Skip to content

Donatello on the beach.


Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance
Victoria and Albert Museum

11 February to 11 June 2023 | Curated by Peta Motture and Whitney Kerr-Lewis.


FOR THE LAST ten years, I have seen Donatello’s David almost every day. Not the original in the Bargello, nor the copy normally stood in the Cast Courts at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. This copy of David sits on a balcony overlooking the English Channel on the South Coast of England. I have never seen the inhabitant of the flat behind but often wondered on my walks past: is it a bold statement about sexuality, pose, identity, and/or an interesting ornament picked up in a garden centre? This is a question a Donatello exhibition should answer.


Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance began as Donatello, the Renaissance in Florence, before becoming Donatello: Inventor of the Renaissance in Berlin. Would you rather sculpt or invent or just be The?

NOTE: In The Fortnightly’s online template, illustrations are thumbnails with captions or onward text links embedded. To enlarge an illustration, click on it. To read a caption, hover over the illustration. To play an embedded video in a larger size, click ‘full screen’ option. ‘Esc’ returns you here.

There are three catalogues and different works in each, so it is good to know what is missing. In Florence, for example, I could have seen two life-size, painted wooden crucifixes, by Donatello and Brunelleschi, side by side. According to Vasari, which I read on the tube to South Kensington, Brunelleschi came to see Donatello’s. Pushed for a response, he observed Donatello had put the body of a peasant on the cross, not our Lord Jesus Christ whose body demonstrated perfect form. To which Donatello replied: Criticism is easy. Go make one yourself. A week later Donatello was invited to dinner. The two men met at the market. Brunelleschi told Donatello to go ahead and wait in his home. He entered to find Brunelleschi’s crucifix propped up. Vasari says Donatello stood in amazement at its perfection, let the shopping of milk and eggs fall from his apron, break on the ground, said: ‘You will be allowed to sculpt Christs and I peasants’.


I am back looking at the David on a South Coast balcony. When Giorgio Vasari described the original he referred (in George Bull’s Penguin Classics translation) to a figure ‘so natural in its vivacity and softness that artists find it hardly possible to believe it was not moulded on the living form’. Did everyone stand like this in 1435? When, in 1966, The Daily Telegraph described it as ‘the most kinky and most homosexual masterpiece in the whole of European sculpture’, the art historian and soon-to-be V&A Director John Pope-Hennessy declared himself ‘shocked’. In a lecture the following week at the museum for the 500th anniversary of Donatello’s birth, he told his audience: ‘The David is not only a great masterpiece, but a work of consummate sobriety and seriousness.’ And Donatello, I am sure, still preferred his own crucifix.


So this show is in part the latest instalment of a story of Donatello and the V&A, which involves plaster casts, forgeries, masterpieces and indignant Directors. We are welcomed into the exhibition by another David, originally designed to be a giant marble guardian atop the buttresses of Florence Cathedral. After his two metre height turned out to be far too short for the role, David was modified by Donatello and installed in the Palazzo della Signoria, where through subsequent centuries, long-necked and hip-swaying, he became an emblem of the Florentine Republic. Now closer to eye level, passers by could admire the rock lodged in Goliath’s forehead, another in the sling ready for future battles. There would have been a multi-media touch with a sling for the catapult, now lost, and other details that Donatello may have added for this second siting, or carved for the sky alone: an amaranth wreath around David’s head, the tassled edge of a knotted cloak amongst the smooth dropping fabric and long, elegant fingers, above the giant’s hair and beard. Like Donatello, best to go mutter ‘Speak, damn you, speak!’ For the  Cathedral, meanwhile, to restore his pride, Donatello carved a five metre tall whitewashed terracotta Joshua, that caught the eye as intended, but soon fell apart.


‘Speak, damn you’ was also a Vasari story. Donatello is trained as a goldsmith, amongst the bronze doors and reliquaries of Ghiberti, brooding gold-backed Saints of his friend Masaccio. A Processional Cross here has a gilt silver Christ, evangelist symbols in quatrefoils on the cross arms, glowing glass enamels for the low church light. Did Donatello make one like this? All his goldsmithery is lost. Here is displayed a terracotta Virgin and Child (Mellon Madonna), painted and gilded. There is also a pen and ink drawing showing a solder with his weapon raised over mothers cradling slain children. The bodies are in dense clusters, likely ready for casting a bronze relief titled Massacre of the Innocents. A terracotta model has fingerprints on the reverse, where clay was packed into a wax mould. It shows a flagellation and crucifixion, beneath grand arches and angels holding garlands aloft. The crowded scenes unfold in a deep, interior, theatrical space that still maintains the flat, foreground pressing of the Classical relief, which hit me as foretelling many glories of Donatello still to come.


