by Roderick Conway Morris

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Luciano Pedicini/
Archivio dell'Arte for Ministero per i Beni e le Attivita Culturali

Part of an unfinished equestrian statue by Donatello (c. 1455).

The Path to the Renaissance

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 26 June 2013


Leon Battista Alberti dedicated his Italian version of 'On Painting' not to a painter but to Filippo Brunelleschi, an architect and sculptor. Alberti's translation of his Latin original was issued in 1436, the year of the completion of the great dome of Florence's Duomo, which was designed by Brunelleschi and had taken 20 years to build.

Of the four other major artists that Alberti mentions in his prologue - Donatello, Ghiberti, Luca della Robbia and Masaccio - three were sculptors.

That sculpture led the way in the revival that was later to be called the Renaissance is hardly surprising. Italy was still littered with visible Roman remains and new examples of statuary were constantly being unearthed, whereas there were few known examples of Roman painting until Nero's Golden House in Rome began to be excavated in the late 15th century. It was not until the discovery of Pompeii in the 18th century that a much fuller picture of Roman painting became available.

Nonetheless, the revival in sculpture in the first half of the 15th century was soon paralleled by a rebirth in painting and the decorative arts. So, whereas pride of place is inevitably given to sculpture in this extraordinarily beautiful, intelligent and immaculately presented exhibition, during its course visitors also learn a great deal about the development of painting and the other arts in Florence during this period.

The show is curated by Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi, director of the Bargello Museum in Florence, and Marc Bormand, curator in chief of sculpture at the Louvre, who have also edited the scholarly yet eminently readable catalog, with compact, enlightening essays by nearly 30 contributors.

The 140 pieces on display are of a consistently high, often dazzling quality, and every important contemporary genre is covered, from images of the Virgin, saints, prophets and Old Testament scenes to secular portrait reliefs and busts of leading citizens and children.

The ease with which Florence's artists could move between different guilds, according to how their careers developed and the projects they pursued, appears to have been an important factor in assisting the flowering and cross-fertilization of all the visual arts in the city at this time.

Both Ghiberti and Donatello were registered at one time or another as 'painters.' Luca della Robbia was a member successively of the wool merchants', sculptors' and painters' guilds. And an early 16th-century work recorded that Donatello was wont to say that he could teach his students 'the whole art of sculpture with a single word: 'Draw!''

The revival of classical styles of sculpture during the 13th century had its origins not in Florence but in southern Italy and Pisa, where fine examples of ancient marbles, notably sarcophagi, were preserved and admired. The exhibition opens with striking statuary from this Pisan school by Nicola Pisano, his son Giovanni, his pupil Arnolfo di Cambio and their artistic heir Andrea Pisano.

The migration to Florence of 'Pisan' artists (though their founding father was from Puglia and Pisan by adoption) was of incalculable importance in revolutionizing Florence's sculptural scene. Richly emblematic of the influence of these artists is the hexagonal panel from the 1330s by Andrea Pisano, representing 'Sculpture' in the form of a bearded ancient practitioner of the art in his workshop carving a classical nude figure.

The panel once formed part of the decorative scheme of Giotto's campanile beside the Duomo. And it was the refashioning of the Duomo and the adornment of the Baptistery that gave the new generation of young artists their chance to make their mark on a monumental scale.

The next section of the show, 'Florence 1401: The Dawn of the Renaissance,' displays three objects whose historical significance exceeds by far their modest size. These are the two bronze panels of 'The Sacrifice of Isaac,' submitted by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi in the competition to find an artist to design and cast a second set of doors for the Baptistery, and Brunelleschi's wooden model for the dome of the Duomo, which was to rise, in Alberti's words, 'high into the skies, vast enough to cover the entire Tuscan population with its shadow.'

The adjudicators of the competition for the Baptistery doors had been at a loss to decide between the two finalists and suggested they work together on them. But when Brunelleschi rejected that option, Ghiberti was awarded the commission and Brunelleschi turned his attention to architecture, in due course putting his own imprint on Florence's cityscape on a massive scale.

Donatello worked as an assistant on Ghiberti's second set of Baptistery doors and was already receiving prestigious commissions for statuary for the Duomo when he was in his early 20s. The next section of the show unfolds the emergence of the greatest Italian sculptor of the 15th century, who was to go on to create the first marble shallow reliefs employing scientific perspective (of which he was a pioneer), the first bronze equestrian statue (of the condottiere Gattamelata) and the first life-sized bronze male nude (of David) since antiquity.

Florence's Orsanmichele building was second only to the Duomo as an arena for the display of artistic ambition and talent. The city's leading guilds were assigned niches on the exterior of the edifice in which to place statues of their patron saints, each commission aiming to outdo its predecessor in artistic excellence. The first of these was Andrea Pisano's 'St. Stephen' of 1340. Among the last, Ghiberti's 'St. Matthew' and Donatello's gilded 'St. Louis of Toulouse' were installed nearly a century later in the 1420s. The latter two appear here side by side in one of the show's many fascinating juxtapositions, along with other major works by Donatello, Ghiberti, Michelozzo, Nanni di Banco and Alberti.

'Spiritelli,' or little spirits, was the contemporary name given to those playful putti whose origins went back to Roman art and were found especially on sarcophagi. The Sienese artist Jacopo della Quercia was a crucial figure in their revival and reinterpretation, embellishing his monument to Ilaria del Carretto in Lucca with reliefs of them and decorating the baptismal font below Siena's Duomo with the first Renaissance putti cast in the round.

But, as is delightfully illustrated in an entire section here, it was above all Donatello who unleashed this riotous tribe on Western art, these chubby carved and painted infants becoming equally popular in works sacred and profane. Donatello used them as decorative elements in places as diverse as his choir loft in the Duomo, the pulpit in Prato's Cathedral, on the bishop's crozier of 'St. Louis' and on Gattamelata's saddle and armor.

And while Donatello's creation of the equestrian statue of the mercenary general Gattamelata (still in situ in Padua) was both artistically and technically an epoch-making event, Uccello's brilliant, illusionistically sculptural painting of the mounted condottiere John Hawkwood on the wall of the Duomo predated Donatello's monument by over a decade - almost throwing down a challenge to sculptors to make such a three-dimensional image in bronze.

The constant interchange between sculpture and painting is further illuminated in the subsequent section, 'Sculpted Paintings,' with telling examples by Masaccio, Filippo Lippi, Uccello and Andrea del Castagno.

This was also the era that saw the rebirth and reinterpretation of Byzantine icons of the Madonna and Child. By combining the lessons learned from classical sculpture and Byzantine painted imagery Florence's sculptors, led by Donatello, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi and Nanni di Banco created in marble and painted terracotta enchanting works intended for private devotion rather than public display.

There is a superb line-up here of pieces by these artists, including Donatello's famous Pazzi Madonna, and some exquisite examples in painted and glazed terracotta by Luca della Robbia and a lovely panel by Filippo Lippi - an early example of countless such painted images of the Madonna and Child that were to follow in the centuries to come.

The Springtime of the Renaissance: Sculpture and the Arts in Florence 1400-1460. Palazzo Strozzi, Florence.Through Aug. 18. The Louvre, Paris. Sept. 26 through Jan. 6.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023