Donatello at the V&A is a once in a lifetime chance to see a true genius
“The greatest sculptor of all time” is a hefty title to live up to. “Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance” makes a hearty case for it in this expansive and thrilling exhibition.
It’s curated in partnership with the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, which have lent some sensational pieces never seen before in the UK. Thus such sculptures as the early marble David and bronze Attis-Amorino from the Bargello join the V&A’s stuffed coffers of medieval and Renaissance artworks to highlight the sheer breadth of Donatello’s influence on Renaissance culture end beyond.
This is evidenced both in terms of technical wizardry, and the humane sensitivity that permeates his characters and compositions. Right from the outset, star piece the Bargello’s David (1408-09) is a technical adaptation deriving from Roman statuary, here given a characteristically Gothic contrapposto (curved stance), and finished with a lively, idealised countenance on the youth’s face.
These dual strains of technique and emotivity are mirrored by the curatorial structure, which divides an overall chronological survey into thematic focus segments covering variously: Bronzes: Tradition and Innovation; Devotion and Emotion; Homage to Donatello (the latter covering subsequent historical influence.)
It may be surprising for some to learn that he originally trained as a goldsmith but learn how this skill was transferrable amongst many media from marble to bronze, wood, terracotta and stucco.
Supplementary pieces by contemporaries such as Masaccio demonstrate an exchange of ideas and techniques; eagle eyes may spot his St Jerome and St John the Baptist panel on loan from the National Gallery. Further bringing the technical side to life are displays showing tools used in making sculptures, along with videos of them in action. The inventiveness and flourish are palpable throughout, and one gets a real sense of a Renaissance Florence and wider Italy buzzing with a fruitful artistic community.
The man Donatello himself feels elusive however. Every other caption worryingly uses the term “probably”, which will upset those desiring concrete evidence of his influence: something difficult to definitively establish beyond only stylistic analysis. We know that he was celebrated enough for Florence to mark the 500th anniversary of his birth in 1886, suggesting an enduring, near-mythical status.
He was also lauded by Giorgio Vasari in his seminal “Lives of the Artists” (1550, published a century after Donatello’s lifetime), though Vasari is generally accepted as notoriously biased in his summaries, and with one too many pieces on show here listed as “probably” by Donatello, these attributions may veer for some too far towards confirmation bias.
This aside, the show is spaciously and thoughtfully curated; if a piece was designed for installation high up, say the remarkable Bronze David of ca1440s, also from the Bargello, so it is positioned here.
Spectacular loans bearing such consistency of dynamism and vigour on display makes this a once in a lifetime chance to experience the finest slice of Renaissance art in existence without travelling to Italy.