Donatello forms a partnership with Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, whose neat and orderly account books sit in glass cases, alongside two panels of dancing spiritelli the pair carved for an outdoor pulpit in Prato. Most of these smiling putti only touch the ground with the toes of one foot, conveying rapid movement as they joyfully weave and leap in their shallow panel space against a glinting frescoed background. Twisting around myself in the V&A I glimpse many spiritelli ahead, over the shoulders of a police line-up of reliquary busts. One, the gilded San Rossore has black downcast eye sockets once silvered. A Roman soldier, martyred after his Christian conversion, Rossore gets a wrinkled forehead, punched stubble and finely decorated armour. He is determined to be a contemporary portrait, canny rebuff to guild rules allowing full gilding only for reliquaries.


Fused cheeks of Virgin and Child. An anxious mother and a boisterous child. Meeting the viewer’s gaze, looking at each other, or into the middle distance, foreboding. Small hands around the Virgin’s neck, her long fingers support the child’s head. The Virgin with hands together, in adoration of the Christ Child. Who holds a bird, or tugs her headdress, whilst behind two putti struggle with a festoon, or five angels…In painted terracotta, tempera on panel, bronze roundel the child’s body curves to fit. On a marble tabernacle, for private devotion, on a street corner, to be viewed from below. No date and attribution; I am collecting the possibilities.


Go back: Donatello made four free-standing spiritello for the Siena baptistry font. Balanced on a cockle shell, hands raised to beat a tambourine, bodies twisted in revelrous movement in the round. Taken from a tiny Roman bronze Cupid, or marble sarcophagi, terracotta urns. For the secular context of the Old Medici palace, a spiritello gets Mercury’s winged ankles and Zephyr’s puffing cheeks, a tail. The whirligig that sprayed water pumped from his lips is lost, the catalogue insists that although the penis is ‘lightly drilled’ it was not a contributor to the water show. The star here is bronze Attis-Amorino: head-band with poppy flower, gilded poppy seedpods on a broad leather belt, snake winding around Mercury-winged ankles and sandals. Loose breeches from which buttocks and genitals splay. Clues: the poppy seed a symbol of the Florentine Bartolini family, making them likely patrons, those breeches plundered from a Roman Attis bronze, but no precedent for the whole assemblage. Is it a display of dexterity to delight by confounding the Medici circle? Or it looks like another ‘work of consummate sobriety and seriousness’ is amongst us, albeit with its pants down.


This is my hunch: Donatello has been waiting for us to catch up. Donatello, the artist so site specific that many of his works will still only be seen in the situations for which he made them five hundred years ago. Whose skill at moving between media is fond of evoking a long ago The Medium is the Message, whilst already off introducing some future unknown to his ideas of sexuality, presence, affect, grief, family.  He has gone, go scan for traces in a gallery bookshop’s theory section.


When I first stand in front of Ascension with Christ giving the Keys to St.Peter, one of Donatello’s remarkable rilievo schiacciato (squashed reliefs), Christ seems central to the composition. The groups on either side lead the eye back to him, whilst at the periphery a landscape stretches away along an avenue of trees beyond which a glimpsed city. But looking longer I spot Christ slightly overlapping the figure of Peter, suggesting he is in front of him, which makes Peter’s gaze both up at Jesus and out at us, and could complicate the key handover. A distant apostle on the right side of the marble seems part of the foreground group, but is behind a small, presumably distant tree. Winged angels fill the distant heavens and have a job to do up front with Christ.

Even if I ignore these tiny details that sense of a central action with a periphery soon seems less vital. The long landscape format is a swelling and rippling space in which different vectors, perspectives, eye lines, and scales open up at different points. Inseparable from this is my awareness of the marble itself, Donatello’s improbable creation of clothing, physiognomies, trees, surface and depth, a moment and the infinite, within the ever visible limitations of this material and his tools.

How did this form of the rilievo schiacciato become probable for Donatello? Looking around the V&A I take The Virgin and Child with Five Angels, tightly orchestrated into a frame, the simultaneity of the flat plane held within delicate terracotta modelling of heads and hands, with a sense of dynamic movement in the attending angels. Combine this with Masaccio’s fresco The Tribute Money (reproduced in the catalogue). Its  grouping of figures around Christ, the perspectival landscape that also multiplies across its horizontal spread, opens up within it other points of attention, various plasticities. Add to this a genius for carving and Ascension with Christ giving the Keys to St.Peter is just about possible. Then add the intellectual daring to combine two separate Gospel narratives in one image, plus the necessity for best quality, twenty-first century spot lights at each end, so every marvellous detail is optimised.


Or maybe candlelight, so details flare, flicker and vanish. Then the incongruities of its structure across the wide, landscape format are because it was never meant to be seen all at once, from a static viewpoint, but via a bending, twisting, candle-holding dance of body and perception inside light and dark. I am getting carried away, although Donatello’s Berlin curator, Neville Rowley, said in an online talk he would have chosen candlelight for the squashed reliefs, if the conservators let him.  The precise display and viewing of Ascension is a mystery. Likely made for the Medici’s, it does not appear in their records until 1492, there is no more specific details, the convenient ‘for private devotion’ falls short. Other Donatello reliefs shown here, like the Virgin and Child with Angels (Madonna of the Clouds), seem almost a challenge to make from marble the most confounding lightness of air, flesh, and emotion. Later, narrative bronze reliefs, such as The Miracle of the Mule, have a virtuosic choreography of over 50 figures around the central action. Neither operate on the fundamental level of the Ascension, which seems now the closest an art work can come to God’s act of creating the universe.


