by Giacomo Donati. Cover image: Donatello, Attis–Amorino, ca. 1435-1440. Exhibition view at “Donatello, The Renaissance”, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, 2022. © Photo Ela Bialkowska, OKNOstudio
A solitary artist, a genius and an experimenter, Donatello’s entire work is vast, but as a whole, it seems like a repetition, with continuous experimentation of style, perspective and scale. In its ensemble, his work appears simple and always ahead of time.
His works, his conception and invention always seem unpredictable; it is difficult to draw a definite and logical outline around his work. He gives the viewer the space and the option to try and fill in some void.
Visiting the exhibition and walking through the works, I wondered what ties together pieces that look so different. What is the fulcrum that connects them?
It is a difficult question to answer. Donatello’s work is a collection of images and emotions. The curator, therefore, accumulates Donatello’s works to compare them with masterpieces by artists such as Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Andrea Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Raphael, and Michelangelo. He then juxtaposes them in their new temporary site in Palazzo Strozzi. The exhibition space becomes his new home and ideal nest, right inside his hometown.
A SENSUAL REALITY
Having the opportunity to see a vast collection of Donatello’s works together, we feel drawn to compare the different results of such various research. For example, we can compare the sensual and ambiguous beauty of his bronze sculpture David-Mercurio (1408-1409) with the austerity and hardness of the San Rossore Reliquary (1424-1427), a bust of a heroic ancient soldier that is small in size but already has a monumental feeling and flavour to it.
Or with the simplicity and closeness of reality in the posture, body and face of the marble statue San Giovanni Battista di Casa Martelli (1442), a figure that expresses feelings of reality and unreality at the same time.
What they have in common is the artist’s desire to always seek a solution and transform reality in a personal way. His sculptures are not linked by the same style but rather by the fact that Donatello invents a new opportunity for experimentation each time, such as the stiacciato, a method of sculpting in a thin relief so that the composition stands out from a flat surface, allowing him to play with perspective. Through the rooms of Palazzo Strozzi, it is now possible to admire this technique in a white marble depiction of the Virgin and Child, also known as the Dudley Madonna (1440).
The Tuscan genius has always been searching for the next human model to depict and then reshape it and use it to change art history.
His greatest inspiration was the reality surrounding him, with the people and spaces that composed it. But he took this reality and imagined it plastically in a new way. We can see examples of how he studied postures and facial expressions in his marble David (1408-1409). Compared to Michelangelo’s, it respects the early age of the subject and his non-muscularity more realistically.
Reality in Donatello is sometimes like a boundary to reach, a reality that wants to be dominated and modified. He was a creator of beauty; it may look like his sculptures were not complicated to make, but only apparently, because only he could have created them and studied the subjects and reality in that specific way. He’s an artist who always needs to be decoded and is still a source of inspiration for contemporary sculpture.
The American sculptor Charles Ray comes to my mind, an artist who is always related to realism and the nature of sculpture. The posture and innocent face of one of his most important works, Boy with a Frog (2009), reminds me of the marble David or the San Giovanni Battista. Another thing he has in common with Donatello is his relationship with scale and proportion.
Proportion has always been a source of experimentation in Donatello’s work, a scale and a dimension that was always related to the real world.
To me, Donatello’s sculpture is a sculpture of hope, embracing Renaissance humanism and always staying humble to reality.
Giacomo Donati is an undergraduate student in Arts Curating at Istituto Marangoni Firenze.