in Siena
The Fonte Gaia is situated in the historic
Piazza del Campo in Siena
Travel tip:

Siena is perhaps best known as the venue for the historic horse race, the Palio di Siena. The race takes place in the Piazza del Campo, a shell-shaped open area which is regarded as one of Europe’s finest medieval squares. It was established in the 13th century as an open marketplace on a sloping site between the three communities that eventually merged to form the city of Siena.  The city's cathedral, with a pulpit designed by Nicola Pisani, is considered a masterpiece of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture.

The Basilica di San Petronio is the largest brick built Gothic church in the world
The Basilica di San Petronio is the largest
brick built Gothic church in the world
Travel tip:

The Basilica di San Petronio is the main church of Bologna, located in Piazza Maggiore in the centre of the city. It is the largest brick-built Gothic church in the world. Building work began on the church in 1390 and it was dedicated to San Petronio, who had been the Bishop of Bologna in the fifth century. The facade was designed by Domenico da Varignana and started in 1538 by Giacomo Ranuzzi but was never finished. Despite being Bologna’s most important church, San Petronio is not the city’s cathedral. This is the Duomo di San Pietro, which stands nearby on Via Indipendenza. In the 16th century, the basilica staged the coronation of Charles V to Holy Roman Emperor by Pope Clement VII.

Also on this day:

1950: The birth of television presenter Mara Venier

1951: The birth of football manager Claudio Ranieri

1962: The birth of jazz musician Dado Moroni


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