Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, is an eloquently considered exhibition that wondrously conveys the atmosphere and decor of a living, breathing Renaissance city.
From monumental public sculptures and fountain pieces to devotional reliefs lined wall to wall, it offers a surprisingly immersive experience conducive to understanding the functions of sculpture in this period, some bathed gorgeously in natural light; this is the first time the museum has opened up the skylights of this space since its renovation in 2017.
Rather than attempting to overload us with as many Donatello masterpieces as possible, the exhibition guides us through a life cycle of his works, with a seminal section devoted to the design and production techniques of works in different media, highlighting Donatello’s early training as a goldsmith and then in the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti.
This includes an important video and accompanying display recreating marble and terracotta reliefs in the exhibition, the samples of which can be touched by the visitor for a tactile understanding and recognition of different surface textures.
Wood appears to be the only unrepresented medium, which would have encompassed such works as the Penitent Magdalene (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence), the wooden Crucifix (Santa Croce, Florence), and St John the Baptist (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice).
Due to the museum’s exceptionally representative sculpture collection across the board, an alter-narrative of contested attributions is embedded within the larger framework of Donatello’s enduring stylistic legacy, not just in his own time but also his revivalist phase in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Even with the museum’s conservative attributions, 19 autograph works by Donatello alone are featured in the show, not including their own cast of the famous bronze David, nor his collaborative works with Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (the capital and pulpit for Santo Stefano, Prato) and Desiderio da Settignano (the so-called Martelli Baptist in marble), and also not including the terracotta Forzori Altar given to Donatello and his workshop.
Even if we take these attributions at face value, it’s fascinating to see the range of compositions he at least (probably) designed. As for the unrepresented parts of Donatello’s production like the Gattamelata equestrian monument in Padua, St George (Museo Nazionale del Bargello), and lost Dovizia, these have been cleverly highlighted using other media. The museum’s other casts of Donatello’s work have not been used; it would have been quite nice to have a kind of hall of fame at the end, space permitting.
This exhibition is full of beautiful groupings and the sections elegantly fleshed out, with dedicated sections for drawings (including one attributed to Donatello himself), two archival documents in Michelozzo’s hand of his and Donatello’s portata reports (Catasto declaration listing the household’s location, names and ages of dependants, assets, and debts), and a unique contribution discussing later imitations.
A resounding success all around!
Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance runs until 11 June 2023 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, https://www.vam.ac.uk/