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Shots of Donatello

Donatello: Prophet of Modern Vision

photographs by David Finn, text by Frederick Hartt
Abrams, 486, 430 illustrations pp., $85.00

I must declare an interest in this book. Three or four years ago—in 1969 I think it was—I was shown some photographs of Donatello’s sculptures. The photographer, Mr. David Finn, was an enthusiast, and as he propped them up along one wall of my office, I did not have the heart to say how insensitive and meretricious I thought they were. Early in 1970 I was informed, to my surprise, that they were to be published, and I was asked by Abrams to write the introductory text. From the correspondence it became clear that what was planned was a whale of a book; fifteen by eighteen inches, sixteen by twenty, no format was too large. I turned the crazy project down, and the photographs are published in this volume (in a slightly smaller format: they measure only thirteen inches by sixteen) with letterpress by Professor Frederick Hartt.

No one who looks at books about Italian sculpture needs be reminded of the havoc that the misdirected camera can wreak with Donatello. It is not that there is a right or wrong way of photographing Donatello’s sculptures. Like all great works of art, they can be looked at from a number of very different points of view. The trouble is that Donatello is an emotive artist, and the temptation to treat his sculptures as camera fodder is therefore very great. Unless it is resisted, the resulting photographs will offer a misleading impression not just of individual sculptures but of the artist’s creative identity. On the evidence of this book Mr. Finn is an excitable, rather self-indulgent photographer, whose concern is less with truth than with photography as the record of emotional response.

He seems to suffer from color blindness. In this book there are whole works—the Cantoria, the San Lorenzo pulpits, and the Padua High Altar are three of them—where the tonality of all the plates is, as a matter of objective fact, completely wrong, and others where it changes abruptly in the middle as in a Warhol film. He is also insensitive to texture. The surfaces of bronzes are commonly broken up with patches of reflected light that may look striking but are artificial and untrue, and quite a number of the relief photographs are lit from the wrong side. A good many of the sculptures are photographed from underneath, in a way which falsifies their style and sometimes renders them illegible. It would be unjust to insist that in a book about Italian sculpture magnification be eschewed, but in this book details of reliefs are enlarged to a point which makes them all but meaningless, witness a plate of the right leg of the Boston Madonna of the Clouds which is considerably larger than the whole relief, and five horrifying blowups of the Lamentation Over the Dead Christ in London.

To this is added cutting of a high degree of eccentricity. Can that oddly shaped navel which winks at one like an obscene eye from the center of three plates really belong to the bronze David? And what of the three smudgy plates which show the bridge of the nose and the right eye, the right ear, and the right nostril of the Pazzi Madonna in Berlin? Mr. Finn would no doubt reply that this is how he sees the sculptures, that they do look to him like Manzus and Rudes and cheese-colored Carpeaux, but the fact is that the frontier between interpretation and misinterpretation is violated with such persistence as to deprive his book of all validity. Donatello, Prophet of Modern Vision it is called on the strength of these peculiar plates, and never has the poor old prophet been so traduced.

Whatever their demerits, the plates are enthusiastically commended by Professor Hartt “not only because of their astonishing quality, but because they showed so clearly what I had been trying to say in lectures and seminars.” A specialist in rhetoric, he douses them with heated prose. The bronze St. Louis of Toulouse “is so compelling that one can only compare it to the verbal descriptions of the lost gold-and-ivory colossi of Phidias.” The Crucified Christ in Santa Croce may look dead to you and me, but for the Professor as he “watches the slight movement of the legs and the apparent heaving of the chest and the constriction of the abdominal muscles, it is hard to escape the impression that the figure on the Cross is still faintly alive.” The St. George, “throbbing with life and emotion,” looks”outward and upward as if listening to the voice of God, Whom he cannot see, but Who is visible to us in a relief carved by Donatello in the gable above his head,” and this and the relief beneath “mark one of the turning points in human history.” As for the Crucifix in the Santo at Padua, “the figure seems almost to vibrate in front of us—the lines sing like violin strings.”

Again and again we come up against a blustering contrast between the brilliance of passages which Professor Hartt regards as Donatello’s and the “ineptitude” of those which he ascribes to members of the sculptor’s shop. He adheres to the factual framework of Janson’s catalogue of 1957, on the ground that it is “in itself a historical event, in view of which both repetition and competition are unthinkable.” From the first page to the last there is no evidence that he has done any serious, independent thinking about Donatello.

