Donatello graces London’s V&A

Work of Florentine genius on show in London’s famous museum

Donatello’s sculpture The Ascension With Christ Giving The Keys To St Peter forms part of the exhibition
Donatello’s sculpture The Ascension With Christ Giving The Keys To St Peter forms part of the exhibition

Donatello graces London’s V&A

Until 11 June 2023, London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) is hosting the first major UK exhibition to explore the exceptional talents of the Renaissance master Donatello, arguably the greatest Italian sculptor of all time.

Curators explain how he revolutionised sculpture both through his “inventive treatment of imagery” and his mastery of an extraordinary range of materials.

He sculpted in marble, stone, bronze, wood, terracotta, and stucco, as well as unusual mixed media, and rarely repeated himself - his work shows a constant desire to innovate and experiment.

It is not just what he sculpted and in what material that makes him special, but how he depicts emotion and action. His figures can seem frozen in moments of pain, like silent elegies. Feelings flow from the cast, lightly but vivaciously, as if the event depicted in the piece is still happening.

A life less ordinary

Appropriately named ‘Sculpting the Renaissance’, the exhibition highlights stages in Donatello’s life, from his early training in gold smithing, to his rise under the wing of the wealthy Medici family as it came to power and prominence in Florence.

 Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Lamentation over the Dead Christ, bronze, sculpted by Donatello, about 1455 – 1460, Italy. Museum no. 8552-1863.

The V&A describes Donatello as “combining ideas from classical and medieval sculpture to create innovative sculptural forms.” Indeed, his art rose to prominence between 1409 and 1466, during the early days of the Renaissance.

A rival to the title of greatest sculptor, Michelangelo, came later, between 1494 and 1555, during the ‘golden age’ of the Renaissance, and most critics acknowledge that his works were influenced by Donatello’s to a great extent.

Michelangelo came later, during the golden age of the Renaissance. Most think his work was greatly influenced by that of Donatello

Between 1404-07, the young Donatello worked as an assistant in the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti, an important sculptor and goldsmith in Florence. This is where he practised working with malleable materials like wax and clay, making 3D sketches for sculptures in different materials, including terracotta (which means 'cooked earth').

Other contemporaries included Brunelleschi, and Michelozzi, but such was the quality of Donatello's work, he is now lauded on a similar level to masters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli, who both appeared after him, just as art was developing away from the Church's control.

San Rossore, Donatello, by permission of the Ministry of Culture – Regional Directorate of Museums of Tuscany, Florence, Italy

Carving an air of vitality

Donatello's sculptures have an air of vitality to them. He was a talented marble carver, producing works for Florence Cathedral in his 20s, including the marble 'David' with its details such as the knotted cloak.

The V&A curators say detailing like this "demonstrates the young sculptor's prodigious carving ability". Indeed, his statue of David rises above the exhibition, as if it is ready to pounce, or as if it is dancing alone. To ignore it would seem bizarre.

Donatello's 'David' rises above the exhibit as if it is ready to pounce… to ignore it would be bizarre

David is standing upon Goliath's severed head, in what seems to be a soft stylistic twist on the bloody biblical tale. His neck is long and tilted, his features delicate, his body stretched, wired, arrogant, so much so that you feel small standing beside him, just another Goliath waiting to be killed.

Donatello played and experimented with the techniques of goldsmithing, bronze casting, and stone carving to create his forms, and used marble, porcelain, and wood like nobody had before him.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Madonna of the Clouds, by Donatello.

The gentle reliefs he carved on the surfaces of his sculptures gave his subjects an otherworldly feel, but also a delicate vitality. So lifelike are his depictions that you cannot but feel their presence, as if those busts could come alive at any moment.  

A plethora of work

His art adorned churches and mansions in Italy and he built a professional workshop, hiring the best artists of the time to be his assistants. In later years, it has become difficult to distinguish between his works and those of his assistants, who would imitate their master. Some of these may feature in the V&A exhibit.

David, by Donatello, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy. Courtesy of the Ministry of Culture.

Some stunning Donatello works are on display, many already in the V&A's collection. Among his more inventive techniques in marble is rilievo schiacciato ('squashed relief'), very shallow relief that conveys a sense of depth by barely grazing the surface with lines that appear to be drawn in the marble.

He built a workshop and hired the best artists as assistants. Over time, it became difficult to distinguish between his work and that of those imitating their master

The finest surviving example of this is 'The Ascension with Christ' giving the keys to St Peter, now in the V&A collection. "The relief's realistic sense of space is enhanced through the use of linear perspective (a system of creating an illusion of depth on a flat surface) which was a novel introduction to sculpture at the time," says the V&A.

Donatello's most famous bronze is probably the David, dressed only in hat and boots, which was probably commissioned by the Medici family. There is also the playful sculpture of Attis-Amorino, where the texturing on the boy's belt stands in stark contrast to the smoothness of the boy's skin.

Although there may be question marks over whether some of the 130 exhibit pieces are Donatello's (or those of his assistants), art history dictates that until proven otherwise, they be attributed to Donatello. One suspects that most sculptors who followed Donatello would have been influenced by him to some degree.

Victoria and Albert Museum, London
View of Florence from the South West, painting, by Francesco Rosselli, about 1495, Florence, Italy. Museum no. E.539-2015.

As such, a comprehensive exhibition of Donatello's works and legacy would likely include his influence on the great sculptors that followed. And famous though they may have been, Donatello lays justified claim to be the greatest of them all.

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