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Donatello. Master of masters

Florence celebrates Donatello “master of masters” and symbolic artist of the Renaissance with the exhibition “Donatello. The Renaissance”, open from March 19 to July 31 2022.

Curated with masterful knowledge by Francesco Caglioti, professor of medieval art history at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Donatello, The Renaissance showcases some 130 sculptures, paintings and drawings with loans of unique works, some of which have never before been lent, from over fifty of the world’s leading museums and institutions such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery in London, the Mus.e du Louvre in Paris, the Staatliche Museen in Berlin, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Gallerie degli Uffizi, the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua and the basilicas of San Lorenzo, Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

Spread across two venues, the Palazzo Strozzi and the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, the exhibition guides visitors on a journey through Donatello’s life in fourteen sections. The exhibition begins with Donatello’s early career and his dialogue with Brunelleschi, offering a comparison of the two artists’ celebrated wooden Crucifixes from the basilicas of Santa Croce and Santa Maria Novella. From there we move through the various cities in which Donatello worked, such as Florence, Siena, Prato and Padua, finding many followers and interacting with artists such as Mantegna and Bellini, always experimenting in different materials. The exhibition concludes with a special section exploring Donatello’s influence on the artists that came after him including Michelangelo, Raphael and Bronzino, illustrating the crucial importance of his legacy for Italian art.

The exhibition is promoted and organized by Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and the Museo del Bargello in collaboration with the Staatliche Museen in Berlin and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Main supporter: Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze. Supporters: Comune di Firenze, Regione Toscana, Camera di Commercio di Firenze, Comitato dei Partner di Palazzo Strozzi. Main Partner: Intesa Sanpaolo.

An exhibition of absolute value that will remain as a fundamental step for the study of one of the greatest innovators of Renaissance sculpture and art, which confronts the masterpieces of contemporary artists such as Brunelleschi and Masaccio, Mantegna and Giovanni Bellini, but also later as Raphael and Michelangelo, we report in full the illuminating introduction to the catalog that Caglioti wrote on the occasion of the exhibition:

“Even though exhibitions of the art of the past are an enduring practice that seems to have no end, a monographic show focused on Donatello has rarely been mounted up to now. The evident organisational problems inherent in a corpus of works like Donatello’s, which is enormous and for the most part still anchored to the sites for which they were made, have nonetheless not discouraged some important initiatives over almost the last century and a half.

The first, in 1887, for the fifth centenary of the artist’s birth, was held at the Bargello, establishing its position as the world’s leading museum for Italian sculpture. In particular, the large room on the first floor was finally re- named in the sculptor’s honour and still today holds an outstanding core of his works made for domestic destinations, but also some already moved in the past from their original public spaces. The short catalogue printed in 1887 documents a vast range of pieces, not only because at the time attributions to Donatello and indeed the sculpture of the entire Renaissance were still quite lax (focused studies were just beginning to be made), but also because other objects on display included textiles, ceramics, weapons, and works in precious metals, in keeping with the second vocation – but in fact, the first – of the museum, created to gather together the best examples of the past of the ‘arts applied to industry ’.

A century later, the two most recent shows (1985, 1986) celebrated the sixth centenary. The one in the Bargello, concentrating on the Donatello master- pieces in that museum and some other pieces that had long enjoyed the same fame but had since been reassigned to their real creators (Desiderio da Settignano, Francesco da Sangallo), was an important occasion for reviewing the history and literature of the master’s great critical fortune in the nineteenth century (documented also in the exhibition by authentic works and others counterfeited in that century, as well as casts, drawings, and prints). The other, international show, held successively in three different venues (Detroit, Fort Worth, and Forte di Belvedere in Florence), aimed at integrating several dozen ‘moveable’ works by Donatello (a number of which were reattributed to other artists in later studies) with about the same number by Florentine and Tuscan sculptors up to the end of the fifteenth century.

