Donatello’s “David” (c. 1435-1440) presides over the great hall on the second floor of the Bargello Museum, raised on a higher base than before (although a shorter one than the original 6-foot-tall column of the sculpture). Unlike the muscular, manly version of Michelangelo across town at the Accademia, Donatello’s “David” is a slender teenager, wearing nothing but fancy boots, a helmet that looks like a sun hat, and a look enigmatic and downcast. Although other artists explored the nude during this period, inspired by ancient Roman sculpture and the newly expanded subject, Donatello’s “David” still surprises. Look closely, and you will notice an extraordinary and sensual detail: a feathered wing, attached to the helmet from Goliath’s head to David’s feet, going up to the inside of his thigh. What enabled Donatello to give the biblical story of heroism such an original, even erotic twist?
“Donatello, the Renaissance”
Palazzo Strozzi and Musei del Bargello, until July 31
An ambitious and spectacular new exhibition, “Donatello, The Renaissance”, in two historical places in Florence, the Palazzo Strozzi and the Bargello, with more than 130 works from 50 collections, may not directly answer this question, but it offers a rare chance to observe an artist of remarkable versatility and verve. Here are delicate Madonnas, spiritual putti, dramatic biblical stories and monumental figures, in materials ranging from painted terracotta to marble and bronze.
The idea of putting on a show about Donatello (c. 1386-1466) seems like sheer madness, and there’s a reason it’s the first of its kind in Florence for nearly 40 years. Most of his works are firmly anchored to the places for which they were made, either physically attached or too large to move, and the rest are unwieldy at best. The willingness of so many institutions to lend their most prized works certainly depends in part on the stature of the exhibition’s curator, Francesco Caglioti of the Scuola Normale di Pisa; the show generously shares the fruits of its many years of scholarly study with a wide audience.
Organized along chronological and thematic lines, the exhibition allows visitors to discover some of Donatello’s most influential artistic ideas. For example, he is certainly not the first to make tender and intimate Madonnas, but his version had a huge impact on later artists. In an austere and striking marble relief panel on loan from Berlin, the “Madonna Pazzi” (c. 1422), the Virgin holds the Child as their foreheads and noses touch, the Child clutching her veil. The pair are set in an unadorned perspective frame, and with no halo adorning either figure, or even the typical blue coloring of the Virgin’s robe, Donatello effectively makes the Virgin and Child less iconic. , religious figures than people we might know.
While the Berlin panel shows an austere side to Donatello, in other relief panels he introduced dazzling layers of narrative and spatial complexity. Two in the show, the gilded bronze “The Feast of Herod” (c. 1423-27) from the Baptistery of Siena and a bronze panel of “The Miracle of the Mule” (c. 1446-49) from the Basilica of Sant’ Antonio in Padua, are normally almost impossible to see well in their usual homes. Both are presented here at the appropriate height and with excellent lighting, so all the details can be revealed.
In “The Feast of Herod”, Donatello takes up the recent innovation of single-point perspective but reinvents it. While in its lower half the relief features a patterned grid floor typical of early perspective paintings, the upper half of the work is a varied series of recessed arches set between pillars and columns, with figures involved in various activities. In the foreground, the dynamic gestures of the characters are worthy of a troupe of mimes. In a new interpretation of a frequently depicted biblical scene, Donatello rediscovers the dark and bloody horror of the severed head, before which everyone recoils in disgust. It shows remarkable attention to each figure, so that they all have distinctive faces and poses, from the twisted bodies of infants to partially obscured background figures. This is a catalog of ideas that would play out in Florentine painting and sculpture over the next century, from the twisted bodies of Michelangelo to the gestures seen in Raphael’s “Lamentation” at the Palazzo Barberini.
In the midst of these heavy religious themes, the exhibition does not neglect another important element of Donatello’s work, his spirit. Dominating a room full of ‘spiritelli’, the winged children also called putti, is the life-size bronze figure of ‘Attis-Amorino’ (c. 1435-1440). Although usually naked, this tall, laughing figure is wearing what appear to be leather riding chaps, with a belt but no undergarments. The effect is bizarre and comical. The figure also includes attributes intended to torment viewers in search of meaning: what do the little snakes at his feet mean? His faun tail?
The exhibition offers an exceptional opportunity to get to know this versatile artist, who was by turns seductive, playful, tender and tragic, even better, and to contemplate his impact on several generations of Renaissance artists in Florence and beyond. And yet, many of his works remain in located—in the Church of San Lorenzo; at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo; in Orsanmichele; and beyond Florence, to Padua and other cities. If anything, the show convincingly demonstrates that our renewed appreciation for Donatello is just beginning.
-Mrs. Brothers is an associate professor at Northeastern University and the author of “Giuliano da Sangallo and the Ruins of Rome” (Princeton).
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