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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

Donatello: Add, subtract, multiply

Ours is a fragmentary world, but also a connected one. Heads bow in contemplation of personal devotions, but we are joined by concepts spread via common modes of exchange. It was much the same in fifteenth century Italy, where religious images for private contemplation used tropes familiar from places and acts of public worship; everyone could recognise them, and had a shared sense of what they meant. The sculptor Donatello, arguably the principal artist of the period, explored and exploited this world and is currently the subject of a revelatory exhibition at the V&A.

Like many innovators, Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (c.1386 -1466) had a traditional education in the basics of his trade. Studying in Florence with Lorenzo Ghiberti, for whom he worked on the Duomo, he was part of the bottega system in which masters schooled a group of students in a variety of skills to build their knowledge and help deliver commissioned works. Specialists were called in as needed, widening pupils’ exposure to other techniques, though Donatello already had experience in goldsmithing from a previous teacher.

Through such a grounding, travel to Rome – an overgrown ruin still a century away from Raphael’s efforts to restore it, but whose past glories were now beginning to be discovered – and partnership with Michelozzo di Bartolomeo Michelozzi, Donatello soon received commissions of his own. These included statues and what might be thought of as their opposite: the very flatly carved rilievo schiacciato, literally 'squashed relief', that he made his own. With both, he merged classical thinking and the new science of perspective for a more intimate, emotional approach, though for me, the exhibition’s accomplishment is in showing three other aspects of Donatello’s work: materials, scale and location.

Though highly proficient in marble, clay and terracotta (the latter’s fired form), Donatello was also comfortable using metals, gems and enamel. Many of his works were painted or gilded, in whole or part, and he later moved into bronze, the most challenging medium of the time thanks in part to the associated lost wax casting process. Donatello not only moved freely between these very different materials but frequently combined them, and the exhibition brings together many such pieces where this mixed approach has survived.

There are wooden tabernacles with some figures painted but some carved in relief; exquisite plaques, chased in silver yet inset with richly coloured enamel portraits; a tiny figure also in enamel though finished with gold detail; and stone cherubs framed in mosaic made from crushed pottery. This was a revelation to me, and illustrated the possibilities of the period’s artistic scene in a way I’d not previously understood. It is summed up by the extraordinary dual purpose Chellini Madonna, a bronze salver that is a finished work in itself yet also a mould for glass casts of the same image. Such ingenuity seems to anticipate a future age, as does Donatello’s filigree bronze Lament whose rough-finished figures immediately prompt thoughts of Rodin’s impassioned work.

Thus to the second important tenet of Donatello’s oeuvre – scale. The sculptures alone vary tremendously, from little bronze figures the size of toy soldiers through life-size reliquary busts and a haunting crucifix to the outsized head of a horse, meant for a vast equine sculpture along ancient Roman lines. Perhaps unsurprisingly, though, the majority of his works seem to have been executed in a more comfortably practical form, including a number of bronze figures depicting gods and cherubs. Impressively – indeed, almost irrepressibly – lifelike is the Attis-Amorino, a jolly example of the former who appears to have been plucked from a bacchanalian revel even if scholars cannot actually determine who or what he represents thanks to Donatello’s mischievous mixing of attributes.

The ease with which large and small works could be produced and the inherent flexibility of some of the materials used hint at a related quality that the curators also bring to the fore: reproducibility. Fundamental to the practice of Donatello, his workshop and their contemporaries was the planning and execution of works that were intended from the start to be made in different media, for different markets and with minor changes. The exhibition neatly illustrates this by bringing together groups of such works, such as five ‘plaquettes’ of the Virgin and Child for home use that followed a design by Donatello but were produced by others in copper, bronze, bone and so on. Similarly his model for an altar is made of terracotta but the clay was moulded, allowing many copies to be made at low cost and by less skilled hands.

The final feature of Donatello’s output that this exhibition brought out for me was the diversity of locations for which he produced works. Home and church were the most obvious of these, of course, though even here there were many opportunities less apparent to modern eyes – a wonderful, Romanesque bronze column capital from Milan, say, or those stone cherubs. Carved in deep relief yet overlapping each other’s backs and fronts, they formed a complex, convex frieze for the drum-like lower half of an external pulpit that wrapped around an outside corner of Prato’s cathedral like a tourelle – Donatello and Michelozzi collaborated to produce it.

But the spaces between these two daily destinations were also important. A production line approach to secular street furniture would characterise the streets of Paris in five hundred years’ time, but Donatello originated a sculpted Madonna design for affixing to the outside walls of houses and other buildings to bless them; it was ‘released’ in painted plaster, tin-glazed terracotta and other versions.

As with the Raphael show at the National Gallery last year London is sadly seeing a reduced iteration of the Florence original, which was conceived by Francesco Caglioti with Peta Motture as lead curator, but that takes nothing away from the brilliance of what is on offer at South Kensington. A coolly minimalist ‘set’ of simplified arches and vaults gives each section plenty of space to breath and the pieces are arranged intelligently and sometimes wittily, like the crescent of busts at head height. Oh, and any visitor querying the apparent absence of Donatello’s most famous piece, his androgenous David, finds an answer in the final chapter of the exhibition, devoted to those who paid homage to, were inspired by or just plain faked this remarkable artist; a nineteenth century copy. It is therefore fitting that a useful complement to the show can be found a few steps away in the museum’s refurbished Cast Courts, where a superb set of displays explain how the Victorians took Renaissance achievements in replicating and diffusing art several steps further, with the plaster cast, the photograph and the electrotype. I think Donatello would have approved.

‘Donatello: Sculpting The Renaissance’ continues at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7 until 11 June 2023

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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