The current show in Florence is also connected with two other venues, where it will move after this one close (Berlin, Staatliche Museen, Gem.ldegalerie; London, Victoria and Albert Museum). Despite the strong spirit of coop- eration which has enabled and prepared the three exhibitions, and despite a significant core of shared loans (starting with many works from the Bargello itself and from the museums in Berlin and London), every venue will have its own slant, reflected in a different catalogue for each, enriched with pieces not visible elsewhere. Nonetheless they share a common vision, conceived from the beginning for the show in Florence and never before explored in earlier exhibitions: Donatello’s works (in Florence, more than fifty, an unprecedent- ed number) are displayed alongside others not only by sculptors but also painters, spanning, through an array of sculptures, paintings and drawings, a chronology that in Florence unfolds essentially until Vasari’s time, with a coda in the early seventeenth century (a Madonna attributed to Artemisia Gentileschi). At a time when new research on the history of Western art tends for the most part to go beyond an approach to the experience of individual masters in isolation or singled out as dominating or symbolising their period, many temporary shows – at least those aimed at attracting a large crowd – remain attached to the monographic formula. It is easy to believe that this latter will endure as long as shows continue to be mounted, because it is a fact that the ‘monographic’ exhibition, notwithstanding its many risks of interpretation (first and foremost, a cult of personality), in most cases makes it possible to impose a clearly understood narrative thread on a necessarily drastic selection of pieces. Now, if there is an artist who, despite the obstacles stemming from the large size and complete integration of his masterpieces with their original places, now merits more than anyone else an attempt at in-depth investigation, that person is Donatello. He was not merely the shaper of an age on the level of Giotto, Raphael and Caravaggio, but much more, that is to say a phenomenon of rupture that introduced new ways of thinking, producing and experiencing art. And since the future can only be built upon the past, this revolution originated in Donatello from a direct memory of the art that came before him, which, it seems, far from being limited to classical Rome, commonly – and superficially – claimed as almost the only source for the ‘Renaissance’, in him roused up millennia, that is to say everything that to his eyes looked old, up to the time of Giotto.

The ‘Donatello earthquake’ was so violent as to cause numerous aftershocks, starting very soon after his debut as a twenty-year-old (1406) and lasting for generations. With this in mind, the Florence exhibition examines for the first time a range of two centuries, for the purpose of illustrating what was already clear to Vasari when, in the preface to his Lives of the ‘second age’, he confessed that he was unsure whether Donatello should be placed with the artists of his own time or rather in the third and final age, with Michelangelo, Raphael, and the other Cinquecento masters. As we all know, Donatello was not just the creator of ‘modern’ statuary, of ‘schiacciato’ low relief, of small bronzes in the ancient style or stucco wall decorations inspired by classical antiquity. And he was not only, with Brunelleschi, the trailblazer of rational perspective – crucial for the fate of statues as well as for stories in relief – and of the relaunch of terracotta as material for sculpture. Nor is it important now that the list of his firsts continues with his pioneering equestrian monument in the classical style (the Gattamelata), albeit in competition – or perhaps cooperation – with his own students (Niccol. Baroncelli in Ferrara for the horse, now lost, of Marchese Niccol. III d’Este); or as the inventor of non-finito in marble, bronze, terracotta and stucco, with results that later sculptors could not even approach until late in the nineteenth century. He was above all, as his fellow artists and associates Brunelleschi and Masaccio were not, the one person responsible for the cultural leap towards the practice – even more than the concept – of the extreme individual originality of the artist in the unflagging, pervasive search for everything that could overturn the usual institutional habits of art. This mission was carried forward for sixty years, up to his death (1466), with never a pause, experimenting with the most diverse genres, destinations, materials, techniques, and formats, and was favoured by the participation of countless assistants from Tuscany, the Veneto, Dalmatia and other states in the Italy of that time who passed through his workshop and often went on to become masters in their own right.

Genres, destinations, materials, techniques and formats so different from others have developed a variety of effects, in other words of style, that has always disconcerted modern scholars, felt on both the practical level, through infinite debates about attributions and dates, and the theoretical plane, through the arduous pursuit of a key to exegesis, if possible universal, that could explain everything, with the optimistic presupposition that the corpus of work taken each time into consideration was entirely by the same author, or at least was born under his direct supervision.

