It’s pretty well established by now that the museum special exhibition, often derisively labeled the “blockbuster,” has been one of the great triumphs of modern cultural life, the primary vehicle through which the lay public has received its art education. Despite this, there’s a case to be made that, for all its merits, the standard museum retrospective is a somewhat artificial, often imperfect means of taking the measure of an artist. The work is shown in isolation, sequestered in dedicated galleries, creating the effect of a lab specimen or a butterfly pinned in a display case and depriving us of a sense of the subject’s larger cultural milieu. In addition, the overall picture thus presented is often incomplete, since inevitably not every loan request can be approved.

Installation view of “Donatello: The Renaissance,” Musei del Bargello, Florence. Photo: Ela Bialkowska.

But what if an exhibition could be mounted that overcame these limitations by placing the artist in the widest possible context? Such a show might be organized in the city where the artist had been born and where he did some of his most important work. In said city’s museums and other cultural venues would be abundant examples of the creations of artists of his school who had preceded, even shaped him, as well as those who had followed and, in some cases, been influenced by him. Finally, the loan issue would be moot, since those objects that could not be included would nonetheless be easily accessible offsite.

It sounds like an impossible dream. Yet such an exhibition opened in Florence at the end of March. “Donatello: The Renaissance,” the first show dedicated to this artist in forty years, is on view in not one but two venues simultaneously: the Palazzo Strozzi, a Renaissance palace that for some time has been an exhibition space, and the Bargello, Florence’s sculpture museum and home to some of Donatello’s most important works, notably the marble St. George (ca. 1415–17) and the bronze David Victorious (ca. 1435–40).1 The latter has for this occasion been newly reinstalled on a higher-than-usual base (though one shorter than the sculpture’s original, six-foot-tall column) that allows it to be seen more or less as the artist intended. No longer do we read him as a callow youth sheepishly looking at his feet, facial expression mostly obscured by his large hat. Now he is a swaggering young hero staring triumphantly and even confrontationally past the severed head at his feet into the eyes of the viewer. Let us hope that this is a permanent change.

Donatello, David Victorious, ca. 1435–40, Bronze, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Photo Bruno Bruchi.

“Donatello: The Renaissance” is, surely, the most ambitious single-artist show ever mounted. It surpasses moma’s storied 1980 Picasso retrospective, which filled the entire museum (the permanent collection having been, in an unprecedented move, relocated offsite) with nearly a thousand works of art—a landmark at the time. Organized by Francesco Caglioti, an art historian and Donatello scholar based in Pisa, this show brings together more than 130 objects to argue for Donatello as the defining genius of the Renaissance, what Caglioti calls “a phenomenon of rupture” who invented new forms, approaches, techniques, and methods without which the Renaissance as we know it would not have existed. To this end, the exhibition places Donatello in dialogue with Florentine and other Italian artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Caglioti and his team have secured virtually every important loan from museums in Europe and the United States.

For their exhibition, Caglioti and his team have secured virtually every important loan from museums in Europe and the United States, including Berlin’s Pazzi Madonna (ca. 1422), a terra-cotta Virgin and Child (ca. 1414) from the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Louvre’s Camondo Calvary (ca. 1450–52), a bronze relief notable for the striking contrast between the figure of Mary, unable to avert her grief-stricken eyes from the spectacle of her dead son, and that of the Evangelist directly opposite, who covers his face with a hand because he cannot bear to confront it. Possibly even more impressive are the borrowings from churches around Italy. We tourists tend to regard these venues as museums by another name, but for their congregations the artworks in them are integral to the role and function of the Mass itself, making it extraordinary that they were allowed to leave the premises, even temporarily.

Surely the most spectacular of these loans is the Crucifix (1443/44–1448/49) from the Basilica of San Antonio in Padua. In his multi-figure compositions, Donatello expresses emotion through pose, gesture, and his free handling of his materials. Here he goes in the opposite direction, adopting a language of realism so intense and unsparing that it becomes a form of expressionism. Christ’s rib cage is dilated to indicate the absence of breath—death or its imminence—while veins and tendons are clearly picked out. The billowing loincloth functions as a welcome grace note breaking the mood of catastrophic pathos. Meanwhile, the Donatellos that “got away”—those that could not be temporarily relocated to the Strozzi or Bargello—can be seen easily outside the walls of the two venues. Thus a few steps away you can visit the bronze reliefs the artist made for two pulpits in the Church of San Lorenzo, his last works, and, in the Church of Santa Croce, his Cavalcanti Annunciation (ca. 1433–35). Artists before and after generally depicted this event as a largely joyous encounter, with the Virgin shrinking from the Archangel’s news but demurely and modestly. In the Donatello, by contrast, Mary’s reaction is dramatically reflexive—she recoils as if she’s just been shocked with a charge of several hundred volts. And Gattamelata (1443–47), his pioneering equestrian monument in Padua, is just a few hours away by train. As if that weren’t enough, in Florence one is surrounded by the Renaissance sculptors who preceded and followed Donatello—Ghiberti, Michelangelo, and a host of others—thus allowing us to understand his career in the broadest and deepest historical context.

