Donatello: the Renaissance

temporary exhibition at Palazzo Strozzi

On 19 March Palazzo Strozzi has inaugurated a temporary exhibition curated by Francesco Caglioti and fully dedicated to the figure of one of the greatest masters of the Florentine Renaissance, Donatello, or better Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi. A unique possibility for us to focus on the production of one of the “inventors of the Renaissance”, whose creativity deeply changed the artistic world.

Donatello: the Renaissance, room 1
The first room of the show with Donatello’s marble David, the wooden crucifix from Santa Croce (left) and Brunelleschi’s crucifix from Santa Maria Novella (right), © photo Ela Białkowska OKNO studio.

The exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi will interest both, the visitors who don’t know much about the artist, and these who love his art and have an ambition to see as many of his works as possible. The first group of the visitors will find interesting the narrative developed through the descriptions of the subsequent rooms, which reassume Donatello’s biography and deal with the key ideas touched by his art. The more expert public will enjoy the important loans, the sculptures that reached Florence from Berlin, Paris or London and are here are paired with the Florentine and the Tuscan masterpieces of the artist. The exhibition offers a wide cross-section through Donatello’s production. It’s definitely a must-see for all Renaissance lovers this spring!

Donatello and his early years

The exhibition starts with a room dedicated to the early works of the artist and to his friendship with Filippo Brunelleschi. In the middle of the room you can admire the marble figure of David made by young Donatello for the Florentine Cathedral. Here the curator also paired Donatello’s crucifix from Santa Croce in Florence, with the one sculpted by Filippo Brunelleschi, today preserved at Santa Maria Novella.

The two works have been paired already by Giorgio Vasari who in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects tells an anecdote on an artistic challenge between the two friends. According to Vasari, Brunelleschi heavily criticized Donatello’s wooden figure of Christ for being an image of a countryman. Brunelleschi’s crucifix for Santa Maria Novella was for Vasari Filippo’s artistic answer to his friend’s scultpure.

In fact, the two works differ and show the two different approaches to art manifested by the sculptors. Donatello‘s crucifix proves how deeply the artist was interested in the Classical idea of art as imitation of nature (Lat. imitatio naturae). His Christ is a common man. His muscular body makes of him a perfect image of a countryman from the Chianti area.

Brunelleschi, Crocifisso, Santa maria Novella.
Brunelleschi, Crucifix, detail, wood, ca. 1410, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Brunelleschi’s mathematical and analytical mind pushed him towards the research of geometric perfection and idealisation of the forms. If you look at his crucifix, you will see the proportions: the space between Christ’s arms is the same as the length of his body from feet to shoulders. If you observe Brunelleschi’s work, you will see that the figure of Christ is very slim and slender. It does not show a body of a human being, but an idealised vision of a deity, whose earthly body was not similar to human bodies. The two crucifixes represent two different approaches to art displayed by the two artists who, despite the divergences, became close collaborators.

Around 1419 the artistic alliance between Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio brought to the invention of perspective in art. It was Donatello who started to experiment with this new geometry of spatial representation in his bas-reliefs. You will find it in the sculpted predella for the tabernacle of Saint George, on display at the Bargello museum, and on the beautiful bas-relief with the Feast of Herod, designed by Donatello for the baptismal font in Siena. This last composition is on display at the exhibition, recently restored by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure.    

Donatello, Feast of Herod
Donatello, Feast of Herod, 1423-1427, bronze, Baptistery, Siena.

Donatello: the stiacciato and the perspective

From the very beginnings of his career, Donatello proved to be an extremely creative sculptor, ready to experiment with new techniques and technologies. He tested, tried and examined the most various solutions for his works. One of the most interesting aspects of this exhibition is the possibility to confront Donatello’s creations in marble, bronze and terracotta. This wide overview renders evident Donatello’s extreme creativity and flexibility.

