Leone Leoni

For the early 17th-century composer, see Leone Leoni (composer).

Leone Leoni (ca. 1509 – 22 July 1590) was an Italian sculptor of international outlook who travelled in Italy, Germany, Austria, France, Spain and the Netherlands. Leoni is regarded as the finest of the Cinquecento medallists.[1] He made his reputation in commissions he received from the Habsburg monarchs Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and Philip II of Spain. His usual medium was bronze, although he also worked in marble and alabaster, carved gemstones and probably left some finished work in wax (in which many of his sculptures were modelled), as well as designing coins. He mainly produced portraits, and was repeatedly used by the Spanish, and also the Austrian, Habsburgs.


His family origins were at Arezzo,[2] though he was probably born at Menaggio near Lake Como, and his early training, to judge from the finish of his medals, was with a medallist or goldsmith, as Vasari says.[3] His earliest documentation finds him at Venice after 1533, with his wife and infant son, living under the protection of his Aretine compatriot (and possible kinsman), Pietro Aretino, who introduced him to the circle of Titian.[4] Taking advantage of his rival Benvenuto Cellini's being in prison at the time, he secured the role of designer for the Papal mint in Ferrara (1538–40) but was forced to withdraw under accusations of counterfeiting levelled by Pellegrino di Leuti, the jeweller of the Farnese Pope Paul III. Leoni then attacked Pellegrino and was condemned to lose his right hand, a sentence commuted after the intercession of powerful friends to slavery in the galleys, from which the entreaties of Andrea Doria released him after a year: Leoni produced three plaquettes and five medals of Andrea Doria as tokens of his gratitude.[5]

The Casa degli Omenoni that Leoni designed for himself, engraving from Serviliano's Descrizione di Milano, 1738.

Once freed from the galleys, he "continued his alternation of criminal violence and exquisite workmanship"[6] moving to Milan to take up an Imperial appointment as master of the mint there, from 20 February 1542, at 150 ducats a year and the gift of a house in the Moroni district of Milan. Leoni's house in Milan, rebuilt 1565-67, was immediately called the Casa degli Omenoni for its heroically-scaled herm figures and bearded atlantes, a rarity in Milan at the time; it is indicative of his social success. The figures were carved by Antonio Abondio, doubtless following Leoni's models. Here he entertained Giorgio Vasari, who noted Leoni's large collection of plaster casts after the Antique, dominated by a stucco of the equestrian Marcus Aurelius from the Campidoglio in his courtyard.[7] His early protector in Milan, with whom he was on familiar terms, was the Imperial Governor, Ferrante Gonzaga. He lived in Milan thereafter, despite calls from his patrons to base himself, or at least present himself, at court, claiming that only there could he obtain the proper materials for his work - a notable contrast with Giambologna who was never allowed to leave Florence by his Grand Duke, as he bitterly complained, for fear the Habsburgs would ensnare him.[8] Among other later violent incidents, he was supposed to have attempted to murder Titian's son, who was staying with him in Milan.[9]

He had made an early reputation for portrait medallions, before his major commissions from Charles V, whose image for posterity lies in his portraits by Titian and Leoni. Leoni was the guest of Charles in Brussels in 1549, and the first of the portraits from life dates from this time; however, Leoni had made a portrait medallion of Charles in 1536. In Brussels the Emperor installed Leoni in an apartment below his own and delighted in his company, spending hours watching him at work, Vasari recalled. He knighted Leoni on 2 November 1549.

For the cathedral of Milan, Leone executed the five bronze figures for the monument of the condottiero Gian Giacomo Medici, brother of Pope Pius IV, in a marble architectural setting that Vasari attributed to a drawing by Michelangelo.

Leoni's memorial in Milan Cathedral for Gian Giacomo Medici (died 1555).

On a commission from Cardinal Granvelle (1516–86), Bishop of Arras, Archbishop of Malines, Viceroy of Naples, and the leading Habsburg minister, Leone cast life-sized half-figures in richly framed ovals, of Charles, Philip and the Cardinal, described by Vasari.[10] Granvelle would often correspond with Leoni, whom he may have known from his youth in as a student in Padua, about Habsburg commissions (which usually overran their promised delivery dates).

A marble portrait of Giovan Battista Castaldo, at the Church of San Bartolomeo, Nocera Inferiore — a commission mentioned by Vasari who thought it was bronze and did not know to which monastery it had been sent — was included in the exhibition Tiziano e il ritratto di corte, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, 2006.[11]

Leoni's commissions for royal portraiture in Spain were an extension of his Habsburg patronage. On his return from Spain, where he executed the series of royal portraits, he brought a purse of 2000 scudi, according to Vasari. He pioneered what became a common Baroque format for a portrait bust; mounted on a pedestal, and truncated at mid-chest, or the bottom of the stomach (often defined by an armoured breast-plate), sweeping up at the sides to just below the shoulders. He also made life-size full-length portrait bronzes, like that of Charles V, which were not intended as funerary effigies, as nearly all previous examples had been.

