Jacopo Della Quercia: 10 Things You Need To Know

Jacopo della Quercia was one of the most important Renaissance sculptors, who beautified the city of Siena and inspired Michelangelo.

Apr 13, 2020By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
detail of portal entry
Detail of Portal at the Church of San Petronio

Jacopo della Quercia changed the landscape of Italian sculpture with his magnificent statues, monuments and fountains. His career brought him into contact with some of Italy’s most important artists, and would go on to influence generations that followed. This article reveals all the facts you need to know about his masterpieces, scandals and legacy.

Madonna della Melagrana, 1403-1406, via Museo Nazionale

10. Jacopo Della Quercia Grew Up In A Rich Environment

A view of di Giorgio’s native Siena, as it stood during the Renaissance, via Wikimedia

Born around 1374, Jacopo di Pietro d’Agnolo di Guarnieri came to be known by the name of his hometown, Quercia Grossa, situated in the Tuscan hillsides around Siena. Although less of a cultural hub than the nearby city of Florence, Siena still had its fair share of artistic heritage.

As a young boy, Jacopo would have seen the paintings of Nicola Pisano and Arnolfi di Cambio in the city’s cathedral, and no doubt been inspired by their beauty. At the age of 12, he and his father moved to the city of Lucca, near Pisa, where he had the opportunity to study the ancient Roman statues and monuments exhibited in the city’s famous cemetery.

9. He Began His Career At An Incredibly Early Age

Madonna of Humility, circa 1400, National Gallery of Art, via All Art

Jacopo’s father was a woodcarver and goldsmith, and as a young boy he spent much time in his workshop observing the craftsman at work. The experience of his formative years had a profound effect on the young Jacopo, who followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a sculptor. At only 16 years of age, he received his first commission: a wooden statue of a Sienese commander seated on his horse.

Although this work has been lost, several pieces do survive from della Quercia’s early career, which began to take off while he was still in his 20s. These mainly consist of statues of the Virgin Mary and other saints, suggesting that most of his projects were commissioned by the church. This was typical during the 14th and 15th centuries, when the church had almost boundless influence, power and funds.

8. He Influenced Important Developments In The History Of Art

Design Fragment for the Left Side of the ‘Fonte Gaia’ in Siena, 1415-1416, via The Met

The work of Jacopo della Querica marks a transition in the history of Italian art. Moving away from the International Gothic style, he began to base his sculptures on the aesthetic principles and values of the ancient world. These included symmetry, simplicity and harmony; artists were called to pay special attention to perspective and proportion.

As a result, his creations were incredibly lifelike, with a sense of depth and movement that perfectly captured nature. At the turn of the 15th century, his approach was innovative and unique, one which would go on to inspire the following generation of Renaissance sculptors.

7. He Was Part Of An Important Social Circle

Main Portal at the Church of San Petronio, Bologna, via Web Gallery of Art

Travelling around Tuscany on different commissions, Jacopo della Quercia formed an impressive social network. He is known to have met with some of Florence’s most important artists, including Lorenzo Ghiberti, Donatello and Filippo Brunelleschi. Unfortunately, many of these meetings occurred in less than friendly environments, as della Quercia competed with the other Old Masters for certain projects.

He was one of the other contestants, for instance, in the famous contest held in 1401 to decide who would make the bronze doors for Florence’s Baptistery, where he was outshone by both Ghiberti and Brunelleschi. Della Quercia would, however, go on to work with Ghiberti 15 years later, when he was recruited to help him create a hexagonal front for Siena’s Baptistery.

6. And Also Some Prestigious Patrons

A cast of the Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto, 1406-1407, via Victoria and Albert Museum

One of della Quercia’s most famous works of art was made for the ruler of Lucca himself, Paolo Guinigi.

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Guinigi’s second wife, Ilaria del Carretto, had died in 1406 and he was determined to commemorate her with a spectacular burial. He therefore called upon Jacopo della Quercia, who was already known as a highly talented sculptor, to make her tomb.

