Today, Palazzo Strozzi opened a blockbuster exhibit on Donatello. It is exquisite and worth making an effort to see. Why? Well, Donatello is (in my humble opinion) the most revolutionary artist to appear since classical times.
You may have heard me ramble on about him before, but a quick recap. Donatello lived in the very early 1400’s, about 100 years before Michaelangelo. At that time, the dominant art style in Europe was “International Gothic” which you probably know of as Jesus and Mary paintings with a gold background. Art at that time was mostly religious, and commissions gave painters very specific instructions on what they wanted, which is why so many of them look similar. Beginning with Giotto in the mid 1300s, painters decide to experiment with reality, adding detail and shadows to give some volume to their subjects. Progress.
When Donatello begins work, he’s not content with following instructions. A friend of the architect/artist Brunelleschi of Duomo fame, the two men collaborate on explorations of the ancient world of art, and experiment with reviving perspective. Look at the frame of the Madonna and child, or the perspective of the bronze relief. That kind of architectural representation just hadn’t been done since Roman times. So this is one of his achievements. But this is not why I love him.
Look at the chubby babies (technically candlesticks) and their funny faces. See the tenderness between his madonnas and baby Jesuses. His rough-and-tumble John the Baptist. These are not merely representations of biblical characters, but descriptions of souls. Prior to his work, nobody would have looked at a statue and wondered what they were thinking. Here, our John the Baptist is someone who looks about to lecture us, and the Madonna laughs at something sweet that her baby did.
It’s not just accurate representation, it’s bringing psychological tension, or perhaps even just a bit of personality to every character in his works. This is the reason that he’s (for me at least) the great genius of the Renaissance. It’s the humanity.
We all crave beauty, in whatever form appeals to us. But beauty, at its heart, leads us to the thing we really crave, connection, compassion, and relating to our mutual humanity. This is what Donatello brings for, perhaps, the first time in history.
Dreaming of Tuscany?
Tuscany and its capital Florence are a must-see for anyone. In this region in the center of Italy, history, art, culture and cuisine collide to create a feast for all of your senses. See some of mankind’s greatest works of art and architecture before immersing yourself in unrivalled natural beauty, all while enjoying iconic wines and traditional dishes. What’s not to love?