Leoni was assisted in the monumental bronzes destined for the Escorial by his son Pompeo Leoni (c.1533–1608), who continued the large bronze-casting foundry after his father's death, in a style that is not securely separated from that of his father. Among the assistants to Pompeo was Adriaen de Vries. Pompeo assembled the drawings and notes of Leonardo da Vinci that constitute the Codex Atlanticus in Milan.

Leoni's name remained among the few recognizable landmarks in 16th century sculpture and consequently attracted many attributions during the nineteenth century.[12]

George Sand's Leone Leoni is not based on the sculptor's career.

Selected attributed works

Bronze statue of Philip II of Spain (1551–53, Prado, Madrid).




  1. A typical passing reference to Leoni's pre-eminent reputation was made by James J. Rorimer in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 26.4 (April 1931), p 88
  2. Leoni liked to sign his medals, sometimes in Greek, as an Aretine; the marble monument to Gian Giacomo Medici di Marignano bears the bronze legend under the soffit LEO·ARRETIN·EQUES·F.
  3. Vasari, le vite...: "Lione Lioni Aretino"
  4. Trevor-Roper, Hugh; Princes and Artists, Patronage and Ideology at Four Habsburg Courts 1517-1633, Thames & Hudson, London, 1976, p30
  5. Trevor-Roper op cit p 30; British Museum: Cast bronze medal of Andrea Doria; see also Louvre and National Gallery of Art, Washington;plaquette now in the British Museum
  6. Trevor-Roper, op cit p.31
  7. Mezzatesta, Michael P. (October 1985). "The Façade of Leone Leoni's House in Milan, the Casa degli Omenoni: The Artist and the Public". The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Society of Architectural Historians. 44 (3): 233–249. doi:10.2307/990074. JSTOR 990074..
  8. Trevor-Roper, op. cit. p 31, 90-91.
  9. Trevor-Roper op. cit. p 30,
  10. ...alcuni pezzi di bronzo in forma ovale di braccia due l'uno, con ricchi partimenti e mezze statue dentrovi; in uno è Carlo Quinto, in un altro il re Filippo, e nel terzo esso cardinale, ritratti di naturale: e tutte hanno imbasamenti di figurette graziosissime.
  11. On-line website
  12. E. Plon, Leone Leoni, sculpteur de Charles-Quint et Pompeo Leoni, sculpteur de Philippe II (Paris 1883) was singled out as particularly filled with unwarranted attributions by Ulrich Middeldorf, "On some portrait busts attributed to Leone Leoni" The Burlington Magazine 117 No. 863 (February 1975), pp. 84-89, 91.
  13. Nine medals of several of these figures from the Louvre
  14. Leone's medallion of Michelangelo was mentioned by Vasari: "When Pius V became pope, he showed Michael Angelo much favour, and employed him in many works, particularly in making the design of a monument for the Marquis Marignano, his brother. The work was entrusted by his Holiness to Lione Lioni, a great friend of Michael Angelo's, and about the same time Lione pourtrayed Michael Angelo on a medallion, putting at his wish on the reverse a blind man led by a dog, with the words, "Docebo iniquos vias tuas, et impii ad te convertentur," and because the thing pleased him much, Michael Angelo gave him a model in wax of Hercules and Antaeus. There are only two painted portraits of Michael Angelo, the one by Bugiardini and the other by Jacopo del Conte, besides one in bronze by Daniello Ricciarelli, and this one of Lione's, of which there have been so many copies made that I have seen a great number in Italy and elsewhere."
  15. Museo del Prado: Charles V Dominating Fury; the armor is removable, showing Charles V equally well as a heroic nude, a tour de force that delighted Vasari: quella poi con due gusci sottilissimi vestì d'una molto gentile armatura, che se gli lieva e veste facilmente, e con tanta grazia che chi la vede vestita non s'accorge e non può quasi credere ch'ella sia ignuda, e quando è nuda niuno crederebbe agevolmente ch'ella potesse così bene armarsi già mai. (Vasari).
  16. picture
  17. The Royal Collection: Leoni: Ha fatto Lione al duca d'Alva la testa di lui, quella di Carlo Quinto e quella del re Filippo. (Vasari). Vasari notes another bust of Alva, for Gonzaga at Sabbioneta.
  18. Metropolitan Museum of Art
  19. Metropolitan Museum of Art

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