Donatello, David Victorious, 1408–9, Marble, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Photo: Bruno Bruchi.

But there’s more. The Strozzi-Bargello display is the first of what will be three Donatello shows. After “Donatello: The Renaissance” closes in Florence, it travels to Berlin and then London, where, in each city, it will take a different form and have its own catalogue, all in an effort to overcome the limits of the monographic exhibition. In its sweep and ambition, it’s hard to imagine there will ever be a show like this again.

Donatello (1386–1466) was the preeminent Renaissance sculptor of the century before Michelangelo. He worked in all manner of media—marble and bronze, terra-cotta, embossed copper, papier-mâché, and glass paste. He made sculpture in the round, reliefs, complex architectural sculpture such as (with Michelozzo) the Tomb of the Antipope John XXIII (ca. 1422–28) in Florence’s Baptistery and (on his own) the Cantoria (1433–39) for Florence’s Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore, and small bronzes to adorn the latter. He was a technical innovator, inventing the stiacciato or extremely low marble relief, a form others—the young Michelangelo among them—emulated but could never imitate. He reinvented the figure in sculpture so radically and completely that his influence reverberated to Michelangelo and beyond. He was the first artist to make use of Brunelleschi’s revolutionary studies on one-point perspective, and he continued to concern himself with optical perception and the way it governed the relationship between viewer and sculpture. Finally, he endowed religious narrative with unprecedented levels of emotional intensity and psychological depth. In his hands representations of stories from the Bible underwent a subtle but marked shift. They ceased being strictly religious parables and became instead profoundly human dramas—about life, death, love, loss, and betrayal—enacted by sacred figures. If there is a through-line to the endlessly self-renewing career laid out in this exhibition, that is it. Donatello’s was the greatest aesthetic and, in art, moral intelligence of the fifteenth century and possibly the entire Renaissance. No wonder Vasari wasn’t sure whether to put him at the beginning of his great chronicle, in the fifteenth century, or at the end, in the sixteenth.

Desiderio da Settignano, David Victorious (Martelli David), ca. 1462–4, Marble, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C. Photo:  Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

The exhibition opens with the Bargello’s marble David Victorious (1408–09) and the wooden crucifixes by Donatello (ca. 1408, Church of Santa Croce) and Brunelleschi (ca. 1410, Church of Santa Maria Novella) that were the focus of a contest between the two artists. Though Vasari reported that Donatello thought his friend’s Crucifix was far superior to his own, today it reads as a dry academic study. Donatello’s throbs with the pulse of life and emotional truth. Thereafter the show unspools chronologically in eleven sections bearing such titles as “Statues and Persons” and “Old Age and the Great Bronzes.”

Hanging alongside the Donatellos are works by artists he influenced. So on a wall near the life-size bronze St. Louis of Toulouse (ca. 1418–25) is the Apparition of the Trinity to Saint Jerome, with Saints Paula and Eustochium (ca. 1453–55) by Andrea del Castagno, the painter having adapted the sculpture’s monumental drapery to his own figures. Those who like their Donatello “straight up,” that is, with the fewest possible distractions, will want to proceed to section ten, “In Tuscany,” covering the years 1454–61, since it has the most Donatellos and the fewest works by other artists—only two. And what Donatellos they are: the bronze St. John the Baptist (1455–57) and the Floor Tomb of Bishop Giovanni Pecci (ca.1448–50), both from Siena Cathedral, and three reliefs from the Victoria & Albert Museum, among them the “cutout” Lamentation over the Dead Christ (ca. 1458–60). The exhibition continues at the Bargello, where responses to St. George and the bronze David Victorious by artists such as Verrocchio, Desiderio da Settignano, Andrea del Castagno, and others are arrayed in close proximity to Donatello’s sculptures. And it concludes with a remarkable display tracing the influence of a single work—the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Dudley Madonna (1440), a small marble relief made for private devotion and a masterpiece of stiacciato relief—on artists down the centuries. One of them was the young Michelangelo, whose Madonna of the Steps (ca. 1490) is on loan from the nearby Casa Buonarroti. “Donatello: The Renaissance” is a vast canvas, one offering an unprecedented view of the artist and his era. And Donatello’s unremitting level of artistic invention and psychological expression make it the most intellectually demanding and, in places, emotionally draining exhibition I have ever seen.

