Jean de Boulogne: a Flemish in Florence


Trades between Florence and the Flanders began in the 15th century. Many Florentine families commissioned works to Flemish that once arrived here in Florence, greatly influenced local artists. In addition to the works, many artists from Flanders also arrved, many of whom were involved in the Medicean Tapestry Manufactory founded by Cosimo I in 1545. One of the most famous artists here in Florence was certainly the great sculptor Jean de Boulogne, known as Giambologna.
Giambologna arrived in Rome in 1550 on a study trip to observe closely the Roman statuary and the works of the great Michelangelo, here the intellectual Bernardo Vecchietti met him and sensed his potential. He took him under his wing and brought him to Tuscany, accommodating him in his Villa il Riposo in Grassina, near Florence.
It was in Florence that Giambologna found his fortune. Capable of working with all kinds of material, he became the favorite sculptor of the Medici, in particular of Francesco I who called him to work in prestigious commissions. One of these was the decoration of his famous Studiolo in Palazzo Vecchio, to which Giambologna participated with many other artists, making the little bronze statue of Apollo that was to be placed in one of the niches with statues depicting divinities at the corners of the room.
For Francesco I, who had acquired a villa in Pratolino to transform into a park of wonders, Giambologna also made the massive 14-meters high sculpture, depicting the Colossus of the Apennines. An absolute masterpiece that is unfortunately too often forgotten due it being out of reach for the tourists who visit Florence every year, but it remains one of the most beautiful works ever created by the clever hands of Giambologna.
His most famous work though, is the Rat of the Sabines, another masterpiece of Mannerism that is in plain sight under the Loggia dei Lanzi in Piazza Signoria, next to another of his works depicting Hercules and the centaur Nesso. Standing proof of the excellence of the Flemish artist, the Rat of the Sabines was carved in a single block of marble, from which he obtained three very dynamic figures. A woman trying to escape the grip of a younger man, and under the two figures an older man looking at the scene, helpless. A sculpture rich of movement, alternating full and empty spaces and broken lines that create the first statue with multiple views.
A curious fact about this artwork is that Giambologna did not intend to represent the Rat of the Sabines at all, all he wanted to do was to prove to himself and to all the others that he was able to carve a series of moving figures from a single block of marble. He was forced to give a title to the sculpture, however, when Francesco I decided to put it on display in Piazza della Signoria for everyone to see, and it was not possible to leave the viewer in doubt as to what he was looking at.
In general, Giambologna did not like to give labels to his works, he created art for the sake of art, to outdo himself each time; what he was representing was not that important as long as he could create something really beautiful and worthy of admiration.
In the last years of his career, the old Flemish artist devoted himself to the creation of equestrian monuments, a type of sculpture that was good show his skills. The monument of Cosimo I kept him busy for twelve years, but old age deprived Giambologna only of the speed of execution, certainly not of his mastery as can be testified by the bronze statue of the first Grand Duke of Tuscany on a horse standing in front of Palazzo Vecchio in all his pride and magnificence.
A few years later he set to work on the equestrian monument for Cosimo's son, Ferdinando I, that was placed in Piazza Santissima Annunziata.
Walking around the city you can see how much the great Flemish master left us, from the most famous artworks already mentioned to works like the statue of St. Luke on the fa├žade of the Orsanmichele church, or the curious small devil on the corner of palazzo Vecchietti, or the beautiful Flying Mercury bronze on display at the Bargello Museum.
An invaluable heritage that undoubtedly contributes to making the capital of Tuscany one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

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