Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From Florence Cathedral


20 February - 14 June 2015


Museum of Biblical Art, NYC


I have known it was coming for months, but if it were not for a wonderful friend calling my attention to an article in the NY Times yesterday, I should not have been aware that Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From Florence Cathedral was opening yesterday.  That these 23 sculpturesincluding three masterpieces by Donatellofrom the Museo del Duomo in Florence have travelled anywhere is incredible (it is due to the Museo del Duomo being closed until 29 October for the extensive renovations that have been going on); that they are going to be in NYC is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; and that they are at Museum of Biblical Art (Ken Johnson's article in the NY Times describes MoBiA as, "a 10-year-old institution not noted for producing once-in-a-lifetime shows, and it’s a beautiful, soul-stirring exhibition. It’s also a terrific valedictory show, as the museum will be leaving its current location at the end of June because of the building’s recent sale by the American Bible Society.") is weird (and due primarily to the fact that it was the only appropriate museum space that could accommodate the timing of the exhibition's availability); but it is the only place that Sculpture in the Age of Donatello will be on display!


Donatello is my favorite sculptor of all timesand the subject of my undergraduate dissertation, Donatello and the Tragic Sense of Life (New Haven, 1968).  And Lo Zuccone, one of the three major works by Donatello in the show, is perhaps my favorite piece of sculpture in the world:




Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From Florence Cathedral


20 February - 14 June 2015


Museum of Biblical Art


1865 Broadway at 61st St., NYC


Tuesday-Sunday: 10am-6pm


BUY TIMED TICKETS - $12, Seniors and Students $9


The principle curator for this fabulous exhibition was Monsignor Timothy Verdon, the Director of the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo (the "Duomo" being the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, and the Museum being the institution that usually houses these and the other masterpieces of art from the Duomo and its Baptistery and Campanile), who, along with co-curator Daniel Zolli, co-authored the terrific catalogue for the show, also entitled Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From Florence Cathedral.  (This beautifully illustrated and deeply thoughtful book is extremely worth purchasing, and is available at MoBiA or online at  The essays are informative and scholarly as well as very enjoyably readable, and the plates from the exhibition alone are worth the price of the book.  It is something you will want for your library.)  Mons. Verdon, who got his Ph.D. in History of Art at Yale under Charles Seymour, Jr., (who was also one of my mentors at Yale in the sculpture of the early Renaissance in Florence), has created a marvelously selected, beautifully displayed exhibition.  I went to it twice on its opening day yesterday, and shall return for many follow-up visits.


The exhibit begins with a late Trecento (14th Century) sculptural group, usually attributed to the important sculptor Giovanni d’Ambrogio, a Annunciation scene with Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary:



This beautiful pair of figures is really far more Late Gothic than Renaissance; nevertheless, Giovanni was an extremely important influence on the sculpture of the Quattrocento, and Stefano Nicastri points out in the catalogue that he made a particular impression on Nanni di Banco. (p. 120)


Next in the exhibition are two reliefs, both attributed to either the young Donatello or to Nanni di Banco—and either is a reasonable attribution, as they are both quite masterful, although lacking the developed excellence of Donatello’s work.  The first, Vir Dolorum (Man of Sorrow), was the keystone of the arch of the Porta della Mandorla, the north entrance to the Duomo:



The second relief, also originally on the Porta della Mandorla, is of Hercules:



There follow two Profetini (“little prophets”), one questionably attributed to Donatello—although I don’t buy the attribution—and the other questionably attributed to Nanni di Banco—and, while I’m far less conversant with his oeuvre, I’m not sure I buy that, either.   (I do not find them nearly interesting enough to include here.)


There then follow two prophets, far more interesting and well-done than the former pair (but still not worth my time to include), these attributed possibly to Donatello or to Nanni di Bartolo (Il Rosso), or others; and, while I have no conviction, my temptation is to think the latter is the most likely.


