The Magic of Donatello

Antonio Quattrone/Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
‘Prophet’ (possibly Habakkuk), known as the ‘Zuccone’; marble sculpture by Donatello, 1427–1436

The Museum of Biblical Art, lodged in a relatively small space on Broadway near Lincoln Center, is now showing nine sculptures by Donatello, one of the greatest of all Renaissance artists. Never before have so many of his best works been shown together in the United States.

Among the works on view is Donatello’s large sculpture of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk. “Speak, damn you, speak!” Donatello, we are told, repeatedly shouted at the statue while carving it. The dream of a statue that can speak or breathe or move is a fantasy shared by many cultures throughout time, and the story may be apocryphal. Still, it points to the fundamental appeal of Donatello’s sculptures: by some strange magic they seem to capture the phantom of life. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Habakkuk, which Vasari praised as “finer than anything else he ever made.” Even today it is often said to be the most important marble statue of the fifteenth century.

This sublimely harrowing work is at the heart of the exhibition “Sculpture in the Age of Donatello.” All twenty-three items in it were made for the cathedral of Florence in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries and are on loan from its museum, the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, which is currently closed for renovation. None of the sculptures has been shown in the US before. Along with works by Donatello, the exhibition features sculptures by his contemporaries Nanni di Banco, Luca della Robbia, Giovanni d’Ambrogio, and others, as well as architectural models by Filippo Brunelleschi.

The show reminds us why Donatello is so often ranked among the greatest sculptors. Born in Florence around 1386, the son of a wool carder, he worked in his teens assisting Lorenzo Ghiberti on the bronze doors of the Baptistery, but very soon after emerged as one of the preeminent artists of the Renaissance. His most admired sculptures include the fiery Saint George carved for the church of Orsanmichele around 1416, the sleek bronze David made for the Medici, probably in the late 1430s, and the proud equestrian statue of the Venetian condottiere Erasmo da Narni, known as Gattamelata, erected in Padua between 1447 and 1453. Sources tell us little about Donatello’s personality, although one writer describes him as being “rough and very straightforward.” In his art, too, he favored forcefulness of expression and cared little for tradition and convention.

The objects in New York are displayed in just one medium-sized room. Since some of the sculptures are larger than life and most were intended for placement on the exterior of the cathedral and its bell tower, this setting could have proved very unsympathetic. Fortunately, the works are beautifully lighted, and the bases are high enough to suggest their original…

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