As we all grow older, the aches and pains of maturity from time to time send us all to the medical profession in search of relief. If we have sore feet, we go to a podiatrist, if we have a sore disposition at the other end of our anatomy, we go to a psychiatrist. If we use a general practitioner at all, it's often just as a conduit to a doctor who really knows what ails us. The same is true of artists too. There are portrait artists, landscape artists, still-life artists, photography artists, sculpting artists, graphic design artists, everyone is a specialist nowadays. Like all-purpose doctors, all-purpose artists are a vanishing breed. There was a time though, ohhh, maybe five hundred years ago, when this wasn't the case. Then, if a guy wanted to call himself an artist he had to be good at all art. Michelangelo was one of these. Leonardo was too. And so was Leonardo's master, in whose studio he worked, arming himself with the skills of his trade. That artist was the Florentine master, Antonio Pollaiuolo.
For the pronunciationally challenged, the name Pollaiuolo is like talking with a mouthful of bubble gum. It's pronounced, PWAW-lu-AL-low. Once you learn how, it's a beautiful name that just rolls around the tongue and tumbles out like penny gumballs. He was born in 1432, which - if labels are your thing, would make him an artist of the early Renaissance. Like his next door neighbour, Andrea del Verrocchio (whom Leonardo also studied under) Pollaiuolo also ran a shop. It was kind of a cross between an art boarding school and art factory populated mostly by the Master, his family (who usually lived upstairs) and a high-spirited staff of teenage boys who slept out back over the stables. Amongst the apprentices, there was a strict pecking order, from stable boy to the master's assistant (who might be in his early twenties). Pollaiuolo's workshop was one where whatever you wanted, a bronze sculpture of Hercules, a painting of St. Sebastian shot full or arrows, an etching of a bunch of naked men sword fighting, or a crucifix, all you had to do was ask...and pay of course. No prima-Donna specialists here!
Pollaiuolo did have a special interest in the nude figure in action, however. And while his creative outlets were quite broad and equally adept, what we would today call "action figures" play quite prominently in his work. His 1475 sculpture of Hercules and Antaeus (a mere 18" high), cast in bronze of is an excellent example (he was also a goldsmith). In it, Hercules, lifts the slightly larger figure of Antaeus off the ground (which was the source of his strength) in order to slay him. His 1465-70 etching the Battle of the Ten Naked Men gives you some idea of where Michelangelo may have learned to draw. All ten figures were drawn from the same model in different action poses, by the way. In painting, we find his favourite character, Hercules, again, this time slaying a seven-headed hydra. The painting is an exquisitely detailed little masterpiece, a mere five by seven inches. Moving up in scale, his Apollo and Daphne (still only 8"x 12"), from 1470, has the lovely Greek miss sprouting Laurel branches for arms just as Apollo grasps the object of his desire only to lose her as she becomes a tree (it's a long story, get out your Greek mythology). In any case, there is a lively, natural interaction plainly visible in all his figures, regardless of media, which set the standard for human figure depiction for Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Correggio, and all those they influence right down to our present video game designers. Makes one wonder what kind of "action figures" Pollaiuolo might have come up with had he had a computer to play with.