Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 15, 2023
Alessandra Giannotti Sculture in terracotta: Devozione nella casa fiorentina del Rinascimento Florence: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 2021. 116 pp.; 50 color ills. Paper €30.00 (9788822267771)

In 1907, the Chicago heiress Hortense Mitchell Acton and her British husband, Arthur Acton, bought La Pietra, a Renaissance villa in the hills outside Florence, as a home where they might live surrounded by their growing art collection. Among the many treasures they gathered within its walls were eight sixteenth-century terracotta sculptures of religious subjects, examples of a type of decorative object commonly found within Florentine Renaissance homes. The works were made independently of one another by different artists and only assembled as a group by the Actons in the twentieth century. Nearly all stand under two feet high, and each draws the viewer in through naturalistic details—creeping lizards and a motionless cicada that witness Jerome’s penitence, or blood that flows from puncture wounds in Sebastian’s body—enlivening their subjects to aid devotional contemplation. Some even appear to retain original polychromy. These captivating terracotta objects, which visitors to Florence can still admire today in the Acton Collection at La Pietra, are the subject of Alessandra Giannotti’s Sculture in terracotta: Devozione nella casa fiorentina del Rinascimento. A compact but deeply researched book, its three chapters examine the Actons’ terracotta sculptures in relation to sharply delineated contexts—the physical and social worlds of turn-of-the-century art collectors, the private houses of sixteenth-century Florentines, and the debates over artistic attribution that interest specialists today—whose concerns ultimately overlap in fascinating, productive ways.

In chapter one (“Il contesto”), Giannotti analyzes the historical context for Hortense Mitchell and Arthur Acton’s activity as collectors. Surveying the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, she traces an intense interest in the Florentine Renaissance domestic interior that involved artists, dealers, collectors, curators, and scholars (identities that often overlapped) across Europe and America. Many of these persons reconstructed the environments they admired in physical form, installing showrooms, galleries, and residences to resemble sumptuous fifteenth- and sixteenth-century interiors. For the Actons, who lived with their collection inside a Renaissance villa, the result was a “perfect integration of contents and container” (7). Historical photographs show that they rearranged objects in a dynamic approach to display. For example, Saint Jerome in Prayer (cat. 3) appears amid glazed Della Robbia fruit baskets in one photograph, and next to a portrait bust and the Virgin in Prayer (cat. 5) in another view of the same room. The social world in which the Actons moved as collectors was also lively. They shared a taste for terracotta (and even swapped finds) with their friends Charles Loeser and Herbert Percy Horne, who were collectors, art historians, and fellow members of the Anglo-American community in Florence. The key role this community played—alongside institutions such as the South Kensington Museum in London and the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum in Berlin—in advancing both the collecting and the academic study of Renaissance domestic terracotta becomes a main theme later in the chapter. Giannotti reviews the vibrant tradition of writing about art, in both English and German, that resulted from foundational studies by John Charles Robinson, Wilhelm von Bode, and Allan Marquand, and continues in recent work by John Kent Lydecker, Peter Thornton, Ronald G. Kecks, Jacqueline Marie Musacchio, and others. Finally, she identifies a need for further work on the sixteenth-century home, which has received less comprehensive analysis than its fifteenth-century counterpart, and that her study of the Acton sculptures helps to redress.

Chapter two (“I soggetti, i luoghi, gli acquirenti”) moves us backward in time, to consider the place terracotta sculpture occupied within the sixteenth-century home. The chapter presents extensive new archival evidence from the records of the Magistrato dei Pupilli at the Archivio di Stato, Florence. Founded in the late fourteenth century, the Pupilli was a state institution that administered the estates of minors whose fathers died intestate. To discharge this duty, it inventoried the possessions of the deceased, which included terracotta sculptures in multifarious forms: busts of family members and holy saints, reliefs, small figures such as bambini, and decorative objects like citrons and baskets of fruit. Giannotti identifies scores of terracotta sculptures inventoried by the Pupilli in sixteenth-century Florentine homes, although surprisingly she never states the total number of sculptures, persons, or individual records that her findings encompass. Her insightful discussion of the data is organized by the subject matter and format of the sculptures, and includes information about their material, surface coloring, location within the home, and the social status of their owners. Supporting details from the inventory records themselves appear in long footnotes that comprise roughly half the chapter. Grouping related records in this way reveals broad trends, such as a general preference for installing bambini in pairs or as a series (30–32) and for placing busts of holy saints in the bedroom (26–28). Dedicated readers will catch further glimpses into the lives of terracotta objects in the footnotes, learning for instance that many were broken (rotto), or that in 1534 a certain Pierfilippo di Jacopo Gianfigliazzi kept his terracotta Laocoön group near paintings of Aristotle and of Leda, thereby creating a nucleus of classical subjects (51, fn. 63).

Chapter three (“Catalogo”) turns to the eight Acton terracotta sculptures themselves, in a catalog that discusses their iconography, physical condition, and attribution. Viewed as a group, the sculptures’ religious subjects align with trends documented in the Pupilli records: Saint Jerome and the young John the Baptist, who enjoyed great popularity with Florentine audiences (43), are represented twice and thrice respectively, while Saint Sebastian, the Virgin, and an angel, are each represented once. The individual catalog entries employ connoisseurial methods that have their roots in the nineteenth century, underscoring how deeply the context outlined in chapter one continues to shape current art historical research. Giannotti writes at greatest length about three sculptures that depict a solitary Jerome or a solitary John the Baptist in a rocky landscape (cats. 1–3), attributing them to the oeuvres of the “Master of the David and Saint John Statuettes” and the “Master of the Unruly Children”—artistic personalities that were first described by Wilhelm von Bode (66, 77)—and that of Agnolo di Polo de’ Vetri. Beyond posing an appealing challenge to the connoisseur, the works share similar iconographies that reflect the time-honored workshop practice of repeating popular subjects. The Actons, Horne, and Loeser certainly knew how to appreciate these factors, for they owned ten sculptures of Jerome and John across their three collections (16), and Loeser and Horne both published actively as art historians.

When viewed as a whole, Sculture in terracotta demonstrates the value of taking a multipronged approach that encompasses the history of collecting, original archival research, and traditional connoisseurship to the study of historical objects for which scant documentation survives. It will be required reading for future work on the terracotta sculptures at La Pietra, and the new archival evidence presented in chapter two makes a significant contribution to the study of terracotta objects within the sixteenth-century Florentine home more generally. It also deserves praise for its generous color illustrations, which facilitate close looking and comparison between artworks. That said, the book would have benefitted from an introductory chapter that explicitly identified its contributions, methodology, and, most importantly, its focus on the eight Acton sculptures. Currently, this information only emerges at the end of chapter one (24). Additionally, Giannotti writes for an informed specialist audience. For readers less conversant in the literature, it would have been helpful to provide further background on the Actons, the rooms of a Florentine house (such as the sala, camera, and scrittoio), and the nature of the Magistrato dei Pupilli records. As a result, the book will be best appreciated by those who work on the terracotta sculptures and domestic settings of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Italy—and for them, it should not be missed.

Catherine Kupiec
Independent Scholar