Tombs of Leonardo Bruni and Carlo Marsupini in the Florentine Basilica of Santa Croce: Strikingly Similar or Substantially Different?

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In the 15th century, Florence underwent a cultural and artistic peak without parallel, architecture, painting, and sculpture were at their height. The list of outstanding sculptors who matured and created their artworks in Florence is almost endless, hence the evolution of Florentine sculptures of the Quattrocento and Cinquecento is clearly visible. Among the remarkable artists who created artworks in Florence within the second and third quarter of the 15th century, three names are worth mentioning: Bernardo Rossellino (1409–1464), his younger brother Antonio (1427–1479), and their friend Desiderio da Settignano (c. 1429–1464). All three were born in Settignano, a hill town northeast of Florence with breathtaking views and famous for its marble quarries.

In this text two artworks shall be discussed, commemorating eminent persons in the history of Florence, both located in the Church of Santa Croce, with a focus on the most remarkable similarities and differences between them.

Tomb of Leonardo Bruni at Santa Croce, Florence

Leonardo Bruni, also known as Leonardo Aretino, born circa 1370 in Arezzo (Tuscany), was a humanist, historian, and statesman. He was a pupil of political and cultural leader Coluccio Salutati (1331–1406) whom he succeeded as chancellor of Florence, and under whose tutelage he developed the idea of civic humanism. His treatise De studiis et litteris, variously dated by scholars to between 1405 and 1429 has long been recognized as one of the most important literary statements of the educational ideals of Italian humanism.

Theodor de Bry, Portrait of Leonardo Bruni, 1597.
Theodor de Bry, Portrait of Leonardo Bruni, 1597.

Leonardo Bruni set the standard for humanistic prose writing of the early Quattrocento, and his legacy goes beyond the confines of the history and politics of Florence. As a humanist Leonardo Bruni contributed essentially to the translation into Latin of many Greek works on philosophy and history. Leonardo Bruni’s works were staggeringly popular in terms of the number of surviving manuscripts and editions. The ancient Greek example of Panathenicus by Aelius Aristides was used by Leonardo Bruni to create his Latin panegyric entitled Laudatio Florentinae Urbis (Praise to the City of Florence, ca. 1403-1404). In 1415 he began his Historiarum Florentini populi libri XII, i.e. Twelve Books on History of the Florentine People, on which he worked for the rest of his life. Leonardo Bruni died in 1444, in Florence and was buried in the local Franciscan Basilica of Santa Croce.

The wall tomb in the northern aisle of the Franciscan church mentioned above was most likely founded by Leonardo Bruni’s relatives from Arezzo. Although Leonardo Bruni himself expressed in his will the desire for a humble burial in a floor tomb, the Florentine state decided to honor him with a monumental marble wall tomb instead. The tomb constructed represents an ancient Roman-inspired arcosolium type, i.e. an arched recess used as a place of entombment.

Bernardo Rossellino, Tomb of Leonardo Bruni, 1444-1451, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.
Bernardo Rossellino, Tomb of Leonardo Bruni, 1444-1451, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. Photo by Saiko via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

It was however slightly changed into an arched rectangular niche recessed into the wall and placed in a protruding, richly decorated architectural framework. The socle decorated with four abundant garlands carried by five putti and with a tondo bearing a lion’s head supports two fluted Corinthian pilasters between which a high pedestal with a carved relief and a sarcophagus with a reclining figure of the deceased are placed.

The front of the sarcophagus contains a Latin epitaph in form of laudation and funeral oration, inscribed on a rectangular tablet supported by two flying Victories. The bier, covered with richly draped silk garments, carries the reclining figure of the deceased who wears ceremonial attire, a laurel crown, and holds on his breast a closed book, most probably the already mentioned Historiarum Florentini populi libri XII.

Bernardo Rossellino, Tomb of Leonardo Bruni, 1444-1451, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.
Bernardo Rossellino, Tomb of Leonardo Bruni, 1444-1451, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. Photo by Saiko via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Detail.

Two Roman eagles bear weight of the bier with silk garments covering it. Three slabs carved in red marble are inset into the back wall of the niche. The entablature above the recess is adorned with abundant floral ornamentation. The semi-circular arch which surmounts the entire tomb contains a relief depicting two angels adoring a tondo of the Virgin and Blessing Child. The soffit of the arch is filled with Roman inspired ornamentation and over the keystone of the arch is a relief framed in laurel with a lion motif – Leonardo Bruni’s coat of arms, held by two putti.

Bernardo Rossellino, Tondo bearing Leonardo Bruni’s coat of arms held by two putti, Tomb of Leonardo Bruni, 1444-1451, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.
Bernardo Rossellino, Tondo bearing Leonardo Bruni’s coat of arms held by two putti, Tomb of Leonardo Bruni, 1444-1451, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. Photo by Saiko via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Detail.