During his technical investigations, interested in the problem of spatial representation in sculpture, Donatello developed a particular approach to his relief with an aim to investigate the spatiality and the tridimensionality of his works. He started to model the marble and the bronze squashing the relief in order to increase the volumetry during the perception from a given point of view. You can observe Donatello’s experiments with the depth of the relief, his so-called stiacciato (meaning “squashed” relief), in many of the works displayed at Palazzo Strozzi, in the beautiful Pazzi Madonna framed with an illusory frame in perspective, in the Feast of Herod for the Sienese baptistery or in the Imago Pietatis, an important loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Donatello, Imago Pietatis
Donatello, Imago Pietatis, marble, ca. 1435, Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Putti, angels and children in Renaissance art

One of my favourite parts of this exhibition is the space dedicated to the putti and the spiritelli. These sculptures of naked winged children testify a new sensibility developed during the fifteenth century. The appearance of the putti in art not only evidences an always greater influence of Classical culture, mythology and religion on the fifteenth-century Florentine culture. They also show a growing interests of artists in childhood and in the depiction of toddlers.

Medieval art tended to exclude this imaginary almost completely. Because of theological reasons medieval baby Jesus is showed as a “squashed” adult. Because Christ is a deity, it was impossible to show him as an unlearned infant. Newly born Jesus had to know the Scriptures and had to understand all the complex theological issues. Thus, he was showed bold with a body of a small adult.

The Renaissance artists, driven by the idea of verisimilitude and of art that imitates nature, started to observe toddlers and small children in order to represent more convincingly their little bodies, their clumsy gestures, smiles, fluffy arms and legs.

Donatello, spiritello
Donatello, A Spiritello, designed to decorate the cantoria by Luca della Robbia for the Florentine Cathedral, bronze, ca. 1436-1438, Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris.

Donatello’s putti are full of tenderness and joy. On the exhibit you can admire the two spiritelli that used to decorate Luca della Robbia’s cantoria for the Florentine Cathedral and a relief from the pulpit in Prato with the crazy dance of the little angels.

The most impressive and the most famous spiritello is the one commissioned by the Bartolini family. He wears only a pair of trousers held by a belt, with his genitals well visible, dances while treads upon a snake. This strange iconography of the sculpture gave many troubles to the experts who tried to understand the meaning of this exceptional work. There is who saw in the putto the representation of the Phrygian deity Attis, driven mad by his jealous consort Cybele. Attis or not, this little boy is full of crazy joy and vitality. The symbol of the poppy seedheads that decorates the spirtello’s belt refer to the Bartolini family, who commissioned this eccentric work to Donatello.

Donatello, Attis, Bargello
Donatello, Amor-Attis, bronze, ca. 1435-1440, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

Donatello in Padua

The last rooms of the exhibition are dedicated to Donatello’s work in Padua, where the sculptor stayed between 1444 and 1454 ca. The artworks displayed at Palazzo Strozzi illustrate the direct impact of Donatello’s art on the Northern Italian schools. You can observe the importance of Donatello’s compositions on the example of the Imago Pietatis and its fortune among the Northern painters: Giovanni Bellini or Marco Zoppo.  

Giovanni Bellini, Imago Pietatis, ca. 1465.
Giovanni Bellini, Imago Pietatis, tempera on wood, ca. 1465, Museo Correr, Venezia.

I particularly appreciated the possibility to admire the beautiful bronze crucifix designed for the roodscreen of the Paduan Basilica of Saint Anthony, the Miracle of the Mule for the altar of Saint Anthony and the beautiful terracotta with the Flagellation and the Crucifixion on loan from Victoria and Albert Museum.

Try to compare the bronze crucifix from Padua with the wooden work from the Florentine Santa Croce. Mature Donatello designs the figure of Christ, which almost fits into a square. The figure of Christ is 176 cm high and 170 cm wide. Christ’s anatomy is represented with a great attention towards the details: the veins, the muscles and the tendons. An invisible wind moves Jesus’ perizoma.