Della Quercia worked on the monument for months, and the final result epitomizes his role as a bridge between the Gothic and the Classical. On one hand, the design of the sarcophagus was influenced by the relics of the ancient world, decorated with winged putti and overflowing cornucopia. On the other, the statue of Ilaria herself exemplifies the Gothic style, with her slender features and modest clothing. At her feet sits a pet dog, a symbol of eternal faithfulness.

5. His Most Famous Masterpiece Is The Fonte Gaia

The Fonte Gaia in Siena, 1419, via ZonzoFox.

Della Quercia’s most influential masterpiece was the Fonte Gaia, a large fountain in the center of Siena.

There was already a fountain situated in the Piazza del Campo, but it had a major problem: it featured a statue of the goddess Venus. This remnant of Italy’s pagan past was considered blasphemous, and blamed for an outbreak of the Black Death in the city. The statue was destroyed and, as Siena’s most prominent sculptor, della Quercia was charged with creating a replacement.

He began working on the new fountain in 1414 and when it was unveiled 5 years later, the reception was so exuberant that it became known as the Fonte Gaia (‘fount of joy’). The large rectangular base was surrounded on three sides with elaborately carved panels of marble, which celebrated the Virgin Mary and depicted many other biblical scenes.

4. Jacopo Della Quercia Was Involved In Some Scandals

The Annunciation to Zacharias, 1428-1430, via AKG Images

In 1413, Jacopo della Quercia became embroiled in a public scandal in Lucca. He was accused of several serious crimes, including robbery and rape. Although he got away with it by fleeing to Siena to work on the Fonte Gaia, his assistant was sentenced to three years in jail. Strangely, it seems that della Quercia was able to return to the city unpunished after this sentence had been served.

When working with Ghiberti on the Baptistery font, della Quercia again ran into legal trouble. He had taken on too many projects, including the Fonte Gaia and the decoration of the Trenta Chapel, and so was not able to fulfil his obligations. He ended up completing only one of the bronze panels, which shows The Annunciation to Zacharias.

3. His Talents Won Him Great Honors

Etching of Jacopo della Quercia

During his later career, the government of Siena recognized della Quercia’s contributions to the city with several honors. At around 60 years old, he was made a knight, and also appointed to a prestigious role overseeing Siena Cathedral.

Even during his final years, he continued to receive notable commissions. The Cardinal Casini, for example, employed him to carry out the decorations in the chapel of Saint Sebastian. Della Quercia finished only part of the relief, however, and most of the work was done by other members of his workshop.

2. della Quercia Inspired Some Of History’s Greatest Artists

The Creation of Adam, 1425-35, via Web Gallery of Art

In 1425, Jacopo della Quercia had designed the magnificent arched entrance-way to the church of San Petronio in Bologna. The work was completed 13 years later, and is considered another one of his masterpieces. Carved into the columns are nine busts of Old Testament prophets and five biblical scenes.

Among these was the Creation of Adam, which shows God, dressed in billowing robes, blessing the newly created man. When Michelangelo visited Bologna towards the end of the 15th century, he was drawn to this particular panel, and it would go on to inspire his painting of Genesis on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Giorgio Vasari included a biography of della Quercia in his seminal biographical work, The Lives of the Artists, demonstrating that the sculptor was considered among Italy’s most important artists over a century after his death.

1. The Work Of Jacopo Della Quercia Is Incredibly Rare

La Prudenza, attributed to Jacopo della Quercia, sold at auction in 2016 for €62,500, via Pandolfini

Sculptures by Jacopo della Quercia are incredibly rare, with the majority of his extant work remaining in the keeping of museums and churches. When one small sculpture claimed to be attributed to Jacopo della Quercia did appear at an Italian auction in 2016, it fetched €62,500. Due to cultural heritage, the sculpture did not receive an Italian export license consequently having to keep the figure on Italian soil.

After his death, della Quercia’s workshop continued to complete new projects, and later sculptors often emulated his style. Up until the 19th century, it was fashionable for artists to copy the statues and monuments made by the Old Masters, meaning that there are numerous replicas of della Quercia’s work in circulation. These copies help to preserve the legacy of one of Italy’s most important sculptors, and record the transition in style that gave way to the High Renaissance.

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By Mia ForbesBA in ClassicsMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.