A Once-in-a-Lifetime Donatello Show Argues That Sculpture, Not Painting, Was the Ultimate Renaissance Art Form
The artist hasn't had a major show in 40 years.
For the first time in 40 years, Italian Renaissance master Donatello (ca. 1386–1466) has a major solo show—and the curator, Francesco Caglioti, hopes the blockbuster exhibition will help elevate the master sculptor to the level of fame enjoyed by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo.
The reason Donatello has been eclipsed in the public eye by his countrymen?
“It’s simply due to the fact that he was a sculptor and not a painter,” Caglioti, a medieval art history professor at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, told Artnet News. “Donatello was a pioneer of perspective, and his work anticipated photography and cinema. He is really very modern. Donatello is the best sculptor, perhaps, who ever existed.”
The exhibition’s two venues, the Bargello National Museum and the Palazzo Strozzi, both in Florence, approached Caglioti about curating the show some years ago, but he’s been researching the artist for around 30 years, and believes Donatello’s contributions to the art-historical canon have been wrongfully overshadowed by achievements in painting.
“The Renaissance was the triumph of sculpture,” Caglioti said. “And Donatello was a father of the Renaissance.”
The artists of the period were inspired largely by marble statues carved by the ancient Greeks and Romans, not paintings, of which few survived.
“We have to change our perspective on art history,” Caglioti said. “The Renaissance is a sculptural period par excellence.”
By bringing together an unprecedented number of works by the sculptor, “Donatello: The Renaissance” could very well help upset that hierarchy.
The 130 pieces on view in what’s been dubbed a “once-in-a-lifetime” outing pair Donatello’s sculpture with paintings by his contemporaries and artists who came hundreds of years later, illustrating his lasting influence.
The show includes pieces from the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; the Louvre in Paris; the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Caglioti was also able to secure loans of Donatello sculptures that had never before traveled, such as works from the baptistry in Siena and the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua, and even the bronze sacristy doors from across town at the Basilica of San Lorenzo.
For the show, many of the works have been carefully conserved by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, a public institute of the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage that specializes in art restoration. The delicate task required soft-bristle brushes and porcupine quills, treating the centuries-old works with steamed demineralised water and other gentle cleansers before applying a protective coat of microcrystalline wax.
“They cleaned the bronzes, discovering the very gold covering that was completely hidden by centuries and centuries of dirt and filth,” Caglioti said. “They are very brilliant, with a golden surface that nobody had seen for centuries—they looked almost black.”
(The cleaned works will be shown alongside sculptures that have yet to undergo conservation, and will head to the Opificio delle Pietre Dure once the exhibition ends.)
The show also includes the artist’s pioneering marble sculpture St. George (1415–17), made for Florence’s Orsanmichele church and an early example of perspective in Renaissance art, and his bronze David (ca. 1440), believed by some art historians to be Western art’s first free-standing nude male sculpture since ancient times. (Both are from the Bargello.)
Having the show in Florence means visitors can follow with a trip to the city’s Opera del Duomo Museum, home to an impressive collection of Donatello works.
“If you come to Florence,” Caglioti said, “you will have a very very large vision of Donatello’s oeuvre.”
See more works from the show below.
“Donatello: The Renaissance” is on view at the Bargello National Museum, Via del Proconsolo, 4, 50122, Florence, and the Palazzo Strozzi, Piazza degli Strozzi, 50123, Florence, March 19–July 31, 2022. It will travel as “Donatello: Founder of the Renaissance” to the Staatliche Museum Preußischer Kulturbesitz, Stauffenbergstraße 41, 10785 Berlin, Germany, September 2, 2022–January 8, 2023, and the Victoria & Albert Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL, United Kingdom, February 11–June 11, 2023.
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