Before the opening of a major exhibition, Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance, at the Victoria & Albert Museum on Saturday, 11th February 2023, read our interview with its lead curator, Peta Motture.
Intrinsically linked to Italy, with eight properties in the country shaped like a high-heeled boot, Rocco Forte Hotels is a natural sponsor of the exhibition dedicated to the great Florentine master.
Why is Donatello considered the father of Renaissance sculpture?
Donatello’s sculpture was revolutionary. He created the first free-standing male nude since antiquity in his bronze David, and the first equestrian bronze on such a monumental scale in the Gattamelata in Padua.
His career blossomed at the precise moment that interest in the classical past was revived. His innovation came in combining classical and more traditional styles with a fundamental understanding of the human psyche, captured in his portrayals of the human figure.
Ancient Greek winged gods of love morphed into charming and playful spiritelli (little spirits or sprites). Donatello also reinvented the shallow carving seen on classical sarcophagi into rilievo schiacciato – literally, squashed relief.
Using this technique, together with the newly discovered ‘linear perspective’, Donatello’s sculptures rivalled the art of painting. Sculpture was fundamental to the development of Renaissance art – and Donatello was the master.
How important were Donatello’s patrons?
Donatello was a favourite of Cosimo de’ Medici, the powerful banker who effectively ruled Florence for much of the artist’s life. Highly influential in the city’s artistic patronage, Cosimo requested that the sculptor be buried beside him in the Medici church, the basilica of San Lorenzo – which he duly was on his death, two years after his patron.
Donatello’s long-standing link with the Medici spurred the sculptor to create some of his most exceptional works, including two of his iconic bronzes – the David (now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello) and the Judith and Holofernes (now in the Palazzo Vecchio). Both were housed in the grounds of the Medici Palace, signalling the power of the Medici.
The bronze doors in San Lorenzo particularly appeal to me, with the pairs of figures, some in lively debate. Though criticised by Donatello’s contemporary, Filarete, these were clearly admired by Francesco da Sangallo, whose drawing of one of the panels feature in the exhibition, on loan from the Gabinetto dei Disegni e delle Stampe dele Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence.
Can you share some personal highlights in putting this exhibition together?
There have been many highlights along the way. As the project had gotten underway shortly before the pandemic, it was a treat to finally be able to travel, meet with lenders and examine works closely.
During these visits we were fortunate to see objects being conserved at the Opificio in Florence, and the spectacular painting of the Virgin and Child by Filippo Lippi that will be lent from the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi.
Seeing the 1427 catasto declarations (akin to a tax return) for the first time in the Florence Archivio di Stato of both Donatello and his business partner Michelozzo, who wrote them, was another memorable moment, giving a feeling of being transported back in time.
"Donatello’s sculpture was revolutionary"
How much do you know about Donatello’s work process, from commission to finished piece?
This varies enormously from piece to piece. Among the best documented works was the exquisite reliquary bust of San Rossore, which will be coming from the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, Pisa.
During the ten years Donatello spent Padua (about 1443-54), he created the High Altar of the basilica of St Anthony (the Santo), from which we are privileged to display two bronze reliefs. Donatello employed specialists, and in Padua it was Andrea Conti, a ‘calderaio’ or coppersmith.
Several documents record a vast array of information related to contracts and payments, the wax models from which the bronzes were cast. From these and other records, we know Donatello managed varied, often busy workshops, making good use of his assistants in different, often very skilled tasks.
What are you hoping visitors will get out of this exhibition?
Surprisingly, despite his pivotal position in the history of art, Donatello is not a household name in the same way as Michelangelo or Auguste Rodin.
By opening up the world of Donatello’s sculpture within the cultural and artistic context of Renaissance Italy, we aim to offer a fresh insight into this extraordinary artist.
Unique to the V&A’s exhibition is the re-evaluation of the museum’s collections by Whitney Kerr-Lewis. Through this vital research, we give a much deeper insight into Donatello’s impact on the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries and future generations.
Whether you know his sculpture well, or you’re less familiar with Donatello’s works, stay at Brown’s Hotel, 20 minutes by car from the V&A, and uncover new insights into the Renaissance master.
All images (c) Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance at the Victoria and Albert Museum,
London, 11 February – 11 June 2023.
Top image: Michelozzo, An Adoring Angel, (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Tickets are available here.