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Leoni, Leone

Arezzo, Tuscany, 1509 - Milan, 1590

The personality of Italian sculptor Leone Leoni is as thrilling as that of his contemporaries, Titian, Michelangelo and Benvenuto Cellini. In 1533, he was a twenty-four-year-old goldsmith living with his wife, Diamante, in Venice as a protégé of poet Pietro Aretino. That period was marked for him by the birth of his son, Pompeo, whom he trained in his studio and introduced to northern Italian circles of art and power. In 1537, he made a medal for the humanist, Pietro Bembo, cardinal of Padua, and towards the end of that year, he began work at the Mint in Rome. He remained in that city until 1540, when an altercation with the Pope’s jeweler led him to be condemned to galleys. He was freed by Genoese admiral Andrea Doria a year later. By the time he was named master engraver of medals for the Milan Mint in 1542 he was already considered the finest medal engraver. Shortly before, Alfonso de Ávalos, Marquis of el Vasto and Governor General of the State of Milan had commissioned him to make a medal commemorating Charles V’s visit. And in 1546, the emperor himself commissioned him to make a medal of his wife, Empress Elizabeth. As she had died some years earlier, Leoni based his work on Titian’s portraits of her. From then on, he was in constant demand. Through Ávalos’ successor, Ferrante Gonzaga, he was appointed personal sculptor to Charles V, with an annual salary, a house in the center of Milan and a knighthood. Both Ferrante Gonzaga and Antoine Perrenot de Granvelle, Bishop of Arras, whom he met in Venice, played an important role in this sculptor’s artistic career. In 1548, Leoni accompanied Prince Philip on his visit to Mantua and Milan, and later to Speyer and Brussels. The following year, Leoni returned to Brussels, this time accompanied by his son, Pompeo, to present several medals to the emperor. One, of the prince, showed Hercules between Virtue and Vice on the verso. The others were of the prince’s sisters, Marie of Hungary and Leonore, the widow of Francis I of France. That was also the moment when he received the largest and most important commission of his entire career: a series of portraits of Charles V and his wife that can now be admired at the Museo del Prado. Over the following years, his workshop in Milan worked full time to successfully complete this outstanding task. The process was surprisingly slow—only one sculpture per year left Leoni’s workshop—but that was because this medal engraver was only then learning how to sculpt. And, as can be seen in his correspondence with his mentors and with the emperor himself, the process was anything but rapid. Before creating the models, he made a variety of studies, readings, consultations and tests, and the actual casting was considered a major event by the entire city. Besides the sculptural group Emperor Charles V and the Fury, which was his most encompassing work, Leone Leoni made a life-size marble statue of the empress, as well as marble and bronze busts, and a pair of marble reliefs of both the emperor and his wife. At the same time, in 1551, he was making portraits for Marie of Hungary. As ruler of the Netherlands, she wanted to decorate her palace in Binche, on the outskirts of Brussels, with a gallery of portraits of her self and her family. Leone also accepted that commission, and he was involved with at least three of those portraits while simultaneously making those of the emperor and his wife. In fact, they were eventually shipped together—first to Flanders, in 1556, and then on to Spain, where they arrived in 1558. The sculptures included a full-length bronze statue of the queen, a marble bust and the bronze statue of Philip II. All three are now at the Museo del Prado. But by the time Charles V was finally able to see all the portraits, which were presented to him in 1556, his luck had changed and he was considering abdication and retirement. Nonetheless, he was so pleased that he wanted both the sculptor and his son to move to Spain in order to continue working for him. This may have been because the works were not yet completed: the bronzes may not have been chased, and the marbles were probably still in their preliminary stages. As is well known, Leone alleged illness to avoid moving. Instead, he sent his son, although he continued to work for the Spanish court for the rest of his long life, collaborating with Pompeo in his Milan workshop. He also amassed a significant collection of antiquities, and of art works by his contemporaries, at his house in Milan. And Pompeo moved a part of this collection to Madrid, where he added yet more pieces that helped demonstrated the social prestige acquired by both father and son as sculptors. Leone Leoni later made other versions of the portraits now in the Museo del Prado, including two bronzes of Charles V for Cardinal Granvelle that are now at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, and the Kusnthistorisches Museum in Vienna, respectively. He also made three busts for Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, III Duke of Alba, which later entered the Queen of England’s collection and are now at Windsor Castle. These are likenesses of Charles V, Philip II and the duke himself. Moreover, Leoni’s models were used by other sculptors, who cast new copies that are now scattered among various museums. There are, however, other statues in Italy that allow us to admire Leoni’s evolution, including a monument to Gian Giacomo Medici at Milan Cathedral, a statue of Ferrante Gonzaga at the main square in Guastalla, and a likeness of Vespasiano Gonzaga at the church of la Incoronata in Sabbioneta. Still, the Leonis’ art is most fully developed in a series of figures for the central altarpiece at the church of El Escorial. These are fifteen larger-than-life sculptures of the four evangelists, the apostles Andrew, James, Peter and Paul, the Fathers of the Church; and Calvary, with the Virgin Mary and Saint John. Moreover, these works’ models and movement are much closer to mannerism than the Leonis’ earlier sculptures, which were excellent examples of Renaissance ideals. Those earlier works showed the influence of another great Italian Renaissance sculptor, Giambologna, who spent his entire career in the employ of the Florentine Medicis, but still managed to turn his studio into the most important and influential school of his time (Coppel, R. in: E.M.N.P., 2006, vol. IV, pp. 1395-1398).

Leone Leoni’s self portrait at the Museo del Prado is work number O00982 (verso).

Artworks (25)

Carlos V
Carrara marble, Ca. 1553
Leoni, Leone; Leoni, Pompeo
Empress Isabel
Bronze, 1550 - 1555
Leoni, Leone; Leoni, Pompeo
The Empress Isabel
Carrara marble, 1550 - 1555
Leoni, Leone; Leoni, Pompeo
Emperor Carlos V
Carrara marble, 1550 - 1555
Leoni, Leone
Emperor Carlos V and the Fury
Bronze, 1551 - 1555
Leoni, Leone; Leoni, Pompeo
Felipe II
Bronze, 1551
Leoni, Leone; Leoni, Pompeo
Emperor Carlos V (bust)
Carrara marble, 1553
Leoni, Leone; Leoni, Pompeo
Emperor Carlos V
Bronze, 1553 - 1555
Leoni, Leone; Leoni, Pompeo
Maria of Hungary
Italian marble, 1553 - 1555
Leoni, Leone; Leoni, Pompeo

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