- Leone Leoni and the Status of the Artist at the End of the Renaissance
Kelly Helmstutler Di Dio turns our attention to a much explored art historical subject: the increased social status for Renaissance visual artists. During this time period painters and sculptors worked to elevate their standing above that of craftsmen to align themselves more closely with the liberal arts. Di Dio takes as her subject a fascinating case in point of this phenomenon: the sculptor and medalist Leone Leoni, who through a variety of strategies achieved a notable leap in status, from his humble birth as the son of a stone mason in Arezzo to his incredible rise in rank to a nobleman and courtier in Spanish-controlled Milan. This elevation in position was not an unbroken journey up the social ladder, but one interrupted by a number of criminal infractions, some of them quite violent. An important aspect of the book is that it addresses this seemingly contradictory behavior, as Leoni deliberately took pains to associate his artistic genius with his passionate vices.
Di Dio divides her book into six chapters. The first chronologically orders major events in Leoni's life, into which his works are folded, with a particular emphasis on his patrons, who financially provided for Leoni and intervened to deliver the sculptor from the consequences of his crimes. Chapter Two examines the sculptor's network, which included among others Michelangelo, Titian, Pietro Aretino, and his key advocate Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, Charles V's and Philip II's chief advisor. Leoni's association with this articulate man, as well as his membership in the scholarly academy, the Accademia degli Fenici, promoted Leoni's reputation as learned in letters, and provided a forum in which his works could be poetically memorialized. These surviving sonnets are provided in Appendix IV. The book's third chapter focuses on the rivalry between Leoni and the sculptor Benevenuto Cellini. The two competed not only for commissions, but also physically clashed—charges once were brought against Leoni for attempted poisoning of Cellini. Both artists possessed substantial, violent criminal records, and Di Dio explores this counterproductive behavior, casting these actions in light of Renaissance notions of honor; these sculptors both attached this aspect of their promoted prowess to create exceptional metalwork with its subfield of weaponry. [End Page 543]
The following two chapters analyze in rich detail Leoni's primary signaling site to renegotiate his social standing: his house in Milan and its contents, noted as exceptional during and after his lifetime. Using archival material and surviving physical evidence of the house, Di Dio brilliantly treats the decorative program of Leoni's home, the Casa degli Omenoni, to reveal his message to privileged visitors. This chapter clarifies the mechanics of this sculptor's strategy to promote his sophisticated knowledge of antique and contemporary sculpture and classical philosophy. The artist devised a multi-layered program via his own architectural sculpture and calculated placement of works from his collection, which promoted Stoicism, a philosophy embraced by his greatest patron, Charles V; thus his home's ornamentation announced the owner as a courtier of the Habsburg. It was in fact Charles V who bestowed this property upon Leoni. The artist renovated and enlarged this modest space with a number of well-designed additions to display his art collection, which is the focus of the fifth chapter. Contemporary accounts allude to this house's pioneering aspect as a gallery space created by a gentleman of taste, the first in Milan, rather than as an artist's workshop with casts for copying. From surviving inventories, contemporary accounts, and buyers' correspondence, Di Dio convincingly reconstructs Leoni's collection; a cross-referenced list appears as Appendix V. She applies her research to illustrate his methods of display, showing that this domestic architecture followed exhibition requirements of many three-dimensional works of antique and contemporary sculpture, casts from important collections and prominent works, as well as numerous paintings and drawings. Di Dio concludes her study...