The bust is a portrait of Bindo Altoviti (1491–1557) who was born into a family of Florentine bankers. He achieved considerable power as banker and administrator for the papacy; he supervised agriculture in the Papal States and managed the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica. Altoviti was also a remarkable patron of the arts: he owned or commissioned work from many notable sixteenth-century artists, including Raphael, Michelangelo, Cellini, Giorgio Vasari, Francesco Salviati, and Jacopo Sansovino. Around 1515, Raphael portrayed Bindo Altoviti as an elegant and beautiful young man (National Gallery of Art, Washington).
The Altoviti family had long been rivals of the Medici. Bindo’s relationship with the Medici rulers of Florence was tense, although he conducted business with them and accepted honors from them. For the most part, Bindo lived in exile in Rome to avoid their authority. By 1550, the hostility between Bindo and Cosimo de’ Medici, the duke of Florence, became evident. Cosimo refused to allow Bindo’s son to take up his post as archbishop of Florence. Bindo financed an army to support the anti-Medici forces in Siena, and then spent much of his fortune underwriting an alliance with France intended to liberate Florence from Medici rule. These efforts failed before Bindo died in 1557.
It was at this period that Cellini produced his bust of Bindo Altoviti. Nearly sixty, Bindo is depicted as a stoic, world-weary figure, although his gaze remains alert and dynamic. The sculpture echoes ancient busts of philosophers, and indeed was displayed next to ancient Roman busts in Bindo’s palace. Nearly life-size, the work presents remarkable contrasts of textures. The beard is energetically modeled and shows the repeated working of the original wax model. Very different is the careful rendering of wrinkles and details of the face, and the painstaking precision of Bindo’s unusual cap.
Cellini made a bust of Bindo’s hated rival Cosimo de’ Medici, made just three years earlier (Museo del Bargello, Florence). Highly energized and aggressive, Cosimo’s bust is almost overwhelming in its grandeur and dazzle. It is a public and militaristic portrait, whereas the bust of Bindo is private and humanist, both in execution and original context. It seems that Cellini and Altoviti conspired to create a portrait as different as possible from Cosimo’s, although both emulate ancient prototypes and were surely meant to rival the bronzes of antiquity. Bindo Altoviti is portrayed as republican philosopher rather than imperial general.
In the nineteenth century, several museums attempted to buy the bust from the Altoviti palace in Rome. Finally, in 1898 the work was put up for sale via Colnaghi, and Mrs. Gardner snapped it up. It is her only large sculpture in bronze, a medium that did not usually interest her.
Source: Alan Chong, "Bindo Altoviti," in Eye of the Beholder, edited by Alan Chong et al. (Boston: ISGM and Beacon Press, 2003): 87-88.
In the fall of 2001, the Cellini bust—one of only two monumental portrait busts made by artist Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), and widely considered the most important Renaissance bronze in the United States—was returned to its permanent place in the Titian Room after extensive conservation. Conservation work focused on removing centuries of hardened and discolored waxes, oils and dirt from the surface of the sculpture, revealing the extent of Cellini’s fine detailing and the artist’s original patina. On the heels of this work, the Cellini bust was the centerpiece of a scholarly exhibition Raphael, Cellini, and a Renaissance Banker: The Patronage of Bindo Altoviti, presented by the Museum in 2003-2004.