Donatello in Berlin: classic sensuality

The Berlin Picture Gallery celebrates the Florentine master. The exhibition focuses on his influence on the development of Renaissance art as a whole.

Donatello: “Mary with the Child (Cherubim-Madonna)”, relief, fired clay, around 1440-45.

Antje Voigt / State Museums in Berlin

It is omnipresent in Florence, in the churches of Santa Croce, San Lorenzo and Orsanmichele, in the Palazzo Vecchio, in the Bargello sculpture collection or in the Duomo Museum. Even during his lifetime, Donatello (1386–1466) enjoyed a high reputation as a busy sculptor far beyond the cultural metropolis on the Arno. Clients from all over Italy sought his works, among them Cosimo de’ Medici and Pope Eugenius IV. His traces can be traced in Siena, Naples, Prato and Venice.

In Padua, tourists and art lovers cannot ignore this innovator: in the Basilica of San Antonio, one of the most visited sanctuaries in Italy, they queue to admire the sculptures he has set up there. The Piazza del Santo in front of the church is dominated by the monument to Condottiere Erasmo da Narni, called Gattamelata, which was built in the 1440s. This is the first free-standing equestrian statue since the statue of the Roman Emperor Marc Aurel, who, in contrast to the realistically captured Venetian mercenary leader, is reproduced as a potentate larger than life.

But Donatello’s traces also lead to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London or the State Museums in Berlin. The focus of the exhibition «Donatello. Inventor of the Renaissance» in the Berlin Picture Gallery, in addition to the complexity of the work, it is above all its influence on the development of Renaissance art as a whole, not least on painting. Sculptures and reliefs made of marble, bronze and terracotta that have never been shown together make this show a mountain trail.

Donatello: «David», 1408 - 09, marble.

Donatello: «David», 1408 – 09, marble.

David Von Becker / State Muses in Berlin


Donatello: “Crucifixion”, c. 1455-65, bronze, partly gilded, silver and gilded copper.

Bruno Bruchi / Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Tangible Reality

Not only did Donatello live in an age of radical renewal. He was himself a pioneer of astonishing inventiveness, giving impetus to art that was important even to Michelangelo. According to Vasari’s tradition, he knows no picture of a human being that inspires more trust than Donatello’s “Mark”. If the saint looked like the sculptor portrayed him, one could believe what the evangelist wrote in his writings. In this way, Michelangelo makes the credibility of the depiction of St. Mark the criterion of its artistic rank.

Donatello was the most important and versatile sculptor of the early Italian Renaissance. In contrast to the “soft style” of courtly Trecento art, he was concerned with tangible reality, immediacy and individual expression. He did not hesitate to show the mouth positions of the dancing and singing girls and boys on the famous singers’ tribune in the Florentine Cathedral unembellished as they appear with singing people. Or how he visualized the medieval ideal of knightly power in the service of faith in the figure of St. George in Orsanmichele: Energetic to the creased brow, the figure stands in its niche, ready to fight the dragon.

His realism is particularly evident in the wooden, colored «Maria Magdalena» from 1453/55, in which the frailty of body and face is ruthlessly rendered. Hardly any sculptor had dared to go so far in depicting physical decay. As an ugly, emaciated and emaciated figure, she negates the “appropriateness” (“convenientia”) that applied to every depiction of a saint. The fact that this sculpture was hardly considered offensive can probably be explained by the brutal penance practices of the time.

David’s androgynous aura

Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, called Donatello, is documented from 1404 to 1407 among the collaborators and assistants in the workshop of the goldsmith Lorenzo Ghiberti. He had just been commissioned to make the two wings of a bronze door for the Florentine Baptistery, a work that set Donatello in the right direction, especially in terms of the use of bronze.

Although the sculptor was inspired by Ghiberti’s world of forms, he soon went his own way towards realism. After leaving the master’s workshop he worked on two important commissions, a Saint John the Evangelist destined for the façade of Florence Cathedral and a nearly two meter high marble sculpture of David to be placed on a buttress of the choir tribune. However, due to its high placement, the figure lost its effect. She was soon put into storage. Today it is in the Bargello. This masterpiece from 1409 was therefore unsuccessful.

