There’s a lot of drama with Donatello. The master of early Renaissance sculpture made his art to loom and swoop and peer and dance. It’s there as soon as you walk into this show with his slim, lithe David standing over the severed head of Goliath. David’s all long, twisting neck and delicate features, but he’s so stretched-out, so wiry, so damn overbearing that suddenly you – puny little you – are just another Goliath to be slain.
It’s what Donny did. He took the techniques of goldsmithing, bronze casting and stone carving and innovated with them. He took marble, clay and wood and reinvented them and pushed them in new directions. He carved reliefs so shallow it’s like they’re made of mist, Madonnas so tender you can feel their love, busts so real they might come alive.
Donatello was born in Florence in 1386 and made a name for himself as the primo sculptor of his age. He filled the churches and wealthy houses of Italy with his work, assembled a huge studio, collaborated with all the important artists and architects of his age, and became the most important sculptor ever.
It’s so visceral you can almost hear the screams
But it’s tricky putting on exhibitions of priceless old art made for churches in other countries. Turns out, either it’s too fragile to move, or it’s too important to be allowed to leave. That’s how you end up with exhibitions about people like Caravaggio that only have two actual Caravaggios in them.
And that’s sort of the case here. There are some stunning Donatello works on display (though a lot of them are in the V&A permanent collection anyway), but most of this is about his influence, his circle, his mates and the people he influenced.
Further muddying all that is that he was working a hell of a long time ago, so authorship is hard to pin down. There’s an awful lot of ‘possibly by Donatello’ and ‘circle of Donatello’ and ‘copy of Donatello’ here – that’s how things worked back then, with big studios and loads of collaboration.
But the works that are directly attributed to him here are special. The ribs on his incredible, monumental bronze Christ on the cross are so sharp they could have your eye out; the agony in his ‘Lamentation’ is so visceral you can almost hear the screams; the bare bum cheeks on his unbelievably weird Attis-Adorno cherub are so… cheeky. And then there’s the ultra-shallow ‘schiacciato’ reliefs. They’re so light, so precise, so natural, so alive. Genuinely incredible.
But this is actually a show about Donatello and his followers, his studio and collaborators. About how he inspired Baroncelli and Schiavone, how he shaped the world with his art. It’s filled with copies of his work and paintings influenced by his composition. There’s even a whole room of nineteenth-century homages to him. Which is nice and all, but it’s not why you come to a Donatello show. This is an exhibition about him, rather than of him.
He’s the most famous sculptor in history, millions upon millions of words have been written about him and he is staggeringly influential. If his bronze cupids look like every other Renaissance bronze cupid, it’s because everyone was ripping him off. That’s a pretty permanent legacy to leave behind, it’s just a shame there’s not more of it to lose yourself in here.