Sculpture is perhaps the most popular art, at least in ancient Europe and in the countries that formed it: what is in the market squares and in castle gardens, what are the figures decorated on church facades, tells us a lot about the self-image of society. Conflicts of political importance continue to rage over ancient sculptures: in the United States, monuments should go to racist southern generals, in Hamburg there is a dispute over the monumental Bismarck, in Ukraine statues of national heroes are protected from bombs with sandbags and others have been dismantled from the Soviet Union.
Florence struggled early and passionately for her self-image, and thus also for her best sculptural representation. There is now a huge exhibition of the Florentine sculptor Donatello (1386-1466) in the Bargello Museum of Sculpture and Strozzi Palace. In modified form, he is scheduled to travel to Berlin in the fall and to London next year. One can experience a work in which the political and the personal are frequently permeated and thus was also able to help start the Renaissance and shape artists such as Michelangelo.
What a young Donatello had in mind was the question of how to approach life in materials such as clay, marble, and bronze. In his early twenties, he sculpted Jesus not at all stylized, but rather as if the artist had in mind the agonizing face of a strong man. This provoked his friend, engineer and artist Filippo Brunelleschi, to ridicule him: Donatello hung a peasant on a cross. To outsmart him, he created a delicate figure of Jesus, modeled after ancient statues, who was naked and wore a cloth apron. The two sacred works can be compared in the presentation. They showed that Renaissance masters were not usually solitary geniuses, but stimulated each other.
This sculptor also wants to extract tenderness and life from solid marble
Donatello praised Jesus Brunelleschi – and continued on his way. From a joint trip to Rome with his friend he may have made the decision with him to approach the soul in the motions of the body. Young children have become one of his favorite subjects, perhaps because they do not yet control their movements as adults do.
Bronze putty weights their children’s fat while they dance and make music. Contemporaries called her SpiritlyOr ghosts or spirits – art historian Ulrich Pfester was able to show in his study “Donatello and the Discovery of Patterns” (Hermer Verlag) how Donatello plays with the spirits of art and increases his sense of elegance.
This sculptor also wants to extract delicacies from solid marble. A Christ child made in relief circa 1422, called the Buzzi Madonna, tricks Mary’s sash, smiles at her with his milky teeth, and rubs his nose on her slightly sad face. All her attention belongs to the son, she supports him, reciprocates closeness.
Such cooperation between mother and child is of course not in Tuscany at this time. Parents who are able to care for their newborn babies are usually far away in the countryside. They, in turn, have their children breastfed by poorer women. Things don’t always go well, some children die, and many are separated from their families. Meanwhile, the longing for an intimate relationship between mother and child moves to art. Donatello celebrates them like no other sculptor.
Donatello is not an outspoken critic of his era, but a constant and careful observer. In his gilded bronze reliefs, he conveys the biblical scene in which Herod presents the severed head of John the Baptist in a sinuous structure filled with curious, terrified, or preoccupied people. It seems that not one person, the dancer Salome, is responsible for the crime, but the party-crazed company that has gathered in this mansion.
Florentines learn about their city with David – and Donatello reinvents it
Donatello sees things differently when the sympathizer is not the beheaded but the beheaded. The story of David and Goliath has always fascinated the inhabitants of Florence, who associate their city with the young man who, against all odds, pursues a crushing enemy. Commissioned by the ruling Medici family, Donatello reinvented David to be the first bronze existing nude since antiquity. The young man places his bent wrist at his narrow waist, and Goliath’s severed head at his feet. From the front, in all its dazzling beauty, there is something that the state upholds: Florence wants to be young and lively under the Medici, victorious anyway.
However, if you walk around the statue in the Bargello Museum and look at it from behind, you’ll learn what illustrious David Donatello wants too: a seducer. His wavy hair hangs at the back of his neck, and there is something androgynous about the swing of his hips. And Goliath? From this point of view, he appears not only as a warrior, but also as a defeated man. The shaft of his very long helmet rests on David’s bare thighs, as if the old man not only fought the young man, but also desired it – which was forbidden in Florence at that time, but also very common. Once again, with Donatello, the most private becomes political, and the political becomes personal.
Florence as a country not only wanted to maintain its independence in the early Renaissance, but also wanted to surpass all other cities in elegance, beauty, speed of wit, and art. The city found its master in Donatello. Rarely has his human-oriented art presented in such a package as in this carefully put together exhibition by Francesco Callioti.
“Donatello. Renaissance”, until July 31, Strozzi Palace and the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence. Catalog (Marsilio Arte): 68 euros. In addition, there is one Walking tour of Donatello in Tuscany. In modified form, the exhibition will move to the State Museums in Berlin (September 2 to January 8) and then to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.