After moving to Padua, Donatello was at his busiest. The Virgin and Child reliefs were sent to the Gonzaga in Mantua. Gattamelata, that over life-size equestrian bronze statue, the first such since antiquity, was up on a tall pedestal in the piazza. Donatello wonders whether to visit Francesco Squarcione, get another glimpse at his collection of antiquities, poach an assistant for his own workshop. There were bronze figures and reliefs to finish and install in the Santo, where a Squarcione prodigy, Andrea Mantegna, closely examined The Miracle of the Mule. In his drawing of St James being led to Execution,  Mantegna worked through Donatello’s mix of a central event and its surrounding drama, to rebuff Alberti’s control on the maximum number of figures that make a good painting. When Mantegna saw Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels by his Venetian brother-in-law Bellini, he knew that he must have described to him Donatello’s Paduan reliefs with an infectious accuracy.

Here, too, the old dispute with Brunelleschi about the crucified Christ is resolved, whatever Donatello had felt that evening when he dropped the groceries. Thirty years later a bronze Crucifix for the High Altar of the Santo. Bulging veins in arms outstretched from a cage of protruding rib. The height of its display means looking up into the downturned head, a clear bone structure beneath the tight skin of eye sockets, Christ’s loincloth lofts aflutter. It is an ideal form, wrought of sensation, pain, its death happening in the very cast moment. Involuntarily, I cover my eyes.


In the 1860s the arcade niches in the South Court of the V&A (then the South Kensington Museum) were gradually filled with life-size mosaic portraits of thirty-five influential European artists, a decorative scheme known as the Kensington Valhalla. Donatello was included and in Richard Redgrave’s original oil design shown here he assumes a David-like contrapposto pose, whilst also managing to hold a mallet for carving, some clay modelling tools, plus the carved bronze relief Martelli Mirror, then emblematic of the museum’s fine Donatello collection, but now no longer believed to be by the artist.

Donatello’s inclusion reflected a fascination he held throughout the nineteenth century, from monuments in his native Florence, to a flourishing market in reproductions, all surveyed by the final section of this exhibition. The curators invite us to shift our focus away from whether something is original or fake, careful homage or wilful deception. Instead, their call is to view the ‘immense skill of the (often anonymous) artists who harnessed the essence of the Quattrocento but deepened its relevance for their contemporary audiences.’ Which is helpful, given how many dodgy Donatellos the nineteenth-century museum acquired.

A few support their argument. The rilievo schiacciato of the Virgin and Child (Dudley Madonna) has been related to four centuries of different artists, drawings, designs, written mentions, and scholarly propositions, to end up with a label that reads ‘Possibly c.1450-1530 or after c.1850’. These things get in your head, and a questioned attribution can send a loved museum exhibit straight to the storeroom, but the Dudley Madonna and child’s absorption in one another is a worthy addition to this show’s sequence of such poses, whatever its date of birth. Similarly, I remember  Dead Christ supported by Angels from the National Gallery’s 2018 Bellini and Mantegna show, the jolt it provided there of a familiar iconography suddenly appearing in a new medium. I hope to see it again in better company than Victorian kitsch and over-wrought Donatello memorabilia.

Best, then, to leave the exhibition, head to the V&A’s Cast Courts, where Michelangelo’s David presides over a wondrous assemblage of plaster casts of Medieval and Renaissance art works. Above my head a weaving line of spiritelli dance in the replica version of Donatello’s Cantoria, as I search on ground level for the reproduction panels of his angels from the Padua High Altar. The patina on these casts seems dull and more life-less than usual after the works in the exhibition, but the energy of these courts, those ambitions that underpinned their creation in the museum’s founding, always stirs. To learn by looking, drawing, and copying, being with, is where Donatello’s legacy becomes felt and possible. Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance is a fine and temporary chapter for that ongoing story at the V&A.


David in the rain on the South Coast. I wonder: is there a Goliath? Have we lost that? I will go check tomorrow.

DAVID BERRIDGE lives in Hastings. His novella, The Drawer and a Pile of Bricks, is published by Ma Bibliothèque.


Francesco Caglioti ed. Donatello, the Renaissance (Florence: Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, 2022).
Peta Motture ed. Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance (London: V&A Publishing, 2023).
John Pope-Hennessy, ‘The Fifth Century of Donatello’ in Essays on Italian Sculpture (London: Phaidon, 1968), 22-36.
Neville Rowley, Live-Tour in Donatello. Inventor of the Renaissance.
Giorgio Vasari, ‘Donatello’ in Lives of the Artists: Volume 1, trans. George Bull  (London: Penguin Classics, 1987), 174-190.

See also, from The Fortnightly Review archive: ‘The beginnings of Greek sculpture’ by Walter Pater and ‘On Sculpture’ by Anthony O’Hear.


Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *