Opening on Saturday, 11 February 2023, The V&A museum has the first major UK exhibition to explore the work of the Renaissance master Donatello. The exhibition aims to provide a fresh vision of the artist and his impact on both the cultural and artistic development of this crucial time in the history of art.
Arguably the greatest sculptor of all time, Donatello (c.1386–1466) was born in Florence, Italy. Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, known as Donatello, spent his early career in Florence when the city’s artistic production was flourishing.
Like many sculptors of the time, Donatello initially trained as a goldsmith before joining the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, the leading bronze sculptor in Florence. While there, between about 1404 and 1407, he would have honed his modeling skills, working with the wax and clay used in bronze-casting.
Donatello also quickly established himself as a marble carver, mainly through his early commissions for Florence Cathedral, whose sculptural program provided artists with regular work. Throughout a career lasting over 60 years, his extraordinary sculpture was at the heart of the revolution in art and culture taking place in 15th-century Italy.
Always at the cutting edge, Donatello combined the growing interest in ancient Greece and Rome with familiar traditions. Working in the full range of sculptural materials and techniques, including marble, bronze, wood, terracotta, and stucco, he contributed to major commissions of church and state; was an intimate of the Medici family and their circle in Florence, and was highly sought after in other Italian centers.
The V&A’s Italian Renaissance sculpture collection – the most extensive outside Italy – forms part of the Museum’s diverse, world-class holdings of decorative art and design. Together with the spectacular Cast Courts, which display the renowned nineteenth-century plaster cast collection, these collections provide an unrivaled resource in the UK for the study of medieval and Renaissance sculpture.
About The Exhibition
The exhibition showcases works never seen before in the UK, including Donatello’s early marble David produced in 1408–09. The biblical figure David was both a religious hero and a symbol of the city of Florence. This sculpture, one of Donatello’s earliest important commissions, demonstrates his exceptional skill in marble carving. His novel composition combines the curved pose characteristic of the Gothic style with the individualized face of an idealized, alert youth.
Originally intended for Florence Cathedral, this statue was repurposed in 1416 as a civic emblem for the Palazzo della Signoria, the city’s town hall.
Another highlight is the bronze Attis-Amorino from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.
There is also the spectacular reliquary bust of San Rossore from the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, Pisa, and bronzes from the High Altar of the Basilica of St Anthony in Padua.
For the first time, the V&A’s exquisitely carved shallow relief of the Ascension with Christ giving the keys to St Peter is displayed alongside the Madonna of the Clouds from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and Desiderio da Settignano’s Panciatichi Madonna from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, providing an exclusive opportunity to see these works together. Through these and other exceptional loans, the exhibition offers visitors a unique vision of Donatello’s genius and central role at this critical time in European culture.
Focusing primarily on Donatello’s lifetime and immediate followers, the exhibition combines a thematic approach with chronology, encompassing the inter-relationship between sculpture, paintings, drawings, and goldsmiths’ work. Donatello’s innovative technique and his ability to combine ideas from both classical and medieval sculpture to create works that were novel, yet with an element of the traditional, are expressed throughout the exhibition.
Key works by the master himself are complemented by carefully selected works by Donatello’s contemporaries and followers that explore and expand on the sculptor’s major place within the development of Renaissance art and its context, as well as inter-relationships across materials.
Comprising around 130 objects, the exhibition also incorporates a significant number of objects from the V&A’s own collections.
Donatello’s Florentine Foundations
The first section focuses on Donatello’s Florentine Foundations, amidst the burgeoning of the city’s Renaissance sculpture. He produced his first sculptures in marble for the Opera del Duomo, such as the David and gained experience of working in wax, clay and bronze in Lorenzo Ghiberti’s workshop. The friendships, rivalries and collaborations are drawn out through these early experiences, including the inter-relationship with painters such as Masaccio.
As well as sculpture, there are drawings and models on display. No goldsmiths’ work by Donatello survives, but a sense of its importance in his sculptural practice is provided by fundamental works from the medieval and Renaissance period, such as the head of God the Father by Beltramino de Zuttis.
The impact of his early experience manifests in Donatello’s partnership with Michelozzo from c.1425–34, explored here through their Catasto declarations for tax assessment, as well as sculpture created in their joint workshops, including marble and mosaic panels and a bronze capital showing dancing spiritelli from the exterior pulpit of Prato Cathedral (from the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Prato).
Written out by Michelozzo, Donatello’s portata (declaration of debts and expenses) notes that the sculptors entered a legal partnership in about 1425. This invaluable snapshot of his activities and associations also lists debts and payments due in relation to the Reliquary bust of San Rossore and the baptismal font in the Siena Baptistery.
A sculptor and architect, Michelozzo brought his experience of casting, administrative ability and a distinctive yet complementary style of carving. The partners shared workshops in Florence and nearby Pisa, then under Florentine control, where they produced architectural sculpture for various Italian cities.