The impressive sepulchral monument recalls artistic features of ancient Roman art, as well as the form of an ancient triumphal arch, revived in the Florentine early Renaissance. Numerous motifs and solutions transferred from Roman antiquity were adapted for the iconography of Christian art. However the tomb as a whole seems to be very much rooted in Roman pre-Christian tradition. The eminent person commemorated here has been mentioned and praised by the inscription in the tablet on the sarcophagus, written in Roman square capitals. The content of the inscription bears no reference to Christianity. It only recalls the deceased as a prominent figure whose death would have been tantamount to the downfall of the humanistic thought. Two flying Victories bear the tablet in which the inscription says:

POSTQVAM LEONARDVS EVITA MIGRAVIT/ HISTORIA IVGET ▪ ELOQVENTIA MVTA EST/ FERTVRQVE MVSAS TVM GRAECAS/ TVM LATINAS LACRIMAS TENERE NON POTVISSE[NT]

“Since Leonardo has passed away/ history is mourning, eloquence has fallen silent/ and it is said that the muses, the Greek/ as well as the Latin ones have not been able to hold back their tears”.

Inscription on the tomb of Leonardo Bruni, 1444-1451, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.
Bernardo Rossellino, Inscription tablet held by two angels, Tomb of Leonardo Bruni, 1444-1451, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.
Bernardo Rossellino, Inscription tablet held by two angels, Tomb of Leonardo Bruni, 1444-1451, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. Photo by Saiko via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Detail.

No documentation for the tomb has survived which is why its foundation is based on assumptions. There is also no certainty concerning the dating of the tomb. In fact, it seems to fit into the classicizing manner which displayed to similar extent in Antonio and Bernardo Rossellinos’ tomb of the Cardinal del Protogallo in the Benedictine Church of San Miniato al Monte in Florence.

Antonio and Bernardo Rossellino, Tomb of Cardinal del Portogallo, 1461-1466, Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, Florence, Italy.
Antonio and Bernardo Rossellino, Tomb of Cardinal del Portogallo, 1461-1466, Basilica of San Miniato al Monte, Florence, Italy. Photo by Saiko via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Both tombs represent a similar type but weren’t carved around the same time which means the tomb of Leonardo Bruni was executed earlier, i.e. may be dated approximately to the years circa 1444/6-1450/1. What distinguishes the tomb of Leonardo Bruni is the fact that it established the standard on which other Italian Renaissance tombs were based, including that for Carlo Marsuppini executed circa ten years later for the same Basilica of Santa Croce by Bernardo Rossellino’s friend and probable pupil Desiderio da Settignano.

Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini at Santa Croce, Florence

Carlo Marsuppini (1399–1453), also known as Carlo Aretino or Carolus Aretinus, as his predecessor Leonardo Bruni, was chancellor of the Florentine Republic and Renaissance humanist. Contrary to what his pseudonym suggests he wasn’t born in Arezzo, however was member of a family who had had their roots in the latter town. Carlo Marsuppini grew up and died in Florence, was a tutor to the Florentine banker Lorenzo di Giovanni de’ Medici called Lorenzo il Vecchio (c. 1395–1440) in 1420s, and became chancellor of the Republic of Florence after Leonardo Bruni’s death in 1444.

Carlo Marusppini, also like his predecessor was a highly educated man, of great culture, also known as author of letters and poems, as well as translator. In 1452 he began his work on translation of Homer’s Iliad into Latin, however he died just a year later (1453) and left this work unfinished.

By order of the Florentine Signoria Desiderio da Settignano received the commission to construct a monumental tomb in commemoration of Carlo Marsuppini, which the Medici family seemingly financed, at least in part. There is no archival documentation regarding the commission and execution of the tomb. Circumstantial evidence may suggest that Desiderio da Settignano worked on it between circa 1454 and 1459. Like the similar tomb of Leonardo Bruni, the tomb of Carlo Marsuppini represents an arcosolium type.

Desiderio da Settignano, Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini, ca. 1454-1459, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.
Desiderio da Settignano, Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini, ca. 1454-1459, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. Photo by Saiko via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Despite the distinct similarities between both tombs carved for chancellors of the Florentine Republic, the tomb of Carlo Marsuppini should be regarded as a further cog in the wheel of evolution in the Florentine tomb sculpture of the Quattrocento. Moreover, significant differences are discernible compared to the prototype. Like the tomb of Leonardo Bruni, the tomb of Carlo Marsuppini is set on a socle decorated with sculpted garlands.

