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Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance

by Matthew Biedermann | 15 February 2023

Figure 1: Donatello, David (Florence: Opera del Duomo, c. 1409).


Descending downward into the V&A’s subterranean Sainsbury wing, we are immediately confronted with the alert gaze of Donatello’s David (fig. 1, c. 1409). This marble David, an early work originally destined for Florence’s Duomo but confiscated and reinterpreted as a civic symbol by the city’s republican government, sets the tone of the exhibition. Less well known than his later bronze David—which was unable to travel—Donatello’s marble stands at the precipice between two eras, one foot in the stylized lexicon of the late medieval and another anticipatory of the dramatic artistic innovations witnessed in 15th century Italy. This David signals the hesitant first steps of the slow evolution away from the mostly religious benefaction of earlier periods towards the burgeoning role of the civic and private patronage in commissioning works of art. Stage set, the exhibition, curated by Peta Motture, proceeds to articulate its central argument that Donatello, billed as “arguably the greatest sculptor of all time,” established the source code for later artists, who endlessly adapted his artistic idiom in many different media. The show includes a great variety of objects from antiquity to the 19th centuries, ranging from the smallest medallions to monumental bronze statues . Attempting to compensate for the impossibility of many works in Donatello’s prolific oeuvre to travel, the displays are populated with the work of many other artists, including his contemporaries Beltramino de Zuttis da Rho, Michelozzo, and Masaccio, as well as later masters including Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, and Marco Zoppo. The curators had to contend with the realities of collaborative 15th century workshop practices against today’s obsession with the artist’s hand, as well as a significant deficit of documentary evidence on Donatello’s life, where even his most famed David bronze is not recorded until after the artist’s death in 1466. The result is a cautious profusion of potential, possible, and probable attributions on most of the object labels. This lack of certainty strikes against notions of grand retrospective exhibitions lavished on later artists like Cézanne and Freud, where the majority of works are by the master, and might disappoint viewers expecting to witness Donatello’s full portfolio. However, the V&A offsets this weakness by excavating the material circumstances in which Donatello worked, exhibiting, for example, a pair of the ledgers recording Donatello’s catasto, the early renaissance equivalent to today’s tax returns, which reveal his business relationship with the sculptor Michelozzo.

Figures 2: Donatello, Atttis-Amorino, front side (Florence: Museo Nazionale de Bargello, 1435-40).

Another highpoint of the show is the transition about halfway through from sacred to secular, where Donatello’s beautiful but formulaic Madonnas fade in favour of new secular subjects, like the stunning and enigmatic Atttis-Amorino (fig. 2-3, 1435-40), a free-standing bronze which is a composite between a cupid, a shepherd, and a god. Donatello masterfully articulates the curious trousers on this putto—seemingly a forerunner to today’s assless (and crotchless) chaps—which raise pertinent questions to scholarly debates on how renaissance viewers treated nudity in civic and religious works and whether erotic connotations are merely anachronistic readings.

Figure 4: Donatello, Madonna of the Clouds (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, c. 1425-35).

Figure 5: Donatello, Crucifix (Padua, Basilica di Sant-Antonio, 1444-49).

The show similarly succeeds in its ability to demonstrate the huge variety of works Donatello created. In a period before the notion of artist as divinely inspired genius, creators operated as artisans commissioned for a variety media. Seeing his sculptural work, from the shallow, suggestive lines of his rivelevo schiacciato relief on the MFA Boston’s Madonna of the Clouds (fig. 4, c. 1425-35), to the breath-taking veristic agony of Christ in his life-size bronze Crucifix from the Basilica di Sant’Antonio in Padua (fig. 5, 1444-49), provides an excellent primer on the range of Donatello’s abilities as well as the variety of expectations patrons had for commissions.

The exhibition’s argument for Donatello’s massive influence on later artists is mostly convincing as well and employs representations from late 15th century Padua to Victorian-era plaster casts and forgeries. At some points, however, the curators seem to take a step to far, for instance surrounding Donatello’s ten-year residence in Padua. This section places Donatello’s bronze Sant’Antonio Dead Christ with Angels (1449) in conversation with Giovanni Bellini’s Museo Correr oil panel Dead Christ (1465), positing that Donatello’s Christ was “undoubtedly” a model for Bellini (fig. 6). While Donatello certainly proved influential up and down the Italian peninsula, these two works do not betray a close formal similarity beyond sharing an extraordinarily popular subject, and it seems as though the curators are regurgitating a common Central Italian bias against the ability of Northern Italian artists to generate independent stylistic innovations.

Figure 6 [left to right]: Giovanni Bellini, Dead Christ supported by Angels (Venice, Museo Correr, c. 1465); Marco Zoppo, Dead Christ Supported with Angels (London: British Museum, c. 1457-58); Donatello, Dead Christ with Angels (Padua: Bascilica di Sant-Antonio, 1449).

The exhibition layout is excellent, flowing purposefully yet elegantly from Donatello’s early religious sculptures, into his fascinating secular commissions, and ending with his 19th century imitators and counterfeiters. One small gripe is with the show’s dim and low lighting, casting unnecessary shadows onto works and didactic material. While seemingly a compromise between the lack of natural light in this basement exhibition space, the anachronism of bright gallery lighting on works originally intended for candle-lit churches, and the sensitivity of some of the displayed works on paper, the end result does little to evoke the atmosphere of these works’ original sites while obfuscating the works themselves. Overall, this exhibition is a great primer on the workshop practices and stylistic evolution evident in early 15th century Italy, revealing less Donatello the man or the artist and capturing more the artistic fever and zeitgeist gripping Renaissance Italy in the early 15th century.

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