Ask an art historian about the 15th century in Italian art—also known as the Quattrocento—and they’ll probably bring up Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper or the early career works of Michelangelo. Meanwhile, assessments of the Florentine sculptor Donatello often pale in comparison with praise of his superstar contemporaries.
Donatello deserves better, argues a blockbuster new exhibition. On view through July 31 at two museums in Florence, Italy, “Donatello: The Renaissance” makes a provocative case for placing the sculptor at the center of the era, writes Elisabetta Povoledo for the New York Times.
Preeminent Donatello scholar Francesco Caglioti, of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, curated the encyclopedic exhibition, which spans the galleries of two institutions: the Palazzo Strozzi and the Museo Nazionale del Bargello.
“This is an extremely ambitious exhibit,” Caglioti tells the Times. “It gives a sense of Donatello as epicenter. … Because Donatello is [a] father of the Renaissance.”
Arturo Galansino, director of the Palazzo Strozzi, takes the argument one step further, telling the Wall Street Journal’s J.S. Marcus that the exhibition identifies Donatello as “the inventor of the Renaissance.”
The Florentine museums collaborated with the Staatliche Museum in Berlin and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to secure a staggering 130 Donatello works, with masterpieces on loan from more than 50 institutions around the world, including the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Per a statement, variations of the show will travel to Berlin later this year and London in 2023.
Curators paired Donatello’s masterpieces with works by Filippo Brunelleschi, Giovanni Bellini, Michelangelo and Raphael to showcase his profound impact on generations of Italian artists. The enormous effort required to unite so many works means that a show of this magnitude might never take place again.
“Some exhibitions are once in a lifetime, but this show is the first time in history,” said Galansino at a press conference earlier this month, per Jane Farrell of the Florentine.
Born in Florence around 1386 and initially trained as a goldsmith, Donatello went on to study classical sculpture and develop an array of innovative techniques within the medium.
While some people think of Michelangelo’s marble David (1501–1504) as a work without parallel, Donatello actually sculpted one of the statue’s key inspirations: a bronze David that depicts the biblical hero standing triumphantly on the head of a slain Goliath. Commissioned between 1435 and 1450, likely for the Medici family, the sculpture was conceived independently of any architectural surroundings. Scholars therefore consider Donatello’s David the first “free-standing nude” in Renaissance history, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Donatello formed a close artistic friendship with Brunelleschi, the architect and sculptor who designed the impressive red-brick dome of Florence Cathedral. Together, the pair revived a classical tradition of working in terracotta in sculpture.
The artist also established a reputation for schiacciato, a method of sculpting in a subtle relief so that the composition stands out from a flat surface. Per the statement, his technique “involved producing a relief with minimal variations compared to the background, to suggest the illusion of depth through numerous and very thin degrees of thickness.”
Donatello’s eye for nuanced, layered sculpting allowed him to play with perspective. His Saint George Slaying the Dragon and Freeing the Princess (1415–1417), which uses fine carving to emphasize how the saint stands out in three-dimensional space, is considered one of the first applications of perspective to sculpture or painting, notes the Wall Street Journal. The artist also experimented with viewers’ perception of space in his sculpted relief The Feast of Herod, which is on view in Florence for the first time since 1427.
One of the most famous examples of the schiacciato technique is a white marble rendering of the Virgin and Child (1440), also known as the Dudley Madonna. The depiction of the Virgin Mary holding a baby Jesus proved immensely popular after Donatello’s death due to its simplicity and intimacy. According to an exhibition walkthrough, it may have even influenced Michelangelo’s designs for the lunettes of Christ’s ancestors in the Sistine Chapel.
Donatello’s Madonna also influenced similar works by Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Just as Donatello has been relatively overlooked in favor of his contemporaries, Gentileschi and a handful of other Renaissance women artists are just starting to get their due—a trend evidenced by a recent exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“Donatello: The Renaissance” follows the artist’s life and work chronologically, moving through his early years in his native city and a long-term residency in Padua. By the end of his life, Donatello’s work was primarily financed by the wealthy and powerful Medici family. He died in Florence in 1466, at the age of 79 or 80.
As the statement notes, “[T]ogether with Brunelleschi and Masaccio, [Donatello] set in motion the Renaissance in Florence, developing new ideas and techniques that were to define the history of Western art forever.”