In the words of Vasari, the first biographer of the Renaissance talents: “All great artist evade historians’ classification. They are first and foremost exceptional men (…) Among these unclassifiables, Donatello is one of the greatest.” And yet strangely this is the first time in the history of art that a substantial exhibition has been dedicated to Donatello (1386-1466) with 130 pieces from 60 museums, which also features the work of his contemporaries.
This miracle exhibition is being held in the city of his birth, Florence, at the Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello. Through his genius, Donatello swept away the less expressive, less embodied Gothic language to give life to his statues. For aside from the technical prowess in the execution of scenes, the Renaissance gave life to its figures by imbuing them with psychology. And this is what Donatello invented.
There is a grace to his work, combined with an expressive power. The high point of his art and one of his most famous artworks is displayed in the permanent collections at the Bargello, the museum dedicated to Renaissance sculptures. To depict David, vanquisher of the horrible Goliath whose head lies at his feet, he sculpted in bronze the elegant body of a svelte young man standing 1.5 metres tall. This is not, by the way, an exercise in virility as would be embodied nearly 75 years later by Michelangelo’s colossal David, which was greatly inspired by antiquity.
The soldier elegantly wearing a helmet and boots hides nothing of his morphology. He is quite slender and his posture, with one hand on his hip and another holding his sword, indicates his determination. From the contrast between the result of his gigantic power and his adolescent physique, there emanates an air of mystery which gives the work a hypnotic quality.
David was commissioned by Cosimo de Medici, Donatello’s great patron, who afforded him a practice that was far from financial constraints, even after his death. The curator of the exhibition Francesco Caglioti (do watch his very interesting interview about Renaissance) explains: “He is the first in Western civilization to personify the Jewish king with the features of a young shepherd. The figure also symbolically embodied little Florence victorious in the face of threatening neighbouring kingdoms.”
Donatello brought the reality of the material to the fore, particularly in his sculptures in bas-relief. The absolute masterpiece in this genre is the Pazzi Madonna in which Mary embraces her child with extraordinary intensity. The two faces meet to express this love. “It was the first time in art history that a sculptor depicting the Virgin was not concerned with the faithful. Mary looks at her child, not at the viewer, and in this depiction they become one,” points out Francesco Caglioti.
Taking the visitor by the hand
The exhibition, which could have suffered from a lack of didacticism for such a specific subject, plays skilfully with parallels. This becomes a way of taking the visitor by the hand when, for example, the curator of the exhibition places a Christ on a cross in painted wood by Brunelleschi (1377-1446) side by side with another by Donatello, made two years apart.
“It must be understood that even painters like Mantegna or Uccello would have seen Donatello’s sculpture,” explains Arturo Galansino, director of the Palazzo Strozzi (Watch here and here interviews of Arturo Galansino). Francesco Caglioti adds, in a passionate outburst: “Donatello is more important than Michelangelo in the history of art. His influence extends as far as Rodin and Giacometti.” The exhibition has been in the making since 2015. A third of the artworks will be travelling to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Gemalt Gallery in Berlin.
Donatello, il rinascimiento. Palazzo Strozzi and Bargello. Until 31 July. https://www.palazzostrozzi.org/archivio/mostre/donatello/
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