Donatello, Crucifix, bronze, ca. 1443-1449, Basilica di Sant’Antonio, Padua.

The possibility to see these less-known Paduan works of the master is definitely one of the most significant values of this exhibition. 

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The show

Donatello: the Renaissance is undoubtedly an important show that offers a very wide overview on the artistic production of one of the inventors of the Renaissance.

Roman horse head
The very last room displays the Greek horse head, the so-called Testa Medici-Riccardi from the Archaeological Museum in Florence (in foreground) and Donatello‘s Testa Carafa from the Archaeological Museum in Naples (in background).

The exhibition could have been much more visitor-friendly if the description of the artworks and the texts weren’t printed black on blue. The Bardini blue is a very Florentine colour with a long and interesting history, but why it was used also on the descriptions? The museums too often forget about the sight impaired visitors who really have difficulty in reading the texts with little contrast, or in moving through the dark museum rooms with the spotlight pointed only at the artworks.

The descriptions in the various rooms are explicative for the visitors who approach Donatello’s art for the first time. This is a bit a recurring quality of Palazzo Strozzi’s exhibits. The shows display an art history narrative that is taught at the Italian high schools. I think this time it would have been particularly interesting to include a more indepth analysis. Nothing was said, for example, about the strange iconography of Donatello‘s door for the Old Sacristy at San Lorenzo. Seeing the saints fighting one against another isn’t common. Yet, here this anomalies pass unnoticed.

I also have doubts about the concept of a monographic exhibition that shows Donatello as a lonely genius. The first rooms mention Brunelleschi and Masaccio. The following rooms talk about Donatello’s impact on other artists. Yet, the artistic climate of fifteenth-century Florence does not emerge. The historical context of Donatello‘s activity is almost non-existent.

The last doubt I have regards the concept of a “spread exhibition”, which, according to Palazzo Strozzi, this show is. The real “spread exhibitions” means that with just one ticket you can visit various sights spread across a city or a region. This is how the exhibition “Middle Ages in Pistoia” works. You buy one ticket and then you tour the various museums.

Donatello show at the Bargello
Donatello’s show at the Bargello. The room with the Dudley Madonna (left), Michelangelo’s Madonna of the Stairs (centre, background) and Fra Bartolomeo’s Annunciation. © photo Ela Białkowska OKNO studio.

The exhibition at the Palazzo Strozzi is not a real “spread” exhibition. There is a show at Palazzo Strozzi with the ticket that costs 16 €. Then, there are the three rooms at the Bargello, where you can see Donatello‘s bronze David and the two rooms dedicated to the fortune of his Dudley Madonna. In order to see this part of the exhibit, you need another ticket for 12 €.

Finally, there is Donatello‘s art in Tuscany that decorates the churches and is displayed in the museums with no reference to Palazzo Strozzi at all. You will see Donatello’s Saint John the Evangelist at the Cathedral Museum in Florence even when the exhibition will end. Also the New Sacristy will stay at San Lorenzo, just like his magnificent pulpits. The ticket to the show does not give you access to these sights, therefore talking about a “spread exhibition” is part of their marketing strategy.

Marketing strategy that seems to give trouble to Palazzo Strozzi recently. After the horrible reel published recently by the museum on Instagram, made in collaboration with the Italian comedian Maryna, I think Palazzo Strozzi has some homework to do in that field.

That being said, it is definitely worth seing the show!


Donatello: the Renaissance
Palazzo Strozzi, Florence
Museo del Bargello, Florence

19 March 2022- 31 July 2022

Opening hours at Palazzo Strozzi:
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday: 10 am – 8 pm
Thursdays 10 am – 11 pm
Tickets: 16 €

Opening hours at the Bargello:
Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday: 8:45 am – 7 pm
Tuesday: 10 am – 6 pm
Tickets: 12 €

Do you want to visit this exhibition with me?
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