MOBIA: Sculpture in the Age of Donatello

by Franklin Hill Perrell

Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral.
February 20- June 14, 2015
Museum of Biblical Art. Tuesday-Sunday: 10 a.m. - 6 p.m.
1865 Broadway at 61st Street, 2d Floor, N.Y, N.Y., 10023

“Donatello in the cage of the wild beasts” was the famous line
coined by the French art critic, Louis Vauxcelles, to excoriate the Fauve artists, led by Matisse, on exhibition in 1905. The sculpture that set him off was not actually by Donatello, but that artist’s reputation for grace and classical refinement was an apt contrast to the then perceived roughness, even animality, of the Fauves (wild beasts) . To Vauxcelles, and his readers, the positive of traits of an earlier era were synonymous with the Italian master. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the real thing, that is, major works by Donatello, here in NY, on loan from their permanent home in Florence.

If you don’t know MOBIA, short for the Museum of Biblical Art, you really should, especially if your travels take you to Lincoln Center or the nearby Museum of American Folk Art. Now is a particularly good time to go. After recent exhibition successes including Louis C. Tiffany and the Art of Devotion; Objects of Devotion, masterpieces of medieval British stone carving (pieces rescued in the seventeenth century from the destructive excesses of Oliver Cromwell and his cohorts); and the ground-breaking rediscovery of Hildreth Meiere, who sculpted the numerous gilt and multi-hued art-deco reliefs of Rockefeller Center; MOBIA’s new show tops them all: an absolute “must see.”

Sculpture from the Age of Donatello sounds like we wouldn’t be seeing much of the master himself, but this is anything but the case. Not only are major works by Donatello (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, better known as Donatello, 1386-1466) superbly well represented, but the several other artists featured here are every bit his equal if but for the name recognition. This is an amazing opportunity for New Yorkers to have a focused window on the Italian Renaissance at a crucial moment. Sculpture briefly takes the lead over painting and we see it at its most innovative critical juncture, a point made clear through this elegant and dramatically paced installation.

This exhibition would not have been possible but for the good fortune that the Duomo Museum is undergoing a reconfiguration involving these works which briefly would have gone into storage. The insight to request these sculptures for MOBIA and the measures necessary to transport them safely (these are massive stone sculptures), let alone fund this endeavor, suggest a heroic capacity normally associated with such institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Indeed, if these works were presently on Fifth Avenue, promoted with the usual fanfare, there would be lines out the door. So, what a superb opportunity this presents, to view them in the relatively intimate setting of MOBIA, and while the show is indeed well attended, you will not have to deal with the crush associated with such recent blockbusters as Matisse and Lauder.

Brunelleschi, wood model of domeBrunelleschi, wood model of dome  d'Ambrogio, Angel (detail)   Donatello, St  
You are first tempted to concentrate on original scale models related to Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome, built 1420-1436 (contemporaneous with many of these sculptures) to crown the Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore, the Duomo. Still regarded as an engineering marvel whose precise mysteries have never been satisfactorily unravelled, the dome’s exquisitely wrought elm and walnut working models cast a compelling atmosphere of immediacy over the exhibition, bringing the viewer forcefully into the renaissance struggle where artists and scholars endeavored to reconcile mathematics, technology, and science with the spirituality, intuition, and aesthetics, consonant with the rising tension between church tradition and the humanist reassessment of the classical era. The best way to see this exhibition, however, is to follow the sculptures chronologically and enjoy the venerable modellos at the end.

The earliest two works (ca. 1397) are by Donatello’s precursor, Giovanni D’Ambrogio, showing the Virgin Mary and Angel Gabriel, the latter in a pose indicating his epochal announcement to Mary, the annunciation. Clearly, d’Ambrogio was following Roman prototypes, and this is a key point about the sculptures, which in this period sought to forthrightly portray human body, reviving techniques that had been suppressed since the classical era. Next, we see the young Donatello, carving a traditional Hercules as part of an architectural ornament, and subsequently, as he begins to achieve his own voice, a prophet figure who emerges out of bas-relief with a gesture of such plaintive eloquence, as if to question, “can I live, too?”

As the exhibition progresses, notable is the increasing degree of movement and vigor in the carving, without sacrifice of detail or nuance. Mostly, the works are organized in pairs, enabling an understanding of stylistic advances as they unfold year by year as well as comparisons between Donatello and his colleagues. Limbs soon become carved away from the body, allowing the void, abstract or negative space, to become an active element in the composition: a characteristic we normally associated with such twentieth century modern artists as Henry Moore. Donatello’s St. John, the Evangelist (1409-1411), is endowed with such expressive elongation of limbs as to point towards the distortions favored by the mannerist movement a century later, as well as a mode of foreshortening and perspective (here used to create a natural appearance since it would be viewed from below) as we might anticipate from realist painter Philip Pearlstein five hundred years into the future.

Donatello, Zuccone
Notable for its heightened naturalism, and demonstrating the sculptor’s increased ability to suggest movement within the stone, is the monumental figure of a prophet traditionally ascribed as Habbakuk (1423-1425), nicknamed, Lo Zuccone, the pumpkin-head. This prophet’s open mouth, poised as if in an impending declaration, created so vivid a semblance of life, that Donatello is recorded as having pleaded with his work, “speak to me.”

Further along are two later bronze heads, one by Donatello and the other by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo: arresting in expression, and handsome, with strong bone structure and deep set eyes, they create an unforgettable semblance of animation with their wildly coiling hair, and twisting pose. Here, the classicism is unmitigated. Roman in demeanor, more like anguished mythic heroes than Christian saints, the true origins of these works were soon forgotten, and for centuries they were mistaken for ancient masterpieces.

This exhibition, whose singular venue is MOBIA, and comprised of works never before seen in the United States, will abundantly reward any special effort Brunelleschi, wood model of dometo visit. In a gallery adjacent to the sculptures, a particularly fine film is continuously displayed, digitally envisioning how these works were sighted in their initial setting as well as for ultimate museum display. Exhibition organized by Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, and the Museum of Biblical Art, NY. We also recommend that you check MOBIA’s website as there is a programming of considerable interest, concerts, lectures, seminars, to accompany this exhibition.

Top (L-R): All images are from MOBLIA

Wood model of dome, Attributed to Filippo Brunelleschi
Model for the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore, ca.1420–52
Wood, dome: 100 × 70 cm (393⁄8 × 27½ in.); apses: 55 × 63 × 35 cm each (215⁄8 × 24¾ × 13¾ in. each)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/493 © Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

Archangel Gabriel of the Annunciation (detail), late 14th century
Marble, 144 × 44 × 30 cm (56¾ × 17¼ × 117⁄8 in.)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/276
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone

St. John the Evangelist, 1408–15
Marble, 212 × 91 × 62 cm (83½ × 35¾ × 24½ in.)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no 2005/113
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone
* Detail is featured image

Prophet (possibly Habbakuk), known as the Zuccone,
Marble, 195 × 54 × 38 cm (763⁄4 × 211⁄4 × 15 in.)
Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no. 2005/374
© Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone


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