Maso di Bartolomeo (1406–1456) was a talented goldsmith, sculptor and founder who assisted Donatello and Michelozzo on the pulpit for Prato Cathedral. He created this richly decorated casket to house the holy relic of the Virgin’s girdle. Inspired by classical forms, Maso also drew on motifs used by Donatello, like the winged wreath under the lid and the charming dancing spiritelli (“little spirits’ or ‘sprites’).
These panels are from the pulpit for the exterior of Prato Cathedral to display the Virgin Mary’s girdle. Donatello largely carved these joyous spiritelli, cleverly evoking a sense of movement. The addition of pottery mosaic reflects Donatello’s interest in color and mixed media.
These two angels formed part of the funerary monument for Bartolomeo Aragazzi in Montepulciano. The poet and scholar commissioned it from Donatello and Michelozzo’s partnership, but the surviving sculptures are all by Michelozzo. The angels – their wingtips later additions – probably emerged from curtains and hovered on clouds, flanking a resurrected Christ above the effigy depicting the deceased.
Tradition and Innovation
Donatello belonged to a new generation of artists working in the early years of the 15th century that celebrated and creatively responded to the classical past. He often adapted or integrated ancient Greek and Roman motifs to suit his specific purpose. The second section, Tradition and Innovation, shows how he imbued his works with a sense of classicism through his rendering of form, facial features and drapery. The sculptor married this fresh approach with more traditional elements of Gothic style and imagery that would have been familiar to his patrons.
This section explores the impact of Donatello’s innovations in three key areas: the portrait bust, low relief carvings and the expressive intimacy of the mother and son relationship in his sculptures of the Virgin and Child.
Unlike earlier reliquary busts, which create an idealized image of a saint, Donatello’s San Rossore, the Pisan name for Saint Luxurius, appears as a ‘real’ person with individualized features. The artist’s expressive treatment may have played a key role in the development of the Renaissance portrait bust. His training as a goldsmith probably influenced the chiseled decoration.
The Florentine sculptor Desiderio da Settignano most closely followed Donatello’s technique of rilievo schiacciato (meaning ‘squashed relief’). This relief displays a tender realism between the mother and child, who wriggles with joy on her lap.
Images of the Virgin and Child carried religious and protective meanings and were displayed in churches, homes and on street corners. Donatello’s sensitive compositions generally depict a close bond between mother and child derived from medieval precedents.
Donatello demonstrates his sensitive modeling and love of decorative surfaces in this tondo. The terracotta was originally gilded, providing a glittering image of the Virgin adoring the Christ Child. Wax seraphim (six-winged angels) and vases, motifs found elsewhere in Donatello’s work, adorn the background.
These are placed in context with precedents from which he took inspiration, and with works by those who followed. These original and replicated images – such as the V&A’s Chellini Madonna, the Louvre’s Piot Madonna and the Madonna of Humility from the Kunshistorisches Museum in Vienna – could carry multiple meanings according to their context or role in devotional practice.
Given by Donatello to his doctor Giovanni Chellini in return for treatment, this roundel depicts the Virgin as the ideal mother receiving a tray of sweetmeats, a common gift to new mothers in Renaissance Italy. The tender embrace of mother and child fits neatly within the round shape. Uniquely, the reverse was designed as a mold to replicate the image in glass.
This glass version was cast from a replica mold of the reverse of Donatello’s Chellini Madonna. In the Renaissance, glass was a costly material associated with purity.
Giovanni Pisano combines classicism with Gothic elegance in this Virgin and Child tondo. When viewed from the left, the Virgin’s hand points to the infant, who directs his blessing to the onlooker. Like other 15th-century artists, Donatello doubtless studied Pisano’s sculpture and may have been inspired by this work when conceiving his own Virgin and Child roundels.
Donatello probably designed this relief to be seen from below, so that the protruding faces enhance the close bond between mother and child. The color adds to the illusion of their ‘real’ presence. The Madonna’s thoughtful gaze signals her meditation on Christ’s future sacrifice for humankind.
Bronzes: Sacred and Secular
Bronzes: Sacred and Secular focuses on a carefully selected group of works in bronze, demonstrating how Donatello responded to the needs of patrons and different contexts – public and private, sacred and secular – in this expensive material.
Working with expert founders and assistants, Donatello produced some of his most inventive works, transforming wax models into bronzes through the lost-wax casting process. He excelled at capturing the expressive subtleties and surface textures to which the medium is particularly suited. Its durability and strength were equally important, enabling compositions that would be impossible or risky in other media.
Donatello exploited the strength and qualities of bronze to create this joyous and animated figure. Its name – Attis-Amorino – is inspired by its open breeches, which suggest the Phrygian shepherd Attis, and the wings of a young cupid (amorino) on its back.
But it also has the tail of a faun, the winged feet of Mercury and a snake associated with Hercules, making its identity unclear. Its belt is decorated with poppy pods, a symbol of the Bartolini family who probably commissioned the statue.
Bronze was the most prized of all sculptural materials in the Renaissance. Making and owning works created from this costly and challenging material added to the prestige of both artist and patron. It embodied power, authority and eternity and provided a link to the classical past – qualities that patrons like the Medici, the most powerful family in Florence at the time, were keen to claim and display.
