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…

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