When, in the early nineteenth century, the Storia della scultura by Leopoldo Cicognara blazed the trail for systematic studies in this field for Italy, the lethargy in which the Florentine Quattrocento had languished for almost two and a half centuries after the last surveys by Vasari consigned to the author – Canova’s great friend – and his contemporaries a very muddy picture: in essence Donatello’s name was attached to almost everything good, especially if in marble or bronze, that presented a manner which preceded Michelangelo but was no longer medieval. The first distinctions made by Cicognara were therefore not enough. And since, as has happened too often in the literature on sculpture up to now, the works in collections and museums, being more approachable, set the tone for critics, the very old pseudo-Donatellian fame of so many sublime marbles by Desiderio da Settignano and Antonio Rossellino and Mino da Fiesole made to adorn domestic spaces conditioned for a long time the image of the father of the Renaissance in sculpture. Along with the spread through Europe and then on to the United States of enthusiasm for this figurative culture among collectors and scholars, but also artists, the wake of the nineteenth century brought with it the use of casts on a broad scale (limited before to classical monuments) and the ascent of photography. What a surprise it was, then, to find finally accessible, through these means, works that up to then had been distant or even absent like the Prophets on Giotto’s campanile in Florence or the statues and stories from the lost high altar of the Basilica del Santo in Padua, included since 1895 in the structure by Camillo Boito which, even though not comparable with the original, has the merit of gathering together all the bronzes connected with that undertaking, which were already scattered throughout the various spaces of that basilica.

The late nineteenth century believed, then, that it was discovering a Donatello who was doubly ‘real’: not only because never seen before and document- ed better and better by extensive archival research on those and other public monuments, in Florence, Siena, Prato, Padua and so on; but also and above all because he was 27 recognized as an artist who was authentic and sincere in his charge of realism or naturalism (according to who was speaking), a charge sometimes pushed to a rawness and roughness so strong as to make one posit an absence of filters of any sort between pure life and the sovereign, irrepressible genius. This attitude served to gradually purge the repertory of Donatello sculptures of so many ‘genre’ works and decorations made instead by Florentine artists already cited above and others still from the fifteenth-century ‘middle’ generation. But it also trained a stronger spotlight on the extraordinary identity of the artist who made the bronze David (entry 12.3), the wooden Mary Magdalene, the Habbakuk and the Gattamelata.

Since then, Donatello has been seen alternatively as a patriarch of the Renaissance and as a last champion of Gothic, as classical and anticlassical, perhaps more than any other master of the past ready to be bent – in his immensely generous production – to the most contrasting overarching readings by period or category. In order to understand each interpretation according to its own slant, it would be necessary to enter into the historic and philosophical coordinates of each exegete in turn or into the specific extension of the artistic tradition against which he or she was measuring the great sculptor. For example, wouldn’t a certain ‘anticlassical’ Donatello be that only with regard to a heritage interpreted within the limits implicit in Winckelmann’s model, as much for the chronology as for the series of objects? But it would also be necessary, each time, to review the entire catalogue of Donatello’s work taken as the premise by that particular scholar, according to a highly variable play that, around a small core of ‘unmovable’ works, has long practiced the addition or exclusion of not a few ‘movable’ pieces circulating mainly among public and private collectors since the nineteenth century. An instructive example of this dynamic is the bust of Niccol. da Uzzano at the Bargello, which was a favourite of Donatello scholars for a good part of the twentieth century and still today resurfaces in some studies out of love for the genre and material (the autonomous portrait in terracotta) even though it does not possess, as has been established more and more firmly in recent years, either the style or the quality characteristic of an ‘autograph’ Donatello.