Donatello’s deep interest in ancient sculpture led him to gather his own collection. The sculptor would have studied works similar to this fragment from a full-size statue, which probably depicts the adopted son of Emperor Hadrian. This head shares similarities with Donatello’s Head of a bearded man, like the sensitive rendering of the face and the freely modeled eyebrows.
With its jagged treatment of the neck, this striking head may have been broken from a larger work, or Donatello might have intentionally mimicked a fragment from an antique sculpture. The upward glance and torsion of the neck suggest a divine calling, with the figure – perhaps a prophet – turning to experience a vision.
Padua and Northern Italy
The section Padua and Northern Italy explores Donatello’s ten-year sojourn in Padua (1443–54) and how this was significant to artistic developments in the city, as well as nearby centers such as Ferrara and Venice. This section highlights Donatello’s inter-relationship with and impact on both sculptors (Giovanni da Pisa) and painters (Mantegna, Bellini, Schiavone and Zoppo).
In this new intellectual landscape, he interacted with an artistic community led by Francesco Squarcione whose workshop and collection of antiquities offered a training ground for artists.
Donatello’s busy workshop produced powerful bronze sculptures, mostly in collaboration with a local founder, Andrea Conti. The most significant of these are the Gattemalata, the first monumental free-standing equestrian statue since antiquity, and his commissions for the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, known as ‘the Santo.’
The Miracle of the Mule in particular reveals his innovative approach to creating space and coloristic effects. It depicts a starved mule, given a choice between food and the Host. It kneels in front of Saint Anthony to receive communion, convincing its non-believing owner of Christ’s presence. The use of gilding guides the eye to the focal point of the Eucharist and some of the onlookers spill into our space, drawing us into the crowd. This is one of four bronze reliefs illustrating the miracles of Saint Anthony made by Donatello and his workshop for the High Altar of the Santo.
Devotion and Emotion
Through both his designs and use of materials, Donatello excelled at portraying religious imagery in ways that prompted emotional responses. His devotional images were designed to inspire empathy, bringing the faithful closer to God. In Devotion and Emotion, the imagery of the Passion was often inspired by religious dramas performed in Florence at the time, with which Donatello would have been familiar. The V&A’s Lamentation relief and the Bargello’s Crucifixion, provide a focus in comparison to works by contemporaries and close followers.
Donatello enhances the agony of Christ’s mother and her companions in this Lamentation scene through the varied treatment of the bronze. The polished, palpably soft flesh of Christ contrasts with the non-finito (unfinished) surface of the weeping women, some of whom tear their hair out in grief. The deliberate voids perhaps revealed a colored backdrop, now lost.
Bellano worked closely with Donatello in his native Padua, where he made this relief for the church or Santissima Trinità. Its emotional intensity betrays the older master’s impact. The crowd, with mouths open, seems to voice its grief at Christ’s death. In contrast, the man shown in profile, possibly the donor, appears unmoved by the emotional event but may instead be deep in contemplation.
Homage to Donatello
Since Donatello’s death in 1466, artists and designers have looked back to his innovative practice, emulating his unique style and ground-breaking techniques across a variety of media. Recognized as one of the greatest living artists during his lifetime, he continued to shape the Renaissance long after his death. The final exhibition section, Homage to Donatello, highlights his legacy.
Donatello’s influence endured throughout the years but, in the 19th century, his popularity flourished among a broader public thanks to a rekindled fascination with the Renaissance and the increasing accessibility of the sculptor’s work both in print and in museum collections. This prompted many artists to produce works copied from and inspired by his sculptural masterpieces.
This intimate relief of the nursing Madonna was commissioned from Dossena in the Renaissance style. The sculptor has perfectly captured the feeling of Donatello in the tender devotion between mother and Child, the use of the tondo and his mastery of low relief. To enhance his remarkable carving, he developed a secret chemical recipe to age his works.
Giovanni Bastianini was infamous for his ability to harness the Renaissance style. Many of his sculptures were sold fraudulently as 15th-century works, although some argue this was done without his knowledge. This relief was bought by the V&A as 15th-century but was reattributed when Bastianini’s talent was revealed. The cherubs show his extraordinary ability to mimic Donatello’s shallow carving technique, rilievo schiacciato.
This is a beautiful exhibition and a rare opportunity to see so many works by Donatello and his contemporaries. Look closely at the dates on the photo captions here as some items are nearly 2,000 years old and some are under 100 years.
It became obvious Donatello was prolificate as this must only be a proportion of his lifetime’s work. And it was also clear he was not the only producing spectacular work during the Rennaisance. But his style was incredibly tender and this exhibition allows us the time to stop and study that detail.
Exhibition title: Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance
Dates: 11 February – 11 June 2023
Location: Sculpture Gallery, V&A South Kensington, Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL
Adult tickets: £20
Official Website: www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/donatello-sculpting-the-renaissance
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