Renaissance Rivalries

John Haber
in New York City

Sculpture in the Age of Donatello

You may not know the early Renaissance in Italy as the age of Donatello, but the Museum of Biblical Art makes the case that you should. Not only did painting take on greater weight, giving gods and humans alike the depth and presence of sculpture, but sculpture showed the way. And no one pushed sculpture as hard as Donatello.

He treated the Bible as a portrait of humanity, with an unprecedented physical and psychological intensity. From the twists of a beard or a thigh to the tautness of lips and eyes, his figures confront the viewer with their desires, their isolation, their closeness to God, and their crimes. And he brought to sculpture the very devices that one may associate with painting, such as perspective. He flattened features and lengthened upper bodies to make them tower over the viewer, both metaphorically and literally, in figures that overrun or even dissolve the architecture around them. Donatello's Saint John the Evangelist (Museo dell'Opera dell Duomo, c. 1408–1415)Nor was he alone, for he worked in an age of sculpture, not just learning from others and exceeding them, but often turning their very strengths against them. With "Sculpture in the Age of Donatello," the museum charts the influences and rivalries that shaped an era.

The age of the Duomo

The fifteenth century was also the age of the Duomo—the cathedral known formally as Santa Maria del Fiore. Begun shortly before 1300, it became the visible emblem of Florence and a meeting place for citizens and artists. A competition in 1401 for doors to the nearby Baptistery, with victory to Lorenzo Ghiberti, produced the gilded reliefs that defined a new style. Filippo Brunelleschi, who had lost the competition, painted the cathedral in 1425 and stood in front of it, daring others to look at both the painting and the plaza in a mirror and to tell them apart. He had introduced linear perspective into painting. Halfway through the century, Brunelleschi also designed the dome that gives the cathedral its familiar name.

Donatello was a vital part of that story, too. He worked with Ghiberti on one set of Baptistery doors, and he picked right up on perspective even before Masaccio in painting. When his Saint George slays the dragon, in a relief from 1417, the scene plays out against a cave mouth and colonnade to either side, receding toward a vanishing point with geometric precision. He also contributed to a cantoria, or loft for organists and singers, to the Duomo—and the museum, as what is said to be its last exhibition before closing, takes pains to associate its works with specific cathedral projects. The show opens with copies after three of Ghiberti's reliefs, and it closes with three wood models for the dome, probably also copies. They show Renaissance architecture's newfound interest in not just the shape one sees, but also the technical infrastructure that makes it possible.

If the story so far sounds a trifle biased or narrow, the show does consist entirely of loans from the cathedral's museum, the Museo dell'Opera dell Duomo. That accounts for some exaggerated claims. You may have read that an unnamed prophet, called Zuccone, is Donatello's greatest work—an honor others might accord instead to one of his two statues of David twenty years apart, the equestrian monument to a ruthless leader in Padua, or even Saint John the Evangelist on hand in New York. You may have read, too, that Donatello began as Ghiberti's apprentice. Once inside, you will surely read attributions of several lesser works to the artist. These claims, too, could stand a little skepticism from critics knowledgeable enough not to parrot the press release.

The show tells an incredible story all the same. For Donatello, Ghiberti was more a mentor and, increasingly, a rival than a master. Just five years younger, more or less, Donatello (short for Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi) belonged to a different guild altogether, one associated more with craft than fine art, and he had an early success as a goldsmith. Ghiberti, though, saw talent to spare waiting to shine in sculpture and invited him to join his workshop for the Baptistery doors. Their reliefs have a Renaissance symmetry and a bold freedom of motion. They also rely on an intuitive rather than consistent perspective, much like Giotto a hundred years before.

The exhibition sets the scene there—and with a little-known sculptor from the 1390s, possibly Giovanni d'Ambrogio. One can see the persistence of the Gothic in his patterned robes and stylized gestures, but also hints of a psychological awareness to come. Looking back, too, are the show's first attributions to Donatello. Giorgio Vasari gave the two prophets to Andrea Pisano, an earlier artist, which makes more sense. The upward turn of their heads, their raised hands, their smooth robes, and their splayed feet defy gravity. One has to wonder how long they can hold their pose.

