The history of art is full of benchmarks of Genius. They are signposts used to indicate periods and style. They encompass ideology and are the zenith of human achievement. Their names conjure dreams: Giotto, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Bernini. However, an overemphasis on their greatness risks to isolate them from their context
Art is a continuum where generations of artists and their accumulated knowledge create an environment where Genius can blossom. When we look more closely at the second masters, we find a lot of terrific artists. One of these is Antonio Begarelli.
When one thinks of life-size sculpture, the materials that come to mind are marble and bronze. But it is important to remember that humble terra-cotta has been an important medium for sculpture on the Italian peninsula since the time of the Greeks. There are some really nice examples in the collection of the Getty Villa in Malibu.
Begarelli was born in the Italian town of Modena in 1499. Very little is known about his childhood and absolutely nothing about his artistic formation. Yet his work is absolutely wonderful. His first major work was the Madonna di Piazza completed in 1522.
In 1520 the city of Modena was planning to commission a sculpture of the Madonna for a niche located in the main piazza. Begarelli, only 21 at the time, offered the above piece that was already completed. Originally is was colored to look like marble. This was common practice for many of his later works.
Terracotta is a tricky medium and creating such large pieces is extremely difficult. The first step was to create an internal armature for the sculpture that would support the weight of the wet clay during the modeling process(as the clay is not able to support its own weight). The sculpture was completed and allowed to dry until it was leather hard. Afterwards it was sectioned off and removed from the armature and each piece hollowed out carefully to allow an even drying. Once completely dry, all the pieces were strategically placed within a free flame kiln and cooked. The pieces were then reassembled, joints stuccoed and imperfections corrected.
There are a lot of potential hazards along that path. The industrialization of ceramic production has eliminated many of those risks. Pre-19th century artists and craftsmen required a long apprenticeship to learn all the aspects of their particular trade. Materials were not bought in an art supply shop, they were produced. To produce the clay different types were extracted from the ground, dried, and cleaned of impurities. Once reconstituted they were then kneaded together to differing proportions depending upon the required color and handling properties.
Kilns today are of either the gas or electric variety. They are temperature controlled and whole process is programed and guided by a computer. Before this innovation they were basically rooms heated up with fire. The cooking process could last over 24 hours. All this taken into account, it is quite amazing that Begarelli was able to produce such an accomplished work at such a young age.
His career took off from that point and he worked quite steadily until his death in 1565. Since he did not travel much, to see his work properly one must travel to Modena. Below are several images representative of his oeuvre.
Deposition of Christ from the Cross, terra-cotta, life size, Church of San Francesco, Modena
To learn a little more about Begarelli there is a Wikipedia entry here:
There is also a nice video on youtube that has some nice details of his work. It can be found here: