I’ve written before, in fact only a few days ago, about the joy of attending an art exhibition. Doing so in Florence is, naturally, extra special. In many ways, wandering around the streets of the city is like being in one massive, uncurated exhibition. Much art looks better and is more impactful in situ, witnessed where it was created. I chose that word ‘witnessed’ carefully, believing it to be more appropriate than ‘enjoyed’ as, at the time of its creation, the purposes behind art were different from those we attribute to its display today.
My enjoyment of art has always had two important and, at times conflicting, facets to it. I’m enthralled by the history of art – who created the work, where and when, by whom were they influenced and what legacy did their work leave for those following, what is the provenance of the piece, the history behind its commissioning. With my nose stuck to the information sheet on the wall of the museum I have, more than once, walked on before realising, to my chagrin, that I have actually forgotten to look at the work itself. Sometimes, on the other hand, I try to walk into a room in a gallery and find the work to which I am most drawn and stand for some times absorbing it as a visual spectacle. But sooner (usually) or later the glasses are off and I’m peering at a 10 by 10cm descriptor on the wall….
On the occasion of this Donatello exhibition I had, unusually for me, read the catalogue beforehand, thanks to a birthday gift from my daughter, Kate. I always buy the exhibition catalogue but normally after visiting, so I can enjoy the exhibits any time I choose. Having been able to study the items on display and put them into the context of Donatello’s incredibly hectic life at the time allowed me to adopt more of the ‘wow that’s stunning’ approach and focus on pieces that I had been anticipating seeing or which merely caught my eye.
And there is a lot to see in this exhibition, which is split between the Palazzo Strozzi where we are today, and the Bargello, where many of Donatello’s large works are found. We have general admission tickets today and hope these will allow access to the second part.
Many of the exhibits in Palazzo Strozzi are loan exhibits, which is key to curating a good exhibition – the assembly of items of similar style to allow meaningful comparisons. For me, other key determinants of a well constructed exhibition include a plentiful supply of exhibits, good lighting and visual displays, both of the works themselves and the information one needs to absorb to enlighten the experience, circulation space which prevents a build up in front of the works which then obscures viewing, places to sit and rest (going around an exhibition for two hours is tiring!) and at least one stand-out work which remains with you long after the event and, ideally, becomes a permanent favourite memory. For me, today’s exhibition ticked every box.
I’ll structure this post around the works themselves, particularly the ones I enjoyed, providing a bit of context, rather than attempting an art history lecture that might have you clicking away. If you want to know more about the artist, history or context of the period then you can fill in as much or as little as you want from online resources.
The exhibition begins with a marble ‘David’, created when Donatello received a commission for works to adorn the facade of the Cathedral in 1408. However, the work was too small to be appreciated at such a height and it was, instead, placed on display in Palazzo Pubblico.
Next, side by side, are two wooden crucifixions. Here is where exhibitions come into their own; I have stood before each of these in their church chapels, but seeing them together allows one to appreciate the distinctions and how one artist’s opinion directly shaped his interpretation of the subject.
Donatello’s work was created in 1408 for Santa Croce. It has many late Gothic features, a style he inherited from Lorenzo Ghiberti and, if we believe Vasari (there’s a conversation starter…) Filippo Brunelleschi likened the admittedly coarse-featured Christ to a ‘peasant’. Your thoughts? Harsh, in my book…
Brunelleschi’s response, normally seen in Santa Maria Novella, can be seen directly opposite. Again, I invite you to reflect personally on two almost contemporaneous interpretations of the same theme which, no matter your preferences, are clearly and deliberately different.
Perhaps surprisingly, Donatello and Brunelleschi went on to form a partnership in the first two decades of the 15th century. One of the results of this was a revival of terracotta as a medium, in particular its use in small Madonnas for domestic worship.
We see an early work by Donatello which retains a rather eerie, Gothic air, with elongated faces and slanted eyes.
A few years later (1414), in this work which has retained much of its applied colour, a more mature style is evidenced.
My favourite terracotta work was this devotional piece, now in Prato (1415-20), in which the artist’s nascent ability to create works in superficial relief is clearly evident. Donatello will repeatedly show us his ease in sculpting both in relief and in the round, often using both techniques in a single piece.
He was also turning his hand to other media, including sculpting in bronzes, a skill he picked up when apprenticed to Ghiberti. His versatility shines through in comparing the massive ‘Saint Louis of Toulouse’ (1418-25) commissioned by the Guelph party for Orsanmichele with the beautiful, compact ‘Speranza’ from the series created for the baptismal font in Siena cathedral (1427).
From his partnership with Brunelleschi, Donatello acquired knowledge of the developing theories of perspective which had provided a genuine breakthrough moment in Renaissance art. A series of works, again fully demonstrating his ease of using different materials, illustrates his skills in representing perspective. Works following on from his leap forward illustrate the power of change in art history.
The gilded bronze panel, ‘The Feast of Herod’ (1423-27), again from the baptismal font in Siena, is a masterpiece, with layer upon layer of rooms receding in perfect linear perspective, peopled by figures which recede from almost fully in the round in the foreground to superficial relief in the distance. It is a truly remarkable technical feat.
But here, tugging at the heart rather than the head, is my stand out moment of the exhibition and indeed my trip thus far. The marble relief, the Pazzi Madonna (1425-30) is astonishingly beautiful. Yes, it’s a technical tour de force as well, a rectangular marble relief demonstrating hugely impressive ability, including perspective, but look at the tenderness, the deep love, with which the Madonna holds her child. They touch faces, almost rubbing noses. Her sadness is touching; we know this story does not end happily. It is intensely human and in a sense private, part of the complex emotional response it generated in me was an uncomfortable sense of being voyeur. But it’s impossible to tear yourself away; I returned several times before reluctantly moving on to allow others the privilege.
And moving on, the Amore-Attis (1435-40) might almost have been placed centrally in the next room to deliberately lighten the mood. A pagan representation, which caused some controversy at the time, it can be appreciated here from all angles and certainly brings a smile to ones face.
Here we move into the world of spiritelli, sometimes known as putti, which Donatello continued to represent even after they went out of fashion somewhat. This is a facet of his unconventional and independent mindset. Here is a series of examples cast in bronze.
Two candleholders designed for Luca della Robbia’s cantoria in Santa Maria del Fiore (1436-38)
Dancing spiritello (1429) for baptismal font in Siena.
Spiritello with tambourine (1429) for baptismal font in Siena.
Donatello had entered into partnership with Michelozzo, favourite architect of the Medici, and together they took on a contract for a baptismal font in Prato, installed, unusually, on the exterior of the building. Suffice to say, the project had a long and fraught history, occupying much of the 1430s. Represented here are the gilded bronze capital which eventually was in situ below the pulpit and panels in marble representing dancing spiritelli and pilasters.
Also from Donatello’s time in Prato is this attractive Madonna and child (1435).
Donatello designed two sets of bronze doors for the Old Sacristy in San Lorenzo. Unusually, these covered areas used for storage rather than areas of liturgical importance. Both sets have been removed, one having been restored, the other en route to that workshop and they are on display here. For me they lack the impact found on the three sets of doors seen on the baptistery in Piazza San Giovanni.
Before departing Florence once again, this time for Padua in 1443, Donatello sculpted a ‘Saint John the Baptist’ for the Martello family.
He stayed in Padua for over ten years, producing several works which had a profound influence on Northern Italian art. His bronze crucifix cast for the basilica of Saint Anthony was the first such work ever made in bronze.
For the high altar of the church he created a ‘man of sorrows’ (Imago Pietatis), a subject which he had already represented in marble relief, and four panels representing the ‘Miracles of Saint Anthony’ of which the ‘Miracle of the Mule’ is displayed here.
Donatello returned to Tuscany for good in 1454. In 1457 the governor Siena created new laws in his favour, enticing him to start work on several new commissions for the Cathedral. He took the ‘Saint John the Baptist Preaching’ with him, but it never found its location.
He did complete the Floor Tomb of Bishop Giovanni Pecci (1448-50) for Siena Cathedral.
The striking figure of a bearded man stares out at us in the final room of this part of the exhibition. It felt like Donatello was challenging us to express our admiration. I have no reservation whatsoever in doing so, wholeheartedly, my good sir.