A major moment in the exhibition is the pair of monumental statues of seated Evangelists that once flanked the entrance to the cathedral: the one on the left St. Luke the Evangelist (1408-13) by Nanni di Banco, the one on the right St. John the Evangelist (1408-15) by Donatello:



These sculptures were designed to be placed in shallow niches some 10 feet off the ground.  In Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From Florence Cathedral, these and the Lo Zuccone and the Abraham and Isaac are placed on pedestals that lift the works several feet off the floor, their bases are still below eye level—not the vantage from which they were designed to be viewed.  With Nanni di Banco’s work, that is fine, as he did not specifically alter it to take the viewing position into account.  As Charles Seymour always insisted, in the case of Donatello’s San Giovanni, however, it makes an enormous difference. Viewed head on as in the photograph above, Donatello’s statue flattens out and is relatively weak: the torso is awkwardly elongated, the hands are disturbingly large, the drapery is too complicated, and the position and expression of the face is simply not comprehensible.  But viewed from below (do remember to kneel before this work, as from your knees your eye level will be approximately at the correct viewing height), as intended, his St. John takes on the power and proper proportions it was designed to have: the lines of the face deepen and become more profound and meaningful, the torso takes on its correct proportion to the rest of the body, the drapery and the thighs suddenly make sense, and the hands become realistically powerful, assertive elements, correct in the foreshortening of the perspective of the whole:



Nanni’s St. Luke is still an amazing piece of sculpture, however.  It has a grandeur and elegance, even if it lacks the power and depth of Donatello’s St. John.  It conveys an aloofness, almost a haughtiness, in its visage and the tilt of its head; and its lowered eyes create a look that meets and holds your gaze.  As Mons. Verdon notes in the catalogue, “The chief beauty of Nanni’s statue—what ‘saves’ it, as it were—is the lively intelligence with which the sculptor imbues his figure.  …this underscoring of intellectual vitality reflects what Scripture tells us of the Evangelist’s character.” (p. 31)  This comes through vividly in the detail below:



We come now to Donatello’s works for the façade of the Campanile—some of the most powerful sculptures of all time.  The exhibition has two of them: Abraham and Isaac and Lo Zuccone.  These works were placed in niches high above street level (the exhibition claims 70 feet up, and, while I thought it was somewhat less, I rather suspect they have the accurate figure), as can be seen in the photograph of the Campanile, below:




As was clear in the discussion above of St. John the Evangelist, Donatello carefully took into account the angle from which his work was to be viewed; and in these later works, it is completely clear that one must take the great height of their placement into account when viewing them.  It would not be desirable actually to position these works at their proper height, as one would be unable to appreciate the splendor of their detail; nevertheless, I implore you to attempt to view them from approximately the correct vantage point—which, in this case, means seating yourself on the floor before them.  They simply do not compose properly viewed head on.  You actually need to sit down on the floor to view them.  This is not an exaggeration—if anything, it is an understatement:  on their old low pedestals in the Museo del Duomo, it was best to lie on the floor to view them (although a bit awkward)!  Try for yourself the comparison of looking at them head-on with viewing them from below.  Sitting also actually allows you to spend the time to take them in more fully, too.  Do not neglect to move to a position 30-40º to either side of each statue, as well as head on in order to see the full richness of what Donatello has created.  If you have hesitation about spending that much time on the floor, do it at very least for the most extraordinary of these work, Lo Zuccone.  To make the point, below I juxtapose two similar photographs of Il Popolano, the one on the left taken from below, and the other head-on—and if that doesn’t convince you to get down on the floor, nothing will!  (While Il Popolano is unfortunately not part of this exhibition, I do include a discussion of this magnificent piece in this Culture Alert.)  You will note that when viewed head-on, the body of the prophet dissolves and loses its strength and three-dimensional presence; the drapery becomes shallow and loses its power; and the intensity of the left hand and the statement it makes clutching the scroll of the prophet’s message all but disappears.  Having made this point, though, I encourage you to focus only on the photograph on the left.