Desiderio da Settignano, Sarcophagus and two putti bearing shields with Carlo Marsuppini’s coats of arms, Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.
Desiderio da Settignano, Sarcophagus and two putti bearing shields with Carlo Marsuppini’s coats of arms, Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. Photo by Saiko via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Also like in the tomb of Leonardo Bruni the sarcophagus is placed in an architectural framework, comprised of two fluted Corinthian pilasters that support a protuberant and richly decorated entablature. One of the significant differences are the two putti flanking the pilaster framework and bearing shields with Carlo Marsuppini’s coats of arms. They may be regarded as guardians of the tomb of Carlo Marsuppini and of the deceased himself. The sarcophagi in both tombs discussed here are different as well. The elaborate bier of Carlo Marsuppini is placed over an inscribed sarcophagus, the latter is however has more decoration compared to the sarcophagus of Leonardo Bruni. Actually, it’s a basin-like sarcophagus with external walls decorated with exuberant ornamentation.

Desiderio da Settignano, Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.
Desiderio da Settignano, Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. Photo by Saiko via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0). Detail.

The effigy of Carlo Marsuppini is more steeply tilted on the bier which is supported by two solid pedestals. Behind the sarcophagus, four slabs carved in deep red marble (unlike three in the tomb of Leonardo Bruni) are inset into the back wall of the niche. The lunette of the semi-circular arch surmounting the rectangular niche contains a low relief of the Madonna and Child flanked by two adoring angels.

Desiderio da Settignano, Semi-circular arch with low relief tondo depicting Madonna and Child adored by two angels, Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.
Desiderio da Settignano, Semi-circular arch with low relief tondo depicting Madonna and Child adored by two angels, Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. Photo by Saiko via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The most significant difference compared to the tomb of Leonardo Bruni is discernible in the structure above the semi-circular arch of the arcosolium tomb of Carlo Marsuppini. The keystone of the arch is crowned with a slender vase emitting fluttering flames and with two heavy garlands supported by youthful angels standing on the entablature. An integral part of the entire tomb is a mural painting on the wall behind it, harmoniously incorporated with the marble artwork. It depicts an illusionary gateway decorated with ancient Roman-inspired ornamentation and containing a half-opened thick curtain with gilded edges.

Desiderio da Settignano, Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.
Desiderio da Settignano, Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini, Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, Italy. Photo by Saiko via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

It could be argued that the entire tomb of Carlo Marsuppini might resemble a dramatic performance: as the illusionary curtain rises the observer suddenly sees a “scenography” carved in marble and the “stage actors” emerge to intact a drama commemorating an important figure in the history of Florence. This striking “theatrical aspect” of Desiderio da Settignano’s tomb is completely absent in Bernardo Rossellino’s tomb of Leonardo Bruni.

Summing up, one can emphasize that both Renaissance tombs discussed here, despite their close proximity and compositional parallels, bear significant differences. Certainly Desiderio da Settignano’s tomb deliberately echoes that of Bernardo Rossellino, however the first differs from the latter as regards to the details, the forms of carvings, and the background. Whereas the tomb of Leonardo Bruni may be regarded as a Roman inspired triumphal arch revived in Renaissance Florence, the tomb of Carlo Marsuppini on the contrary seems to be a “dramatic performance” created in means of sculpture and mural painting.

Works referenced:

  • Carlo del Bravo, Preparativi per l’interpretazione di opere funebri quattrocentesche, in: Artibus et Historiae, 23 (1991)/12.
  • Oronzo Brunetti, Rosario Pagliaro, Bernardo Rossellino tra Roma e Firenze, in: Quasar. Quaderni di storia dell’architettura e restauro, (1995/1996)/13-14.
  • Anne Markham, Desiderio da Settignano and the Workshop of Bernardo Rossellino, in: The Art Bulletin, 45 (1963)/1.
  • Joachim Poeschke, Die Skulptur der Renaissance in Italien, Bd. I: Donatello und seine Zeit, München 1990.
  • Rolf C. Tritz, Art &Architecture. Florence, Köln 2005.

Author’s bio:

Bartłomiej Bartelmus graduated in art history at the University of Wrocław in 2004
and earned his doctorate degree in 2011. In 2015 he received a post-graduate degree
in librarianship and information science and currently works as chief librarian at the International University of Logistics and Transport in Wrocław.

He has been writing
popular science articles since 2016, mainly on Italian art, for the Polish online journal
https://niezlasztuka.net/, and for its English equivalent http://artophilia.com/, since
2021 for the Daily Art Magazine.


Read more about the Italian Renaissance:

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Tombs of Leonardo Bruni and Carlo Marsupini in the Florentine Basilica of Santa Croce: Strikingly Similar or Substantially Different? was first posted on June 14, 2021 at 5:00 pm.
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