Historical event or no, Janson’s is a masterly book, lucid, thorough, temperate. But it is not, and could not conceivably be claimed to be, the last word on Donatello. One of the things that it achieved was to clear away the undergrowth. In palaces in Florence in the nineteenth century, Donatello’s was a generic name for any decent quattrocento sculpture, and when carvings were bought for London and Paris and Berlin, they were usually acquired as Donatellos. In German museum lore ascriptions were immutable. Thus in 1842 the Berlin museum bought a Donatellesque relief, the Orlandini Madonna, as a work by Donatello. More than forty years later it was joined in the museum by a real Donatello relief of the same type, the Pazzi Madonna. But the second relief did not cancel out the first. Instead they were aggregated, and the process was repeated till anything, absolutely anything could be by Donatello. This was a field in which the discipline of connoisseurship, as it emerged from the skeptical minds of Morelli and the young Berenson, played no part, and not till the 1930s did a Hungarian scholar, Jeno Lanyi, take the first steps to establishing what had hitherto been lacking, a methodology for the study of Donatello.

Lanyi’s target was a monograph, and he realized that the first stage in its preparation must be the building up of a systematic record of serious, optically truthful photographs. When he died during the war, the task was no more than begun, but, to the lasting benefit of students of Italian sculpture, it was taken up and brought to a conclusion by Professor H.W. Janson. Lanyi’s forte was visual analysis; he believed that works of art yielded up their secrets only if they were scrutinized with undeviating concentration. Janson’s was reason; for him truth was to be sought through a continuing dialectic in which the mind was more important than the eye. Both were fallible, Lanyi because the autohypnosis he cultivated before works of art contained a strong subjective element, Janson because artists obey an inner logic which is not necessarily related to the logical processes we understand. Both were contractionists who aimed at establishing a platform of certainty, a quota of works that could confidently be accepted as Donatello’s.

The connoisseurship of Italian sculpture is a great deal more exacting than the connoisseurship of Italian painting, and it is not surprising that this salutory exercise, on Janson’s side as well as Lanyi’s, was a rather hit-and-miss affair. Inclusion and omission are both involved. So the Janson catalogue includes three or four works for which Donatello cannot possibly have been responsible. One of them is the Martelli David in Washington, which is an unfinished work by Antonio Rossellino; another is the Martelli Baptist, a characteristic work of Desiderio da Settignano, though still looked on by Hartt as “one of the most poignant works of the late Donatello”; and a third is the bronze Bust of a Youth in the Bargello, of which Donatello’s authorship was denied, correctly as I think, by Lanyi and was reasserted by Janson.

To delete works from an artist’s oeuvre is, it seems to me, a much more serious sin than to credit him with works he did not execute. One of the sculptures now commonly omitted is the silver- and gold-damascened relief known as the Medici Crucifixion in the Bargello. After examining it once more over some weeks last summer, I am convinced that it is a superlatively fine and perfectly authentic work, one of the great masterpieces of Donatello’s old age, but Lanyi and Janson rejected it, one because it seemed to him to fail to measure up to some nebulous criterion of quality, the other because it was a sport, whose genesis he could not reconstruct and which seemingly was incompatible with the academic concept of Donatello’s style that he deduced from other works. The passage on this relief in Janson’s catalogue is an illustration of what happens when art historians allow themselves to think that artists think like art historians.

The first difficulty in writing about Donatello is that his thinking (to a much greater extent than that of any other fifteenth-century Italian artist) was empirical, and that he was gifted with superabounding inventiveness. He seems to have worked rapidly, and his interest lay not in finish (beautifully finished though some of the sculptures are) but in the creative act. Impatient, perhaps impetuous, he adjusted his sculptures, sometimes radically, after they were finished (a case in point is the St. Louis of Toulouse). In his reliefs he was concerned with the creation of a space illusion rather than with the method by which the space illusion was brought about. In the case of the pulpit at Prato, he made models which were transcribed into marble by members of his shop, and on only two of its constituent reliefs did he work extensively himself. At Padua he modeled all of the reliefs of angels for the altar, and after they were cast left the chasing to other hands. The two pulpits in San Lorenzo in Florence were produced essentially in the same way (Hartt, the perfect Jansonist, still thinks that the reliefs were designed from the first for pulpits, though it has been shown by Volker Herzner that this is not the case).

It follows that in ascribing or denying works to Donatello the governing factor must be the creative content of the sculpture, not its surface character. No one could seriously suppose that an artist of his ebullience and imaginative urgency produced only those works which are documented—that his ten years at Padua, for example, were dedicated solely to the bronze sculptures of the High Altar, the Crucifix, and the Gattamelata. And we do in fact possess quite a number of secondary works, modeled sculptures in the main, which are now generally ignored, though account must be taken of them if we are to put flesh on the skeletal Donatello of the contractionists.

