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Visual arts: Donatello in Florence (Berlin and London to come)

15 July 2022

Nicholas Cranfield sees the collaborative Donatello exhibition, which will be heading for Berlin and London


Donatello, Virgin and Child (Madonna of the Clouds), c.1425-1430, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

Donatello, Virgin and Child (Madonna of the Clouds), c.1425-1430, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

THE Palazzo Strozzi has long prided itself in being not so much a museum as a laboratory that offers a space for us to understand culture as a fundamental part of our civility and identity. The exhibition is also housed in the Palazzo Bargello, less than a ten-minute walk across the city, but, without a combined ticket, few seemed inclined to visit the last three sections of the show on the day I went.

The exhibition demonstrates how Donatello (c.1386-1466) was not at first understood by early Renaissance artists such as Duccio and Desiderio da Settignano, but later influenced Cinquecento artists well beyond Mannerism. The last exhibit is a Madonna and Child by Artemisia Gentileschi of c.1609.

Those who fail to visit the Bargello miss that and seeing drawings by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Bronzino, as well as more of Donatello’s own sculptures; in the great hall, named after him since the first monographic exhibition of 1887, the Saint George from Orsanmichele and the bronze David. Two exceptional loans of the Madonna of the Clouds (Boston) and the Dudley Madonna (V&A) are shown in a renovated gallery space on the ground floor.

Being staged in the centre of Florence certainly helps, as there is no mistaking the city’s role in the Renaissance and the recovery in the West of the earlier civilisations of Greece and of Rome and of Islamic learning and scholarship.

From more than 50 collections, Professor Francesco Caglioti has amassed some 130 works, of which 14, including eight by Donatello, have been restored for this exhibition. This allows the visitor to see The Feast of Herod with its Escher-like perspectival boxes offering depth to the drama, and the freestanding statue of Hope, one of the six figures from a font, at close range, before they are returned home to the Baptistery crypt chapel of the Duomo in Siena.

Donatello trained in his native Florence as a goldsmith under Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), from whom he also learned bronze casting. His skill in that is immediately evident in the 40 panels of the two bronze doors, the last works that he made for the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo (1440-43), which are included in the show in a small side room. The paired apostles, martyrs, and saints appear in individual poses, like actors in a tableau vivant.

With Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), ten years his senior, he travelled to Rome, to study classical remains between 1402 and 1404. They jointly recovered the ancient practice of terracotta from the Natural History of Pliny the Elder. The collection of terracottas in the Victoria & Albert Museum explains why the third iteration of this show comes to London in 2023.

Donatello introduced a rational perspective to art. When applied to sculpture, this allowed him to innovate a low-relief technique (rilievo schiaccato) to wondrous effect. In the 1422 Madonna and Child relief from Berlin, Christ nuzzles alongside his mother with an intimacy taken up and copied by other artists. The marble Dead Christ Tended by Angels (c.1520-40) in the V&A (style of Donatello and Michelozzo) clearly influenced the painters shown alongside, Giovanni Bellini (Museo Correr, Venice, 1465, later enthusiastically given Dürer’s monogram and a spurious date of 1499) and Marco Zoppo (1471) among them.

AlamyDonatello (Donato di Niccolò di Betto; Florence, c.1386–1466) David Victorious, 1408–9; 1416, Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello

In the first room, we encounter Brunelleschi and Donatello at odds with each other after their Rome trip, providing polychrome wooden crucifixes for two of Florence’s landmark churches; the older man had criticised Donatello’s naturalism for Santa Croce (1408) as depicting a peasant on a cross. As a riposte, he undertook a more appropriate dead Christ for Santa Maria Novella (1410).

Both are displayed either side of Donatello’s youthful Victorious David, a slightly over life-size marble statue, with a scarred left cheek from a fault in the stone. It was intended for a buttress on the cathedral but, viewed at a distance from the ground, it was not thought satisfactory.

Years later, between 1446 and 1450, Donatello created the first ever monumental bronze crucifix for the rood screen in the basilica of Sant’ Antonio in Padua (which is now on the high altar). It became a ground-breaking model for such artists as Niccolò Baroncelli (d.1453) for the figures at Calvary with St George and St Maurelius, commissioned for the cathedral high altar in Ferrara. This sculptural group is one of the most extravagant on display.

The first pagan statue of the Renaissance, cast probably for the Bartolini Saltimbeni family, is a much debated figure, the Atys-Amorino created between 1435 and 1440. Around this plump Cupid-like figure is a broad belt, to which his leggings are attached, but these have deliberately fallen to expose both his genitalia and the rump of his ram’s tail.

Whatever the meaning of this statue, it stands as a remarkable tribute to the quality of the sculptor as the see-through leggings, the leather belt, and the fleshiness of the plump child are all rendered exactly. The delicacy of the wings suggests that Donatello might even have cast them from real feathers.

The idea that sculpted statua served a prominent place in the life of cultivated scholars and nobles ultimately goes back to Pliny’s Natural History. Donatello’s contemporaries would not have worried about the difference between the Antique and the Contemporary; by 1677, the Atys-Amorino was considered to be an antique bronze.

When, in 1550, Giorgio Vasari came to write The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, he puzzled whether to include Donatello’s biographical entry in the 15th century, which would make sense chronologically, or in the 16th, to honour his important influence on perspective and on Mannerism. Vasari rightly concluded: “Wherefore craftsmen should trace the greatness of art rather to him than to any man born in modern times.”

“Donatello: The Renaissance” is at Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza degli Strozzi and Palazzo Bargello, via del Proconsolo 4, Florence, until 31 July. Phone 39 055 277 6461. www.palazzostrozzi.org

It transfers, as “Donatello: Founder of the Renaissance”, to the Gemäldegalerie, Matthäikirchplatz, Berlin, from 2 September to 8 January 2023. www.smb.museum

It opens as “Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance” at the V&A in London on 11 February 2023. www.vam.ac.uk

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