Il_Pop-below_on     Il_Pophead-on


So, seat yourself before Donatello’s 1421 Abraham and Isaac and enjoy! While the design of this piece was certainly Donatello’s, the execution was done in part by his assistant, Nanni di Bartolo (Il Rosso).  The conception and the complex, intertwined composition must be Donatello’s.  In this piece, the height of the dramatic moment has passed.  Unlike Brunelleschi’s competition panel of this scene, which captures the very highest point of the tension and drama, here the tension is beginning to relax:  Abraham’s right arm is starting to slacken, and the knife is slipping away from Isaac’s throat; Isaac is in a state of passive acceptance; the angel has come and gone.  Nevertheless, what remains is the close, human contact of this father and son, with nothing to mitigate the immediate implications of what Abraham had been about to do.  Abraham’s pained expression gives the impression that he is well aware of the horror of the deed he had been about to commit.



We now come to the very pinnacle of the exhibition—and for me, the pinnacle of sculpture in general, Donatello’s magnificent Lo Zuccone (1423-26).  There is a controversy as to which prophet is represented in this work (and a slight uncertainty about the exact dating).  The descriptive names are not in doubt: Lo Zuccone (“The Pumpkin-head”) clearly refers to this work, as Il Popolano (“The Man of the People”) clearly refers to my other favorite of Donatello’s prophets (not in this exhibition); but the names of the prophets they represent are—one is a Jeremiah, the other a Habukkuk.  (The Habakkuk [as referred to in the records of the time] is the later of the two works, but it is not clear to which of the actual statues this name—and therefore this dating—applies.  I go along with Janson and Seymour on this (rather than with Pope-Hennessey, et al.) suspecting that Lo Zuccone is the Jeremiah and Il Popolano is Habakkuk; but this is not conclusive.  So I’ll stick to using the descriptive names for practical purposes.  Here, then, is a photo of Lo Zuccone:





Lo Zuccone is a work of art that is imbued with psychological complexity, intense emotion, human nobility, and a view of the world—and of human action within it—that is radically different from everything which has gone before it.  Allow yourself to stand (or, more correctly, sit) in awe of it.


By your leave, I am here going to quote from my undergraduate dissertation, Donatello and the Tragic Sense of Life.   (Please pardon my 21 year-old prose, which itself is now almost a half-century old!):


The Zuccone shows the same awareness of the tragic potential of the prophetic life, yet in this statue one feels a very different response to this situation.  The Zuccone is a man who faces the same adversity and rejection in the course of “maintaining his ways” as did the Popolano, but he, unlike the other prophet has come to accept this adversity.  This is not to say that he accepts the world’s iniquity, or that he has given up the painful process of trying to eradicate it, for there is a feeling of resolve about the Zuccone that is at least as strong as that of the Popolano.  It is a quiet resolve, however, unlike the fiery, unwavering determination of the Popolano.  The Zuccone is strong: a look at the marvelously muscled right arm tells the observer that this is a man of great physical stamina, if not of the great physical activity which was reflected in the tensed muscles of the Popolano: but more importantly, his knowing gaze betokens a wisdom that will enable him to persist in the face of adversity.  There is an aura of assurance about this figure that makes one certain that when he feels he is right his resolve will be unshakable, and that he could never be forced to abandon a cause in which he believes.  Nevertheless, one feels that this man has come to accept the suffering he must undergo in the process of propounding such a cause.


The suffering of the Zuccone is evident.  His face is sad and somewhat pained.  Problems have deeply furrowed his brow.   His eyes are deep and heavy.  Yet there is no trace of pathos.  One recognizes that this man has suffered, but one does not pity him.  One cannot pity him, for one is forced to admire his greatness—and that greatness would seem to have come, at least in party, from his suffering.  His great bald head, his knowing glance, his aura of assurance—his calm resolve combines with a sense of the adversity he has had to face to give an impression of a man with the highest form of wisdom—that which, in the words of Aeschylus, ‘comes through suffering alone.”