The bronze David intended for close-up viewing is different. Donatello’s patron Cosimo de’ Medici, statesman, banker and patron, who guided the politics of Florence for decades and significantly promoted its cultural upswing, commissioned the artist around 1435/40. As the earliest free-standing nude figure after antiquity, the graceful young hero is one of the most important sculptures of the Italian Renaissance. The boyish body already suggested to Vasari that the figure, characterized by erotic elegance, was modeled after a living model. It is not surprising that her androgynous aura has also inspired other artists, such as Andrea del Verrocchio, who also created a bronze David, Sandro Botticelli, whose Mercury quotes Donatello’s sculpture in his “Primavera” icon, or Giorgione in his Judith.

Versatile innovator

In the first half of the 15th century there were few sculptors who were as interested in the expression of emotion as Donatello. His development is reflected particularly clearly in the depictions of the Madonna. In the early works, mimetically still largely emotionless, they became increasingly emotional, culminating in the tender melancholy in the relief of the “Pazzi-Madonna” from 1422, a jewel of the Italian Renaissance. Maria holds her son in her arms and presses her face against his. The composition, characterized by intimacy, resulted in numerous replicas in sculpture and painting.

Donatello: «Mary with the Child (Pazzi-Madonna)», ca. 1422, marble.

Donatello: «Mary with the Child (Pazzi-Madonna)», ca. 1422, marble.

Antje Voigt / State Museums in Berlin

Not only was Donatello an iconographic innovator, humanizing his Madonnas in subtle nuances, he also excelled at technical experiments, be it in the construction of perspective or the stiacciato. In addition, he was one of the first to revive the ancient sarcophagus motif of naked winged children, called Spiritelli, from the 1420s. He appropriated this pagan motif of the “little spirits” in the high-spirited, exuberant dance on the outer pulpit of Prato Cathedral and on the singers’ gallery in Florence Cathedral.

A new world view

Donatello also occupies a special position among Renaissance sculptors due to the breadth of his working material: wood, sandstone, marble, bronze, terracotta – he had come to know the latter as artistic material taken from antiquity in Ghiberti’s workshop. Technical virtuosity is never without function with Donatello. Regardless of the technology, it always serves the emotions.

In the Berlin show, works by Donatello enter into a dialogue with paintings by contemporaries such as Masaccio, Filippo Lippi and Andrea Mantegna. Lippi, Fra Angelico and Domenico Veneziano unmistakably referred to Donatello’s bas-reliefs from the 1420s and 1430s. The example of Donatello, primarily his style of clothing, is conspicuous in Masaccio’s polyptych for the Carmelite Church in Pisa. Despite the smaller format, his four Berlin saints are also reminiscent of Donatello’s free-standing sculptures for Orsanmichele and the campanile of the cathedral in their monumentality and dignified weight. And Masaccio’s predella panels are reminiscent of Donatello’s subtle relief style. Giovanni Bellini, for example, paid homage to him in his “Dead Christ Supported by Angels”.

Giovanni Bellini:

Giovanni Bellini: “Dead Christ Supported by Angels”, c. 1470-75, egg tempera and oil on poplar wood.

Christoph Schmidt / State Museums in Berlin

“The story of Donatello is at the same time a story of the Renaissance,” says the Berlin art gallery’s announcement of the outstanding show, which is staged discreetly, subtly didactically and aesthetically appealing. The Florentine, who combined classical sensuality with Christian morality and humanism, was not the inventor of the Renaissance, but he followed the urge to discover that was one of the most important characteristics of the epoch. And he pushed it forward decisively.

Through the revival of antique motifs and design methods, he was instrumental in giving this epoch the name Renaissance. His individualized, true-to-life figures, new themes that he introduced, different techniques that he further developed, the perspective representation and the emotional expressiveness were groundbreaking. Ultimately, his works reflect a new picture of the world.

Donatello, inventor of the Renaissance. National Museums in Berlin, Picture Gallery, in cooperation with the Fondazione Strozzi and the Musei del Bargello, Florence, as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum. Until January 8, 2023, thereafter at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Catalog E.-A.-Seemann-Verlag, Leipzig 2022, 344 p., numerous color plates.

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