The second difficulty is that we have no more than an imperfect knowledge of how Donatello’s style evolved. There is, for example, no date for the Cavalcanti Annunciation in Santa Croce (which was thought by Vasari to be an early work, and was so regarded in the nineteenth century by a number of German scholars whose respect for authority triumphed over their common sense); no date for the bronze David (which has been placed as early as 1430 and as late as 1455); no date for the sculptures in the Old Sacristy. It is generally believed that the Annunciation was carved in the middle of the 1430s (though Janson proposes an earlier dating); that the David was probably carved about 1440 (though here again Janson’s dating is earlier); and that the reliefs and doors in the Old Sacristy were probably completed by 1443. But inferences of this kind are no substitute for exact knowledge. If one of them proved to be wrong, our whole picture of Donatello’s development would require to be revised.

Moreover, there are a certain number of works for which the conventional dating is manifestly incorrect. One of them is the Pazzi Madonna in Berlin, to which Hartt, as usual following Janson, ascribes a date of 1422. It is inconceivable that this relief was carved four years before the Pisa Madonna of Masaccio, and the style presumption is that it dates from about ten years later than is supposed. Hartt’s entry for this work is puzzling. “This little relief,” he calls it, and it would indeed be a little relief if, as he tells us, it measured seventeen inches by fifteen. Its real dimensions are seventy-five centimeters by seventy.

Another is the Feast of Herod at Lille, which Janson, with Hartt trailing behind, dates about 1435. Once again this simply will not do. The relief is based on a modular system like that of Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation at Urbino, and it belongs to a class of composition that occurs in painting only about 1450. The structure and figure style follow, and do not precede, those of the narrative bronze reliefs at Padua, and the technique differs from that of the marble Ascension in London. “Conceived in passion and carved in fury,” says Hartt (who has misunderstood its condition), but it is in the original a tired, rather disappointing work, which lacks the incisiveness of the earlier low reliefs in marble, and seems to represent a return by Donatello at the onset of old age to an art form he had employed so brilliantly twenty or twenty-five years earlier.

The third difficulty is that Donatello has to be looked at as an artist and not simply as a sculptor. Nowadays we accept the view that what differentiates sculpture from painting is the presence of the third dimension. Works are paintings if they are flat and sculptures if they are in relief. But this distinction would not have been accepted in the fifteenth century. Leonardo, for example, classes low reliefs which partake of the nature of painting as paintings, not sculptures, and the fact is that from about 1420 on, Donatello habitually worked in a kind of no-man’s-land where painting and sculpture meet. The evidence for this is very plain. We have one colored two-dimensional design, the great window of the Coronation of the Virgin in the Duomo (which is disregarded by Janson, by Hartt, and by every other writer on Donatello since the time of Kauffman), and two painted statues in the round, the Baptist in Venice and the Magdalen in Florence. After the Magdalen was stripped and before it was prettified by superfluous restoration, it proved, with its eroded white teeth and sun-parched skin, to belong to the same class of image as Castagno’s St. Jerome in the Annunziata and to be indeed the most powerful surviving portrayal of this kind.

Hartt observes that “the gold of the Magdalen’s hair imparts a strange lyricism to the horror of the shapes, and brings out innumerable riches of form which the great master can find in her filthy hair,” but says nothing about the way the hair is rendered, with little pieces of wood spliced like lumps of clay onto the main trunk. We have bronze reliefs which are invested, through the use of surface silvering and gilding, with coloristic properties, and one, the Medici Crucifixion, where damascening is employed to give the scene a novel luministic character. We have a stone relief, the Cavalcanti Annunciation, decorated with illusionistic gilding, and low reliefs in marble, the Assumption in Naples and the Ascension in London, where the method of carving is directed to creating an illusion of light and atmosphere.

If this is so, it is illogical to study Donatello in isolation, without reference to contemporary painting. It is generally accepted that the thinking in the London Ascension depends from that of Masaccio’s Tribute Money. But what of the equation between the structure of the St. John on Patmos in the Old Sacristy and that of Domenico Veneziano’s Adoration of the Magi in Berlin? What of the relationship between the elaborate perspective schemes of the Scenes from the Life of St. Anthony at Padua and those in the sketchbooks of Jacopo Bellini? What of the connection between Donatello’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence, with its roof protruding from the relief plane and its deep interior space, and the Last Supper of Castagno?

The evidence is ambiguous and can be read in a number of ways, but there is at least a prima facie case for supposing that Donatello, great sculptor as he was, was more impressionable than the books on him allow. No other quattrocento sculptor evinces pictorial proclivities one half as strong as his, and they are at root responsible for the phenomenon which is regarded in this ill-considered book as “modern vision,” and is best accepted as what it is, an inspired and highly personal language that has no relevance to modern art and no equivalent in Renaissance sculpture.


Candid Camera April 4, 1974

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