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Making and remaking Renaissance sculpture : the terracotta groups (1460–1560) Vranic, Ivana


This dissertation explores a sculptural tradition from northern Italy which is frequently overlooked in the art historical scholarship: life-size terracotta devotional groups. Composed of seven or more lifelike and often polychrome biblical characters, these works represent scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin, most commonly the Lamentation over the Dead Christ. The study examines over a dozen groups made between 1460 and 1560 by six terracotta sculptors—Niccolò dell’Arca, Guido Mazzoni, Agostino de’ Fondulis, Vincenzo Onofri, Alfonso Lombardi, and Antonio Begarelli—who worked for diverse patrons, from civic confraternities to monarchs, and in different urban centers, such as Bologna, Modena, Ferrara, and Milan. What makes the groups distinct in the history of sculpture, I propose, in contrast to most scholars, is not their subject matter, function, or even their format, but their artifice. The multi-stage process involved in modelling and firing clay to make life-size figures, I argue, was a highly specialized practice in the Renaissance—a period during which statues in marble and bronze became the epitome of sculpture. Building on one question—How were the terracotta groups made?—this study consolidates a large body of evidence, including primary sources, archival documents, and art historical studies. Tracing references to clay and terracotta in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century texts, I demonstrate that although most Renaissance writers laud the skills associated with these groups and link terracotta to ancient sculpture, alongside the genesis of humans and art, they do not describe how sculpture is produced in this medium. Our knowledge about terracotta comes from modern art restorations, which I consult to explain how the groups were made and remade—repainted, remodelled, and reinstalled—since the fifteenth century. The technical history of the groups established in this dissertation contributes to recent scholarship on the materials and techniques of Renaissance sculpture by challenging the idea that terracotta was an inexpensive medium of popular art and by demonstrating it was a technology with which the northern Italian terracotta sculptors brought sacred narratives to life.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International