‘… con uno inbasamento et ornamento alto’: The Rhetoric of the Pedestal c.1430 – 1550

‘… con uno inbasamento et ornamento alto’: The Rhetoric of the Pedestal c.1430 – 1550

By Alison Wright

Art History, Volume 34, Issue 1 (2011)

Introduction:  When, in 1504, the Florentine painter Cosimo Rosselli gave his opinion on the best situation for Michelangelo’s colossal David, he suggested it be placed by the cathedral and raised up on a high pedestal (‘uno inbasamento et ornamento alto’). Rosselli imagined the marble statue dominating the corner of the entrance steps, just to the right of the façade. Sandro Botticelli lent his backing to Rosselli’s view with the argument that the sculpture would here be best visible to passers-by. Against both these painters, a goldsmith, Andrea Riccio – almost certainly a local Florentine and not the Paduan bronze sculptor – proposed a position in the courtyard of the town hall, the Palazzo della Signoria. Here, he claims, the sculpture would be better protected and passers-by would go to see it rather than, as he vividly puts it, ‘the figure should come and see us’. Differences of opinion expressed in this unusually well-documented debate centred above all around questions of visibility, concern for the statue’s material preservation, as well as the representational and ritual needs of the Florentine government. Tangentially, the debate also highlighted the crucial role of the pedestal and its physical and ritual situation in mediating the encounter with sculpture. The pedestal serves a critical framing function, directing the eye of the beholder in relation to the larger architectural frame of the city. In this context it might seem curious that Riccio should apparently worry that a high, freestanding figure placed in the open should claim too much autonomy. His anthropomorphic argument seems, though, to imply a concern with decorum of a kind more flattering to artists, namely that a statue which a viewer comes to see is (like an actual person) granted greater respect –‘più stimata et più riguardata’, as he puts it – than one that ‘comes to see’ the viewer, merely catching the eye as one crosses the piazza. Applying the etiquette of the visit familiar to patron–client relationships, Riccio grants a striking agency to the object, of the kind that the anthropologist Alfred Gell has argued can be attributed to works of ‘high art’ status that are not explicitly intended to have ritual functions.6 What we should also bear in mind is that Riccio’s preference for the town hall courtyard and high pedestal was surely coloured by that site’s existing occupant since 1495, Donatello’s Medici David, set on an ‘ornamento alto’, and already looked up to for reasons physical, political, and artistic.

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