How to take it all in? One way is to focus on a single medium or technique. For example, there has never been a better opportunity to understand Donatello as a relief sculptor working in marble, bronze, and terra-cotta. Or you can track the many changes he rings on familiar stories and themes from scripture. We get a taste of this early on. One gallery features about a half dozen terra-cotta sculptures on the theme of the Virgin and Child dating from the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Each one is slightly different in the physical and psychological relationship between the two protagonists, with some hinting at Mary’s awareness of a darker future. Still, none prepares you for, a few galleries farther in, the marble Pazzi Madonna, where that presentiment is made dramatically explicit. Both figures are shown in profile, and Mary presses her face against that of the Christ child as if she feels an urgent need to experience fully the playful infant she holds as a child as long as she possibly can. We can follow Donatello repeatedly rethinking this theme—along with those of the Crucifixion, Lamentation, and others—throughout this exhibition.

There has never been a better opportunity to understand Donatello as a relief sculptor working in marble, bronze, and terra-cotta.

No Donatello retrospective worthy of the name, certainly not one organized in Florence, should be without the Penitent Magdalene (1454). In this shockingly unidealized vision of womanhood, Donatello limns the definitive portrait of perfervid, self-abnegating spirituality. Yet it isn’t on display, because, surprisingly given the expansive remit of “Donatello: The Renaissance,” the Museum of the Opera del Duomo, which owns the work, is not a partner in this effort. The reason is that the Opera doesn’t lend. Its displays tell the story of the architectural and decorative program of the cathedral from the fourteenth to the fifteenth centuries, so any loan would disrupt that narrative. Moreover, after barely surviving the 1966 flood, Donatello’s sculpture is probably too delicate to move. Still, given how enterprising the curatorial team has been overall, it’s a pity a way couldn’t have been found to make the Opera a full partner.

Because it’s not just that work that we miss, but Donatello’s early formation. His was a stunningly rapid development, captured, at the Opera, in two works: the sweetly Late Gothic, Ghibertiesque Small Prophet (1404–09) and a small relief depicting a half-length figure of Christ as the Man of Sorrows (1404–09), whose treatment of the anatomy is—there is no other word for it—Michelangelesque. In addition, it houses St. John the Evangelist (1408–13) for the Duomo façade, where Donatello adjusted the seated figure so it would appear properly proportioned when viewed from below. And it has the four statues Donatello carved for the Campanile between 1418 and 1436. These include the Sacrifice of Isaac (1421), in which the sculptor departs from the traditional approach to this subject showing Abraham about to drive the knife into his son and instead portrays him the instant after God has released him from his charge, knife-holding hand suddenly slack to his side and face turned toward heaven in astonishment. Here, too, is Habakkuk (1434–36), which blends a classical monumentality and gravitas—the legacy of the artist’s close study of ancient art—with a flinty, febrile realism.

Donatello, Saint John the Baptist, ca. 1455–1457, Bronze, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Siena. Photo: © Opera della Metropolitana/Bruno Bruchi.

The same goes for the Church of Orsanmichele: it, too, should have been part of the warp and weft of “Donatello: The Renaissance.” The sculptures commissioned to decorate its exterior were long ago moved inside to the church’s second story, replaced outside by copies. In the company of work by Nanni di Banco, Ghiberti, and others, we see vividly demonstrated what it was that made Donatello such a revolutionary. In his St. Mark (1411–13) the figure for the first time is understood as a dynamic unity, with each part moving in relation to every other, and what is visible on the outside—the turn of the head, the fall of the drapery—determined by what is happening on the inside, under the skin. This was the well from which Michelangelo later drew so deeply.

It is no criticism of the organizers to note that it is possible to get all the way through this extraordinary exhibition and come away feeling you have not completely grasped, not fully taken the measure of, this sculptor. The reason is that Donatello is simply too rich and various an artist to be circumscribed easily within the intellectual construct we call the special exhibition. Because there are many Donatellos, not just one. For example, there is the Donatello for whom boundaries between genres and art forms were porous rather than fixed. In the stiacciato reliefs, such as Boston’s Madonna of the Clouds (ca. 1425–30), the carving is so shallow, the imagery seemingly so ephemeral, that the figures seem more drawing than sculpture; the projecting forms on the San Lorenzo pulpits make them as much sculpture in the round as relief; and the play of light and shadow in the heavy drapery of the bronze St. Louis of Toulouse make it a work as much pictorial as sculptural. There is Donatello the visionary dramatist, able—in works such as The Feast of Herod (1423–27) from Siena, where the king and his retinue are shown recoiling as the severed head of John the Baptist is presented to him, and the Sacrifice of Isaac—to reinvent and recast the familiar narratives to make psychological insight the instrument of spiritual revelation. Above all there is Donatello the great poet of the human heart. No artist of his time had greater insight into the inner life of his fellow man or rendered it with deeper truth. No wonder the organizers of “Donatello: The Renaissance” plan to come at their subject three different ways. Even that might not be enough.


  1.  “Donatello: The Renaissance” opened at the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and the Musei del Bargello, Florence, on March 19 and remains on view through July 31, 2022.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 9, on page 23
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