The need for a rigorous ‘canon’ of Donatello works was felt significantly in the period between the two world wars. The task was first undertaken by Jeno ̋ L.nyi (starting in the early 1930s) and, after his untimely death (1940), continued and concluded by Horst W. Janson (1957). This ‘decontamination’ was undoubtedly a healthy move as many spurious pieces were definitively removed from discussion. But it also brought quite a few painful sacrifices, like the bronze Saint John the Baptist earlier in Berlin (and now in Moscow), the Jacquemart-Andr. Spiritelli, the ‘Virgin of Pardon’ in Siena, or some of the most beautiful domestic Madonnas, with the two exceptions of the Pazzi Madonna and the Madonna of the Clouds. After all, however, the two scholars could not have been in perfect agreement on everything; while L.nyi repudiated the Santa Croce Crucifix and the Saint John the Baptist from the Martelli home as well, initiating for this latter misunderstandings that still endure today, Janson quite properly put them back in, but extended the honour also to the Martelli David, which L.nyi had held in quarantine because he had not been able to examine it closely, and the ‘Platonic Bust’ in the Bargello, to which L.nyi had applied his best talents as a connoisseur faced with a derivative object in strong contrast with a Donatello masterpiece of a some- what analogous genre like the San Rossore Reliquary.

65 years after its publication, Janson’s monograph remains the single most substantial contribution to the literature on Donatello. But many changes have been made in the meantime, both on the cataloguing front and on that of interpretation (assuming that it is possible or permissible to separate the two). The resurfacing of the Chellini Madonna has set in motion a progressive re-evaluation of a number of Madonnas from his mature period, especially in terracotta (the Vettori and Piot Madonnas in the Louvre, the one in Berlin, the Virgin and Child in a Little Chair in London, or the bronze tondo in Vienna) but also of other sacred reliefs for private devotion, mainly of metal (the Camondo Calvary, the André Saint Sebastian, the Martelli-Medici Calvary), and other small bronzes (the Dancing Spiritello in the Bargello). In line with these recoveries is the publication of other clay Madonnas from his maturity like the two from Via Pietrapiana and Santa Trinita, prototypes of images already known in the past by way of secondary witnesses.

Shortly after Janson’s book appeared, Margrit Lisner’s research on medieval and Renaissance Tuscan Crucifixes led her to identify the Man of Sorrows above the Door of the Mandorla as a key moment in Donatello’s youth (a discovery not yet completely absorbed in the studies), preparing the way for the later numerous, crucial contributions by Luciano Bellosi on the master’s early work in clay and his pioneering role in this field. Thanks to this turning point, some forgotten insights by Wilhelm Bode and Frida Schottmüller, which had appeared before L.nyi, regained their significance. Further consequences of these verifications were the rehabilitation of another late terracotta, the so-called ‘Forzori Altar’, and the recognition of the Saint Lawrence formerly in the Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna, a bust that had never before entered the literature on Donatello even though it had sometimes had occasion to do so.

The history of Donatello studies is now so long and full that new acquisitions to his corpus have been able to come in recent decades not only from completely unknown works like the wooden Crucifix in Santa Maria dei Servi in Padua but also from others often published but always misunderstood like the Dudley Madonna; or even from one like the Carafa Head, already certified as Donatello’s by the best sixteenth century writers but then lost over the centuries in the meanders of Neapolitan antiquarian legends.

Up to now I have run through a sampling – broad yet not exhaustive – of works that should have been included in Janson’s catalogue or could be included in a new ‘Janson’ revised following his same criteria of authorship. But, if it goes without saying that this last concept, applied to monumental sculpture, always entails the skilled command of a tight-knit team of collab- orators, this fact has to be especially true in the history of Donatello. He was in fact responsible not only for ‘exclusive’ works that are evidently by more than one hand, but also for the direction of major decorative undertakings like the Old Sacristy in San Lorenzo, the chancel of the Basilica del Santo in Padua (Crucifix, high altar and choir enclosure), the crossing in San Lorenzo and the courtyard and garden of Palazzo Medici on Via Larga. And again, he provided ideas and drawings for works commissioned to others, such as the Ovetari altarpiece in Padua and the tomb of Cristoforo Felici in San Francesco in Siena.

This vast and, one could say, prodigal sharing of his knowledge and skill, difficult to harness into one monograph, is even harder to encompass in one exhibition, albeit expanded to present many of his disciples and followers. It is a simpler matter, and in any case clearer, to trace the dynamic of his ‘influences’ on those contemporaries and others who came after him. A dynamic that is certainly traditional; if it is also still current will be decided by visitors to the show”.