This article is taken from the July 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
He was born the son of a wool carder in Florence in 1386. When he died on 13 December 1466, at the age of 80, he was the most famous sculptor in Italy and so overloaded with commissions that he failed to complete most of them, thereby upsetting and frustrating his many patrons.
“A rough man, very simple in all things except sculpture”
His career was one of constant innovation: he was the first artist since antiquity to create a free-standing nude statue, as well as the first to cast in bronze a life-size equestrian monument. He was the first artist in any era to use accurate perspective in reliefs, the first to depict saints as individual characters rather than embodiments of abstract virtues — and he was the first to leave parts of his statues and reliefs deliberately unfinished in order to create unexpected effects of light and shade.
He worked in stone, wood, bronze, even papier-maché, and he changed the way all of them were done. He is also one of the handful of artists whose reputation has never suffered any sort of eclipse: he was identified as a great and unique talent in his lifetime and has been recognised as such ever since.
And yet there are very few sources of information about Donato di Niccolo di Betto, the artist universally known as Donatello — and almost none dating from his lifetime. There are some contemporary tax records; a small number of documents recording payments for works, together with the arguments Donatello had with some of his patrons and even one of his colleagues about money. There’s a record from Pistoia that informs us that Donatello, at the age of 14, injured one Anichino di Piero with a stick. But that’s about it.
Vasari’s Life of Donatello was written almost a century after its subject’s death. Vasari was a great collector of anecdotes and stories about artists. But in the case of Donatello, he seems to have drawn a blank: Vasari’s Donatello is essentially a list of his works.
He made both Virgin and Child into fully human individuals
It makes Donatello a very enigmatic character. He was described in the early sixteenth century as having been
“a rough man, very simple in all things except sculpture.” He never married or had children. He was still living with his mother when he was well over 40. From this, and from the poses of some of his statues depicting boys and young men, some have deduced that Donatello was homosexual — which he might have been, but there isn’t any solid evidence for it. The fact is, there isn’t any solid evidence for any aspect of Donatello’s private life.
The only thing he left us is the extraordinary corpus of his work. It is on magnificent display in Florence at the moment: not just at the exhibition dedicated to Donatello at the Palazzo Strozzi and the Museo Bargello, but also at the Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo.
Unable, for obvious reasons, to exhibit the huge equestrian monument to the military commander known as Gattamelata or the large statues made for Florence’s cathedral, the Strozzi show concentrates on Donatello’s smaller scale sculptures and especially on his low reliefs.
These are a revelation. The perspective in one of the most famous of them — The Feast of Herod, illustrating the horror of Herod and his guests when John the Baptist’s head is brought to them in the middle of dinner — is fascinating. Donatello uses the depiction of distance to show the passage of time, with earlier events further away in pictorial space than those closer.
Nothing like this had been done before. Francesco Caglioti — who organised the Strozzi show and edited the handsome, appropriately scholarly catalogue — thinks Masaccio, working on the revolutionary frescoes of the Brancacci chapel in the 1420s, got his understanding of perspective from Donatello’s work.
Caglioti even suggests Donatello may have been instrumental in Brunelleschi’s invention of mathematically worked-out perspective: the two men, close friends at the time, probably calculated how to depict three dimensions on a flat surface together. Donatello was likely to have been an equal partner, rather than merely adopting what Brunelleschi had invented.
No drawing by Donatello exists. The exquisitely delicate low reliefs in this show are the closest we can get. He uses his chisel like a pencil — though there is no room for mistakes when you are cutting stone. And as your eye traces his lines, you get the impression you are witnessing the creative process: you are seeing him thinking.
The idea that art can express universal truths is not popular at the moment
In The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy, Jacob Burkhardt maintained that the “development of the individual” was one of the essential characteristics of the Italian Renaissance. That claim has since come in for a great deal of criticism, but looking at Donatello’s sculptures and reliefs, it is hard not to think Burkhardt was right — all of Donatello’s sculpted figures are fully developed individuals in a way that sculptures by previous artists are not.
This is particularly true of his depictions of the Virgin and Child. By the time Donatello came to work on this subject, artists had been depicting it for at least 300 years. It seemed a moribund genre: every possible variation had been tried, and there was nothing new to add or do. But Donatello found something new.
He made both Virgin and Child into fully human individuals. To look at the Pazzi Madonna, or the Dudley Madonna, is to be confronted by a mother and child that you could encounter, if you were lucky, on the street today or tomorrow. The Virgin and Child in these works are both exceptionally beautiful. But they are also natural, and the tender emotions they express are completely true to their human essence.
Donatello’s emotional range is extraordinarily wide, and he has as much to say to us today as he did to his fifteenth century contemporaries. He imbues St George with an expression that communicates anxiety as well as nobility: an awareness of danger as well as a determination to confront it. His terrifyingly implacable Judith, poised to strike off Holofernes’s head with one blow of her sword, is as powerfully evoked as the shattered piety of his Mary Magdalene, carved in wood, and emanating both resignation and defiance.
The idea that art can express universal truths is not popular at the moment. Donatello’s work reasserts the universality of great art in profound and persuasive fashion. For that alone, this show is worth the cost of a trip to Florence.
A smaller version of the Strozzi Donatello Exhibition will be shown at the Gemäldegaleri, Berlin from September, and will come to the V&A in London in 2023
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