Marble Comes to Life

Venetian Sculpture Graces Gallery Exhibit

Posted July 14, 2009 at 4:19pm

There is an almost hauntingly beautiful sculpture of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, and his wife, Ariadne, in a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art. She leans her head against his and they gaze toward the heavens, a peaceful, if distant, expression on their faces.

But what is really striking about the figures is their hair. Intricate spirals frame both faces, giving them a lifelike quality despite their cold marble structure.

This characteristic is seen throughout the exhibit “An Antiquity of Imagination: Tullio

Lombardo and High Renaissance Venetian Sculpture.—

“The hair is so full of movement that it seems to be a medium of expression in itself,— curator Alison Luchs said. “It’s full of energy. It ripples and bulges and flows and undulates and does all these kinds of things.—

Lombardo’s style and influence is displayed through his original work, as well as in pieces by his brother and artistic followers.

The Tullio Lombardo pieces represent religious themes, romantic couples and figures of ideal warriors. A close look at the details of each offers insight into what its purpose might have been.

For example, in the “Relief Bust of a Young Male Saint,— the unidentified man’s face is tilted upward, and his hair, which falls to his shoulders, is more detailed at the ends than toward the top of his head. According to materials from the exhibit, this indicates that the bust was likely used in a church, as people would have been looking up at the figure, seeing only the bottom layers of his hair and his upturned face.

There are numerous interpretations of “A Couple,— another double bust by Tullio Lombardo. Some scholars take the man and woman to be doomed newlyweds, while others speculate that they are Eupolis and Lycaenion of ancient Greek lore. Though they appear to be more commonplace than the luminous Bacchus and Ariadne, the man and woman in this second sculpture are also surprisingly animated. Traces of color remain on their eyes, suggesting an emphasis on expression that Luchs said is another hallmark of Lombardo’s work.

“There is this preoccupied, sorrowful expression,— she said. “It’s a kind of expression that brings you in and invites you to interpret the sculpture.—

Lombardo and his brother, Antonio, came from a family known for their work in architecture and sculpture. Tullio Lombardo appears to have drawn inspiration from various art forms, and his own interpretations were mirrored by some of his followers.

Simone Bianco’s “Bust of a Woman— and Antonio di Giovanni Minello’s “Grieving Heroine,— both of which are shown in the exhibit, are similar to Tullio Lombardo’s pieces in their elaborate attention to facial expression, hair and accessories.

Given the homage paid to ancient Roman figures and culture, it is perhaps not surprising that warrior and military themes also appear in the works of both Lombardo brothers.

Tullio’s “Young Warrior— portrays a beautiful, youthful man who is noteworthy for his fair face and large ringlets as well as his detailed uniform. His armor is of an ancient design, which was typical of the Renaissance period, as such things often worn during parades, according to exhibit materials.

“An Antiquity of Imagination— is rich in symbolism, history and mythology. Given the range of subject matter, from Christian warriors to Roman gods, the exhibit displays the range of ideas and beliefs that influenced Tullio Lombardo and other Renaissance artists.