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'Practical Issues' of Sculpture Discussed at Art History Event

Did Italian sculptors of the Renaissance and Baroque eras alter their styles depending on whether a work was bound for just down the road in Florence or going across the Mediterranean to Spain? Did Michelangelo ever really believe that his "David" would be hoisted to a perch high on Florence’s cathedral?

The answer to the first question is yes. The local sculptures exhibited a delicacy and grace that was compromised when the artist knew his commission (often a gift to curry favor with a foreign power) would be crated, hoisted and shipped out from the docks in Genoa. As for Michelangelo and the legendary "David," most likely the artist never thought his work would or could be lifted to a fairly ridiculous location on il Duomo. As William Wallace, professor of art history at Washington University, put it: “There is no avoiding the tyranny of weight.”

“Italian Renaissance & Baroque Sculpture: Material, Manufacture, Meaning and Movement” was the title of an unusual day-long symposium held in Billings Library on Friday. Kelley Helmstutler Di Dio, associate professor of art history, was the driving force behind the event that brought experts together for what she called “a scholarly exchange about practical issues.”

While most of the day belonged to Italy, the Renaissance, and scholars, late in the afternoon sculptor and UVM alumnus Richard Erdman ’75 brought the perspective of a contemporary artist who has grappled on a very serious level with Italian marble and that unavoidable tyranny of weight. Erdman’s work "Passage," a commission for the Donald M. Kendall Sculpture Gardens at PepsiCo in Purchase, N.Y., is the largest sculpture in the world made from a single piece of Travertine marble. Through a slideshow, Erdman told the story of how the stone was quarried in Tivoli, a 30-foot block weighing 450 tons, slimmed to 120 tons for a very slow four-day drive by truck to his studio in Italy, and finally, at a mere 45 tons, shipped to the United States then driven north through the streets of New York City in the wee-small hours.

A native of Vermont’s Rutland-area marble belt, working with stone is a lifelong passion for Erdman. “It’s the most life affirming of all materials,” he told the scholars and guests gathered at UVM last Friday, “250 centuries of living geology.”

Watch a slideshow on Richard Erdman’s site about the creation of Passage.

Read a 2003 Vermont Quarterly article about Richard Erdman.