Jacopo della Quercia

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Quercia, Jacopo della (13741438)

Italian sculptor who was born in the town of Quercia Grossa and trained in the workshop of his father Piero d'Angelo, a skilled goldsmith and wood-carver. Quercia assisted Nicola Pisano in carving the pulpit of the Cathedral of Siena. As a young artist he was strongly influenced by contemporaries from Florence, including the architect Brunelleschi and the sculptor Donatello (Quercia took part in the competition to design the Baptistery doors but lost this prize commission to Lorenzo Ghiberti). Although trained in the Gothic style of carving, Quercia's study of Roman artifacts and sculpture in the town of Pisa had a strong effect on his methods and his style, and early in his life he began incorporating Roman motifs and figures from pagan mythology in his work. One of his first important commissions was the carving of a monumental tomb for Ilaria del Carretto, the wife of the ruler of Lucca. This work combines Gothic style with elements borrowed from stone sarcophagi dating to Roman timessome of the earliest classical references of the Renaissance. For the cathedral of Lucca he also carved a famous altarpiece known as the Man of Sorrows ; another important work is the Seated Madonna (also known as the Madonna of the Pomegranate ) that he carved for the Cathedral of Ferrara.

In 1408 Quercia was commissioned by the city of Siena to design a fountain for the Piazza del Campo. The old fountain in this central square was being demolished, after drawing public superstition for its use of a figure of the pagan goddess Venus. Quercia designed a magnificent rectangular structure in marble, adorned with dozens of figures and scenes, with the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of the city, taking a prominent part. In this work Quercia abandoned the stiff poses that were traditional of Gothic sculpture, and carved his figures with strength, movement and liveliness. The fountain, known as the Fonte Gaia, took the artist more than five years to complete and remains one of the most prominent Renaissance artifacts of Siena. The wide public admiration for the fountain earned another commission from the Sienese, who asked Quercia, Donatello, and Ghiberti to create reliefs for the baptismal font in the baptistery of the Siena cathedral.

He was commissioned to design an altar for the Trenta Chapel of the Church of San Frediano in Lucca, but had to halt work when he was accused of various crimes of immorality in 1413 and forced to leave the city. His fame as a carver in marble as well as wood survived this setback, however. For the Collegiata in San Gimignano he carved wooden statues of the Virgin and the angel Gabriel. His most famous work was the design of Porta Magna, a main entrance of the Church of San Petronio in Bologna. The doorway is decorated with ten elaborate sculptural reliefs of biblical prophets and scenes, including the creation of Adam, the story of Cain and Abel, and the temptation of Eve. This work inspired Michelangelo Buonarroti in his designs for the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. The city of Siena asked Quercia to supervise the construction of the city's cathedral in 1435, and also rewarded Quercia for his fine work with a knighthood.

See Also: Brunelleschi, Filippo; Ghiberti, Lorenzo; Michelangelo Buonarroti; sculpture; Siena

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Jacopo della Quercia

Jacopo della Quercia (1374-1438), an Italian sculptor and architect, was a major sculptural innovator of the Early Renaissance.

Documentation concerning Jacopo della Quercia is scant. He was born in Siena. In 1401 he entered the competition for the bronze doors of the Baptistery in Florence, along with Filippo Brunelleschi and Lorenzo Ghiberti (the winner). The panel Della Quercia submitted is lost. In 1406 he executed the marble tomb of Ilaria del Carretto in the Cathedral of Lucca, and 2 years later he was in Ferrara, where he carved the Seated Madonna (now in the Cathedral Museum).

The major sculptural cycle from Della Quercia's middle period is the Fonte Gaia in the square in front of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. (The present fountain is a replica; the dismantled marble fragments of the original are in the Palazzo Pubblico.) It was commissioned in 1409, but he did not begin work on it until 1414; it was completed in 1419. Featured in relief sculpture was the nearly life-sized Virgin and Child, Mary being the patron saint of Siena, while in niches on either side of a rectangular parapet were eight female personifications of the Virtues. The bodies no longer sit quietly, in the Gothic fashion, but twist and turn in powerful angles that show the new energy of the Renaissance.

In 1422 Della Quercia received payment for the wooden group of the Annunciation in the Pieve of S. Gimignano; the following year he finished the Trenta Altar in S. Frediano, Lucca. In 1425 he was commissioned to design the main portal of S. Petronio in Bologna, and he made trips to Verona, Venice, and Milan to acquire stone. Before the portal was completed, in 1438, the master received and executed in 1430 the commission for the bronze relief Zaccharias Driven from the Temple for the Baptistery font in Siena.

In 1436 Della Quercia was named master architect of the Cathedral in Siena. The next year the Signoria of the city intervened between him and the Bolognese, who claimed that the artist had not kept his promise to them. After a trip to Bologna he became ill, and he died in Siena on Oct. 20, 1438.

In the 10 well-preserved marble relief panels on either side of the portal of S. Petronio in Bologna, Della Quercia elevated the depiction of the human body, both nude and draped, to a level of inherent dignity, power, and beauty which was to be achieved by no other sculptor before Michelangelo. The panels tell the stories of the creation and fall of Adam and Eve and of Cain and Abel. Della Quercia abjured Ghiberti's delicately constructed nudes, and the voluptuous body of Eve in Della Quercia's Temptation was surely influenced by an ancient statue of Venus. It is clear that the noble male in his Creation of Adam was the prototype used by Michelangelo for his ceiling composition in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

Further Reading

A fine scholarly study in English on the Fonte Gaia is Anne Coffin Hanson, Jacopo della Quercia's Fonte Gaia (1965). For general background see John Pope-Hennessy, Italian Gothic Sculpture (1955), and Charles Seymour, Jr., Sculpture in Italy, 1400-1500 (1966). □