Alonso Berruguete: First Sculptor of Renaissance Spain
By CD Dickerson III Yale, 244pp, £40/$55
Given Alonso Berruguete’s artistic education in Italy at the height of the Renaissance and his subsequent influence in his native Spain, it would not be surprising if this book was merely another tribute to the style and international impact of the Tuscan and Roman school of Renaissance art initiated by Donatello, Masaccio and Brunelleschi, developed by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael, and promoted as the apogee of aesthetic excellence by Giorgio Vasari.
Fortunately, however, this first English language study of Berruguete not only refuses to go down that road but aggressively challenges common interpretations of him as a mere “Spanish Tuscan”, demonstrating instead how his art synthesised elements of the Tuscan school with those of existing Spanish stylistic traditions.
Three major traditions predominated throughout the soon-to-be-unified Spain into which Berruguete was born circa 1488. One was the centuries-old Spanish Gothic. Another was the Moorish architecture of the Islamic Kingdom of Granada, which was still a few years away from its fall to the Reconquest. The third was the newly ascendant Hispano-Flemish style, which originated in the mid-15th century when works by Flemish Renaissance masters including Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden were imported into the Iberian Peninsula at the same time as it received an influx of Flemish-trained artists.
It was in this context that Berruguete developed an appreciation for art and received his initial training, though by his early years Spanish artists were beginning to take an interest in Italian artistic movements, which induced Berruguete to begin studies in Italy and remain there for a decade. This was a period of his life in respect of which the key facts are clearly attested to, yet most of the details are lost to history. Financial documents place him in Florence in 1508, and Vasari records
that he was successfully established as an independent painter in that city by the middle of the century’s second decade. That Berruguete visited Rome is certain and he developed a relationship with Michelangelo, whose work exerted a strong influence over his own and whose feelings towards Berruguete combined professional respect and personal affection.
It is also likely that it was during his Italian years, when he studied the sculptures of Michelangelo and Donatello, that Berruguete took his first serious steps towards working in the medium in which he was to achieve fame – and which, perhaps for that reason, is often (probably erroneously) alleged to have been his first field of artistic study. In fact his most significant achievement in sculpture prior to his return to Spain was inclusion in a design competition among promising but unproven newcomers to the field, a contest which took place at a time when he was already accepted as a master painter.
Evidence does not suggest that personal preference played a part in inducing Berruguete’s later shift in emphasis from painting to sculpture. Shortly after arriving back in Spain, he received an appointment as one of Charles V’s court painters, but the work on which he was employed was not what he had hoped for, consisting mainly of decorations used in routine forms of public display. It was, however, at the command of the emperor that he received a commission to work on a burial chapel, a project in which he collaborated with Felipe Vigarny, who was then Spain’s preeminent sculptor and likely the artist under whom Berruguete first made an advanced study of sculpting.
Spanish sculpture was quite different from Tuscan, because its indebtedness to medieval and Northern European styles stood in contrast to the Tuscans’ strict classicism. Spanish works were also often carved from wood (while the Italian Renaissance was dominated by works of marble and bronze) and was commonly painted with an attentiveness to colour (which was irrelevant to Tuscan sculpture and under-emphasised in Tuscan painting, but in which the Flemish Renaissance excelled).
It was easy enough for Berruguete to introduce into his work both the naturalism with which the Italian Renaissance depicted the human form and elements of the Tuscan school’s classicist idealism in regard to the proportions of the figures depicted. But the expectations of his patrons, and perhaps an inclination to experiment, required preserving elements of the Spanish tradition. In shape and colouration the style that resulted was uniquely Spanish but closer to Flemish-oriented than to Italian traditions. While the Flemish Renaissance could lag behind Italy in its use of classical techniques, it was grounded in a desire to synthesise elements of the classical and the medieval and to achieve a strict naturalism – attitudes foreign to the “pure” classicist idealism of Berruguete’s Italian teachers.