by Roderick Conway Morris

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The subtle Desiderio: Breathing life into cool marble

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 27 April 2007
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
'Bust of Marietta Strozzi'
by Desiderio da Settignano circa 1460.



Desiderio da Settignano was one of the few named artists in the inventory of the possessions of Lorenzo the Magnificent, along with now more familiar ones, such as Donatello and Fra Angelico. Forty years after his premature death in 1464, when he was still only in his mid-thirties, his sculpture was still highly valued.

Later on, collectors continued eagerly to seek out his works, but there was a gradual tendency to attribute to Donatello pieces as accomplished and refined as Desiderio's, depleting the latter's catalogue and undermining his reputation. Meanwhile, his sculptures ended up in a number of collections in Europe and America, making it difficult to form a comprehensive picture of his achievements.

Nearly 30 rare pieces by this wonderfully subtle and expressive artist have been brought together in 'Desiderio da Settignano: The Discovery of Grace in Renaissance Sculpture,' in the first retrospective devoted to him. It also serves to highlight his two surviving monumental works in Florence: his Tabernacle of the Sacrament in the San Lorenzo Church and his Tomb of Carlo Marsuppini at Santa Croce. The exhibition continues at the Bargello Museum until June 3, then travels on to the National Gallery of Art in Washington (July 1 - Oct. 8).

Desiderio was born in Settignano in around 1429 or 30. This village to the east of Florence was famous for its stonecutters and quarries from which pietra serena, the hard blue-gray sandstone used by Florentine sculptors and architects, was extracted. Cutting and carving skills were passed down from generation to generation and the village produced a number of other well-known sculptors, including the Rossellino brothers, Antonio and Bernardo, and Bartolomeo Ammannati. Michelangelo's family owned a villa there and as an infant he was put in the care of a stonecutter's wife, the consequence of which, as he joked later in life, being that he 'sucked in chisels and hammers with my nurse's milk.' Desiderio's father was a stone carver, as were his two brothers, with whom he later worked in family studios in Florence.

By tradition Donatello was Desiderio's first master, but it now seems more probable that Antonio Rossellino fulfilled that role. Desiderio displayed precocious talent and originality, and became much in demand during Donatello's absence in Padua (1444-1453). By the time he was in his mid-20s he was receiving a stream of prestigious commissions through the middleman Bartolomeo Serragli, who supplied the Medici and the Aragonese Court at Naples with art works.

A large part of Desiderio's renown rests on his portrait busts of women and children. He drew inspiration from ancient Roman works and reliquary busts of saints, and from Donatello's more naturalistic interpretation of the latter, but Desiderio's busts were unprecedented as lifelike portraits, thanks to his uncanny ability to breathe animation into marble and lend the illusion of softness to its hard surface. There is debate as to whether some of these busts represent ordinary children or the Christ child, but all of them are palpably based on real-life models rather than ideal conceptions.

The artist had four children of his own and shared a house with a brother and his family, and the lively expressions of his juvenile subjects, ranging from the pensive to incipient smiles and outright laughter, were startlingly innovative. No less spirited were his studies of women, which represent an unashamedly secular appreciation of the charm and grace of their sex. (The authorship of these female busts has been more contentious, although by general assent an increasing number of them has been attributed to Desiderio.)

The appeal of these busts was almost certainly stimulated by the rise of a new class of wealthy entrepreneurial families, and their newfound desire to celebrate their prosperous domesticity and to signal their dynastic aspirations by commissioning busts of male children (little girls are notably absent). There is also the intriguing suggestion that these sculptures had an educational, exemplary purpose, serving as mute marble forerunners of those ideal Victorian paragons who were expected to be 'seen but not heard.'

The relative rarity after this period of the attractive, lively, individualistic busts of young women pioneered by Desiderio could at least in part be explained by the events surrounding Girolamo Savonarola's puritanical moral rearmament campaign in the closing years of the century. According to contemporary testimonies, many such busts were destroyed on the 'Bonfires of the Vanities' instigated by the Dominican preacher's hellfire sermons.

By this time, Desiderio's standing figure of the baby Jesus, his right hand raised in benediction, which crowned the San Lorenzo Tabernacle, had become such a cult object that it was substituted by a copy (one of many), so that the original could be displayed on the high altar during the Christmas festivities. Ironically, just such a figure is described as being carried on a portable altar by four children to attend one of Savonarola's 'Bonfires' in February 1497, to give its blessing as symbols of vanity, including portrait busts of young women (some perhaps by the artist himself), were committed to the flames.

Desiderio's low-reliefs were the other principal source of his renown. In these he carved stone with so light a touch that they seem to have been created with a brush rather than a chisel. His profile reliefs of Roman emperors appear to be the first Renaissance examples of their kind, and, if so, he established a mode of portraiture that has remained popular ever since. And his 'Profile of Julius Caesar' from the Louvre, on show here, confirms that he was as observant and sympathetic in his depiction of the old as of the young. His low-relief 'St. Jerome Penitent' from Washington bears witness not only to this, but to his skill with scenes of drama and landscape backdrops, while his Madonna-and-Child low reliefs were as masterful as any of his pieces, and as influential on subsequent painters as on sculptors - Leonardo and Raphael to mention but two.

Whether Desiderio was ever formally Donatello's pupil is unlikely to be definitively resolved, but there is evidence that they collaborated. A tantalizing case of this is provided by the so-called 'Martelli John the Baptist,' a full-length statue that was commissioned by the Martelli family in the 15th century and remained in their hands until it was acquired by the Italian state in 1913, since when it has been at the Bargello. It has been alternately attributed to Donatello and Desiderio, but now the most plausible explanation seems to be that it was begun by Donatello and completed by Desiderio, making them co-authors of the work. (On another occasion, Desiderio and his brother Geri executed a magnificent coat of arms for the Martelli palazzo from a design by Donatello.)

Both Donatello and Desiderio had monumental works in the Medicean San Lorenzo Church. In 1462, Francesco Sforza, the powerful Duke of Milan, was pressing Desiderio to carve a Madonna for him, but the sculptor excused himself, citing prior commitments. Donatello had already unexpectedly returned from Siena to Florence. It seems likely that Florence's two greatest living sculptors were to tackle an important work together, possibly a tomb for Cosimo the Elder, who had made the Medici the virtual rulers of the city. But Desiderio died suddenly in 1464, the same year as his patron Cosimo, and only two years before the octogenarian Donatello.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023