For his second set of Baptistery doors, beginning in 1425, Ghiberti had assistance from another early Renaissance sculptor, Luca della Robbia, and he enters the picture, too. Luca's reliefs from the late 1430s for the cathedral's bell tower attest to his gentle humanism. Overlapping figures and architecture add depth to a grammar lesson and to a debate over philosophy, but do not expect an angry debate or a harsh tutor. Luca also worked along with Donatello in those years on the cantoria, and the show includes two bronze heads for the project. I cannot swear that Donatello carried them to conclusion, but they still send shivers with little more than curls of hair and penetrating eyes. Few could bring the fullness and terror of life to the Renaissance portrait with such minimal means.

Before Moses

He did not often restrain himself, and the best way to see all that he could do is with two statues fifteen years apart. At the museum, Zuccone shares a pedestal with his Sacrifice of Isaac—like David, a theme that Ghiberti had taken up before him with a clarity that Donatello was set to destroy. They mark key stages in his career on the way from the Baptistery to the cantoria. They take one from Abraham in his most anxious moment, in 1421, to a prophet who gives no ground whatsoever, around 1435. They are also strikingly consistent in their means and their richness. Almost everything depends on hands, a turn to the side, a heavy cloak opposed to bare flesh, and those piercing eyes.

If you know Donatello instead from his two versions of David, you will know how much he changed over time. The first shows a young man still uneasy after his victory, in contrast to the eerie peace in Goliath's head, the second an even younger actor of ambiguous gender eying his kill with lascivious intent. It was the first freestanding nude in Western art—but not the first of the sculptor's challenges. Zuccone (or "big squash") takes its name from its baldness and prominent forehead, which barely acknowledge the humanity that will receive its prophecy. Yet both Abraham and Isaac look away, too, and both father and son turn away from the boy's exposed neck. The prophet's right hand gripping his cloak also parallels Abraham's hand tensely holding the knife.

Stepping back to the years after 1404, the show introduces Nanni di Banco. From that point on, everything will be about him, Donatello, their development, and their rivalry. Nanni died too young to have changed history, and really rivalry is way too strong a term for what amounts to a shared point in time, but he sure had promise. In a Man of Sorrows, the hands of Jesus drape out over their niche, and Hercules standing amid an elaborate floral fringe shows both his classicism and a growing attention to the natural world. Unfortunately, the first pairing of the two sculptors again depends on less than convincing attributions. One of two prophets is somewhat free in his stance, but the folds of his robe are still rigid and weightless, while the other could pass for pregnant.

Fortunately, the pairing gets a second chance. Saint Luke and Saint John in marble from around 1410 show the evangelists wrestling with their gift to the world, but of course Donatello's wrestling match takes a greater toll on its participant and the viewer. Nanni's Luke is decorous but confident, his pride showing in the broadness of his robe and the deftly balanced book in his hand. Donatello's John is taller, tenser, and grimmer, barely restraining his insight and his anger. The sculptor often dipped actual drapery in plaster to judge how it would fall, and here everything speaks to the weight of this world and the next. Even John's book must bear the weight of his hand.

If you have not seen this saint before, you may still recognize him, for he inspired Moses by Michelangelo. One can see it in the formidable pose and beard, as well as the power and awareness that they display. It was Michelangelo, too, who dubbed Ghiberti's second set of doors The Gates of Paradise. While the show straddles just fifty years, it really encompasses the Renaissance. If you want to see how one gets from the Gothic to Michelangelo and the High Renaissance, start here. The show has just over twenty works and too much nonsense attached to them, but for now it will have to do.

Donatello even looks past the High Renaissance to its collapse. He is not so much building on others as ransacking them for ideas and turning them inside-out. The same foreshortening that lends realism also bursts apart a fixed architecture, and the same grip that gives a prophet his dignity also creates the moral ambiguity of a human sacrifice. Mannerism was a kind of Post-Renaissance, because of its troubled reflection on the past. Maybe, though, the Renaissance was there first. It was, after all, the age of Donatello.

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"Sculpture in the Age of Donatello" ran at the Museum of Biblical Art through June 14, 2015.


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