The Zuccone does not look away in anger, but rather looks down at his people compassionately.  Unlike the Popolano, whose lips were pressed tightly together, the Zuccone’s lips are slightly parted.  He is not tense, he is relaxed: he is not angry, he is tired.  His right arm, almost identical in pose to that of the Popolano, is totally different in feeling.  Whereas the latter’s arm was strained and tense, that of the Zuccone is relaxed.  The hand does not press against the thigh, but rather rests there is a loose belt.  His drapery is not agitated and energetic like that of Popolano.  In the Zuccone there is a great, heavy mantle that hangs over the shoulder and down the front of the figure.  This mantle is cut so deeply into the marble—the folds are often ten to sixteen centimeters deep, whereas the abse of the statue itself is only thirty-eight centimeters in depth—that one is given the impression that it is a great weight that actually bears down upon the figure.


This sense of the prophet bearing up under a great load was precisely the effect that Donatello wished to create.  Physically, the weight may be that of the mantle, but thematically it is the demands of the prophetic life.  Donatello is depicting the prophet who has come to accept his role—not becoming angry at the adversity his must face, but rather ‘bearing up’ under the great weight of his task.


In both the Popolano and the Zuccone, the power Donatello achieves is derived from his recognition of the tragic potential in the role of the prophet.  His interpretation here has little to do with the Medieval picture of the prophet as visionary.  There men are not otherworldly in the least.  They are intimately and immediately concerned with the events of this world.  It is not even so very essential to understand what the individual message of each of these men is.  The real importance lies in the recognition of what they must go through to propound this message.  Donatello saw the tragic implications of prophecy in the Old Testament sense, and he explored these implications in terms of what they mean for individual human beings.


There can be no denying the individuality of the Popolano and the Zuccone.  Their totally different reactions to what was essentially the identical situation indicate a fundamental difference in personality that seems to be consistently carried out throughout the entirety of the pieces.  The great individuality of the statues has even led to much speculation about their possibly being portraits.  There is a legend that developed early in the history of these works that they were in fact the likenesses of Giovanni di Barduccio Cherichini and Francesco Soderini.  Unfortunately, these speculations are, as Janson says, only “fanciful psychological interpretations  That they exist, however, is an indication of the highly individualized personalities of the statues they deal with. 


Donatello was able, within a Christian context, to see in the theme of the prophets all the tragic potential that the ancient Hebrews had envisioned—and perhaps more.  In the true spirit of the Renaissance and of the tragic artist, he examined this potential in terms of what it meant for individual human beings.  Even at the stage of his fullest recognition of the tragic implications of this theme, he was willing to admit that differences in personality could greatly affect the nature of hum action in the tragic situation.  In examining individual reactions, Donatello managed to arrive at what Charles Seymour has called a “’portrait’ of the tragic genius of prophecy;” for man, in the view of Donatello, could have the stature, the courage, and the individual assertiveness to exist in the tragic mode.


 Although not in this exhibition, I include here a description of Il Popolano  (1427-35):




  Again, I quote from my undergraduate dissertation:


Donatello most fully realizes the tragic potential of the prophetic theme in his last two prophets, Il Popolano and Lo Zuccone.  In these two figures Donatello embodies all the powerful human drama of tragedy.


Il Popolano is a strong-willed, determined man who faces his task with unswerving directness.  Donatello has depicted him in the very act of delivering his message:  in his left hand he clutches the scroll which contains that message.  This is not a scroll which he displays, as did the Beardless Prophet.  That earlier prophet was cast as a Roman orator, and his scroll was a formal device of rhetoric, used by him as a prop.  The scroll of Il Popolano is not something he uses visually to inspire his audience; on the contrary, it is something from which he draws his personal inspiration.  This scroll is his own little fragment:  it is a humble document, crumpled from long use.  It draws its significance not from its physical characteristics, but from the moral importance of its contents; and it becomes an important part of the statue not through optically asserting itself on the viewer’s senses, but through psychologically asserting itself on the viewer’s overall comprehension of the work.  It is important to the statue because it is so greatly important to the prophet.  The scroll symbolizes the message to which he has chosen to devote his life.  He faces his people to propound that message, holding his scroll before him almost as if for moral support.


It must be remembered that the message of the prophet was never an easy one for his audience to accept.  The Old Testament prophet had a message that was primarily moral and a role that was essentially that of social reform.  His was the difficult task of convincing his fellow men of their injustice and iniquity.  Moreover, he had to get them to change their ways.  People are never readily convinced that they should change.  Thus the work of the prophet was always met with much resistance.


Il Popolano would appear to react angrily to the resistance he meets in propounding his message.  The intense furrow of his brow, his tight frown, the tensed muscles of his face, the strained sinews which stand out on his neck—his expression reveals an angry disapproval, not only of his people’s iniquity, but also of their blindness.  He has tried to warn them, and they have not accepted his message.


Il Popolano looks angrily away from his people.  His gaze is off to the left and up—above the heads of his audience.  He averts his gaze not to ignore his people and become introspective, nor to turn to an ascetic mysticism by withdrawing from the demands of the situation, but rather to gather his energy for another volley.  He is disgusted with his people and his entire figure reflects the tension of his anger:  the muscles of his right arm are tense and strained, causing the veins to stand out sharply; his right hand is angrily pressed so hard against his thigh that it gives energy to the powerful undulations of drapery that seem to spread away from this gesture as ripples spread from a disturbance on water.


Nevertheless, he will not abandon those who have caused this anger.  The determination in his gaze is as obvious as the anger, and in his entire figure one feels a solidity that reflects his resolve.  His strong conviction obviously will triumph over those feelings which try to shake it.  He looks away to regain his composure, but he will again return to his task.  He faces great adversity, but he will never yield to that adversity.


There is in Il Popolano a powerful realization of the tragic implications of the role of the prophet.  In it one can see what it means, in human terms, to devote one’s life to propounding a message that people do not wish to hear.  One feels with the prophet the anger and frustration of being rejected by the very people to whom he has dedicated his life.  One feels the suffering of a man who is willing to step outside the system and question accepted norms.  In the fiery spirit of  Il Popolano, Donatello seems to have recaptured something of the Old Testament, tragic concept of the prophetic life.


To return to Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces From Florence Cathedral, there is a wonderful bronze Head with traces of gilding by Donatello ca. 1439:



There are also three hexagonal marble panels done for the Campanile in 1437-9 by Luca della Robbia.  I usually dislike the work of Luca della Robbia, perhaps because much of it—particularly the highly-glossed, colored enameled terra-cotta works—is far too romantic for my taste.  But these simple works I actually found to be quite lovely.  I include here his The Art of Dialectic,



and his The Art of Music,



Then there is a section on the influence of Ghiberti—who had a complex influence on the work of this period, but this is not the place for me to go into my opinions on it.  There is a very interesting piece in the catalogue by Marco Ciatti on Ghiberti’s North Doors for the Baptistery and their restoration.  There are three bronze replicas of panels from Ghiberti’s doors (cast in the same process that was done to create replacements on the Baptistery for the actual panels which were restored and removed to the Museo del Duomo), accompanied by maiella stone reliefs done by the Master of Castel Sangro, of which Stefano Nicastri writes in the catalogue, “Scholars have shown clear iconographic and stylistic affinities between these works and Ghiberti’s nearly contempory reliefs for the North Dorrs of Florence’s baptistery.” (p. 166)  Here is a photograph of one of Ghiberti’s actual panels, the Adoration of the Magi (1403-39):



And here, Master of Castel Sangro’s related Adoration of the Magi (1403-39):



Finally there are three of the wooden models of the dome of the Duomo, attributed to the great Brunelleschi, architect of the dome—and, in my ‘umble opinion, one of the three figures, along with Donatello and Masaccio, who were at the very heart of the Renaissance in Florence.  Here is a photograph of the model for the dome itself:



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