Discover Renaissance Master Donatello at the Museum of Biblical Art

The Duomo in Florence shares its Renaissance riches for the first time.


If you haven’t visited New York’s Museum of Biblical Art (MoBiA) recently, now is the time to go: the museum is offering a rare, if not once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Renaissance masterpieces here in the city in its current show, “Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral” (see Donatello Looms Larger Than Life at the Museum of Biblical Art).

With pieces by Donatello, Nanni di Banco, Luca della Robbia, and Filippo Brunelleschi, the exhibition showcases “work that normally never leaves Italy, and, indeed in some cases, has never left Florence,” co-curator Timothy Verdon, director of Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, told artnet News.

Of particular note are two larger-than-life religious sculptures, measuring over six feet tall, by Donatello and di Banco (see At the Museum of Biblical Art, Donatello’s “Saint John” Shows What Art Looked Like Before Museums). The Evangelist John, by Donatello, is said to have inspired Michelangelo to create his famed High Renaissance masterpiece Moses. (As a boy, the artist would have encountered the statue every day in the Piazza del Duomo.) For both works, this exhibition marks the first time in their more than 600-year lifespans that they have ever left the square surrounding the Florence Cathedral, no less journeying across the Atlantic Ocean.

Transporting two tons of marble is no easy task—”even professional movers aren’t used to this” type of shipping, admitted Verdon—but MoBiA managed to pull it off in dramatic fashion.

These early Renaissance works mark the beginning of the Western tradition of monumental public statuary, a tradition that is very much in evidence here in New York, with its wealth of large-scale public artworks. The show “offers New Yorkers an essential key to understanding themselves, their city, their urban identity,” says Verdon.

All of the pieces in the exhibition are drawn from the Museo dell’Opera, a branch of the city’s board of cathedral works. Donatello created artwork for the Duomo for over four decades, an affiliation that largely defines his career. “To the extent that Donatello is a great artist, this is because of this association with the cathedral,” exhibition co-curator Daniel Zolli told artnet News.

While the cathedral itself, the first large-scale dome built in the West since ancient times, can obviously only be seen in Florence, MoBiA is currently home to the next best thing: two scale wooden models of the engineering marvel, attributed to architect Brunelleschi’s workshop. The models, however, make sure to preserve Brunelleschi’s trade secrets. “Thse are to impress his patrons,” explained Zolli. “None of the engineering is conveyed.”

Other highlights include a life-size Donatello piece that depicts a prophet, possibly Habakkuk, which has been dubbed Lo Zuccone—a reference in Italian to the man’s bald, pumpkin-like head. The expressive-looking statue, Zolli was bemused to discover, has allegedly experienced renewed popularity in recent years due to its resemblance to Harry Potter villain Voldemort.

“Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From Florence Cathedral” will be on view at the Museum of Biblical Art, 1865 Broadway (at 61st Street), New York City, through June 14, 2015.

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