On 30 May 1694, with the help of a mason and a labourer, Giuseppe Piamontini (1664-1742) installed his colossal marble sculpture of Saint Mark and a lion in a niche high above the altar of the church of Santi Michele e Gaetano in Florence. It still stands there today.
Working flat out, the artist had completed the commission in just over a year — working from a 48-centimetre-high prototype that is now offered for sale at Christie’s.
‘He modelled it from terracotta in his studio,’ explains Donald Johnston, international head of European Sculpture at Christie’s. ‘It’s a unique document that provides a fascinating glimpse into both the artist’s working method and Florence’s last great flowering of Baroque sculpture.’
Piamontini was a Florentine native, born a stone’s throw from the church in 1664. He was barely 30 when he installed Saint Mark, but already had more than 16 years’ experience. At 14 he had received his first major commission from Ferdinando de’ Medici (1663-1713), the Grand Prince of Tuscany, who was roughly the same age as the artist and lived just across the Arno in the Pitti Palace. For the young prince, Piamontini made a now-lost marble of a sitting child.
After a brief period spent studying alongside Giambattista Foggini (1652-1725), court sculptor to Ferdinando’s father Cosimo III (1642-1723), the promising 17-year-old artist travelled to Rome. There he spent the following five years perfecting his craft in marble and bronze at Cosimo’s new but short-lived Accademia Fiorentina.
Between 1604 and 1701, the honey-coloured pietra forte church of Santi Michele e Gaetano on Piazza Antinori was completely rebuilt in the Baroque style for the local Theatines, an order of evangelical Catholic monks. By the time Piamontini returned to Florence in 1686, the work had essentially finished. All that remained was to furnish the church with art.
Inside the barrel-vaulted nave, beneath a Baroque stucco ceiling by Foggini and between the church’s nine chapels, were 14 niches designated for over-life-size statues of the Apostles and Evangelists. Each, it was decided, was to be accompanied by a relief depicting an episode from their life — often their grisly martyrdom.
The work was divided between eight sculptors, Piamontini receiving his commission for Saint Mark on 27 April 1693.
‘Amazingly, the contract between the artist and the Theatine monks survives,’ says Johnston.
‘It stipulates that the statue had to follow a signed drawing; that it must be carved within six months, from a single block of local white Carrara marble; that it should stand at four braccia (around eight feet) high; and that Piamontini would be paid 350 scudi for his work. One hundred scudi, the contract says, would be paid to the artist in advance, while the rest would be sent in instalments of 12 scudi.’
To put that in perspective, it is estimated that the average salary in Florence at the time would have been around 15 scudi a year.
‘The fact that you can see Piamontini’s ongoing creative process and touch the tool marks he made on this terracotta makes it very engaging’ — specialist Donald Johnston
Over the following months, Piamontini rapidly worked up his drawing (now lost) into this clay model. ‘You can see where he has built it up by adding lumps of clay, as well as where he scraped off areas of excess clay to reduce the chances of it exploding in the kiln,’ explains Johnston. ‘It’s wonderfully spontaneous.’
The modello was then presumably shown to the monks, who must have liked what they saw. ‘Very little changed between this model and the marble,’ says Johnston. ‘The head became a little rounder and grew a little more hair, and the contrapposto pose shifted slightly, but that was it.’
The happy monks also went on to request that Piamontini sculpt a marble of Saint Jude Thaddeus for a niche opposite, as well as reliefs of four saints.
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‘The fact that you can see Piamontini’s ongoing creative process and touch the tool marks he made on this terracotta makes it very engaging,’ says Johnston. ‘When you couple that with the fact that the larger version is still where he left it, in a well-known church in Florence, it becomes very desirable.
‘Many of Piamontini’s great Baroque sculptures haven’t survived,’ he adds, ‘and his terracottas are particularly rare due to their fragility, so this would be a brilliant addition to any collection.’
Giuseppe Piamontini’s terracotta Saint Mark will be on display at Christie’s in London from 11 December 2020, ahead of the Old Masters Evening Sale on 15 December, as part of Classic Week