Bronze Beauties

Donatello e il suo tempo: Il bronzetto a Padova nel Quattrocento e nel Cinquecento

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Davide Banzato and Gian Franco Martinoni
an exhibition at Palazzo della Ragione, Padua, April 8–July 15, 2001.
Milan: Skira, 376 pp., L80,000

Art historians, like tourists, tend to think of Padua as a stop between other destinations. But during much of the Renaissance, Padua—not Florence or Venice or Rome—was the major center for bronze sculpture. For some eighty years, beginning in the 1440s, it was the site of one work after another of extraordinary scale and ambition, including both the first bronze equestrian statue and the first monumental bronze altar since antiquity and one of the tallest and most complex bronze sculptures of the Renaissance. It was in Padua, too, that bronze statuettes for domestic display first became popular and were produced in significant num- bers, thus revitalizing a kind of personal collecting that had been dormant since the end of the Roman Empire.

This exceptional flowering of work in bronze came about principally because of one artist, Donatello, and two institutions, the University of Padua and the Basilica of St. Anthony in the center of the city. Donatello moved from Florence to Padua in late 1443. He was fifty-seven years old and arguably the most famous artist in Italy. A less enterprising person might have chosen to remain in Florence, where he was celebrated. But Padua offered Donatello new challenges, and during the next ten years he changed the history of sculpture.

In Florence, Donatello had worked in wood, terra cotta, stucco, marble, limestone, and bronze. In Padua he concentrated almost exclusively on bronze. This was an immensely significant development. Bronze was the most expensive and prestigious material for sculpture, admired both for its classical associations (it was well understood that bronze had been the most important medium in ancient sculpture) and for its permanence and monumentality. It was also the most demanding medium technically, and the process of casting in the fifteenth century was crude and difficult. Few artists and patrons were willing to face either the technical difficulties or the financial risk. Between 1409 and 1443, only four large free-standing bronze sculptures are known to have been made in all of Italy. (Three were by Lorenzo Ghiberti and one was by Donatello.)

By contrast, in Padua between 1443 and 1453 Donatello made at least nine monumental bronze figures, more than doubling the entire output of the previous three decades. At the same time, he produced at least twenty-one bronze reliefs, whose total area was equivalent to about one quarter of all the bronze reliefs that had been made in Florence since the beginning of the century. Donatello’s intense concentration on bronze sculpture enabled him to discover artistic possibilities that had never before been recognized. The bronzes he made in Padua show an unprecedented profundity and sensitivity in psychological description and a new and more powerful ideal of narrative expression. They were to have enormous influence on the history of Italian art.

Donatello’s first documented work in Padua is a large bronze crucifix in the Basilica of St. Anthony, on which he began work in January 1444. In its normal position, above the high altar of the basilica, it…

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