A few years after the black death had cut 14th century Europe’s population in half, the continent, unexpectedly, sprang back into life. Prosperous Italian merchants began spending exorbitantly on art and architecture, prompting a surge of interest in classical values and scholarship.
Artists started to move away from the idealised generic style of the Middle Ages to embrace a fresh liberated expression, that was more personal and representative of the modern self. At the vanguard of this movement was the Florence-born Donatello, who encapsulated this fresher, more contemporary Renaissance style.
Through Donatello’s art, you discover the world, you discover yourself and you finally understand what the Renaissance really means.
“He brought the idea of individualism,” says Neville Rowley, the curator of the upcoming exhibition, Donatello: Founder of the Renaissance at the Gemäldegalerie. With Donatello “came the idea of creating realistic sculptures, characters, postures and faces”.
A revival of interest in Florence at the time, in mathematics and architecture inspired Donatello to become one of the first artists to master single point perspective, giving his figures a precise anatomical correctness.
Born in 1386, his life seems to be a contradiction; considered by some to be illiterate, or at least not educated in ancient Greek or Latin, he was nonetheless a diligent student of classical sculpture. “It was said he was not interested in anything but doing his job,” says Rowley, who has been researching the artist for close to a decade.
“He ate simply, but on the other side he befriended Cosimo de Medici, the ruler of Florence. But there is still so much we don’t know about his life. Unlike Michelangelo and Raphael, few art historians were around then to write about him,” says Rowley.
Just look at his sculpture of David, you cannot find a more violent theme.
Strangely, considering the Bode Museum’s world-renowned collection of Donatello’s, this is the first time an exhibition devoted to the artist has taken place in Berlin. For centuries, he had been viewed as “being too naturalistic,” says Rowley, “his work lacked the more traditional beauty of Luca della Robbia’s or other younger artists’ work.”
However, it is for these reasons that Donatello’s work was so unprecedented. For him, sculpture needed to become true to life even if that meant showing the ugly side of humanity.
“They were violent too,” Rowley continues, “just look at his sculpture of David, you cannot find a more violent theme.” Donatello’s sculpture was the first freestanding nude made since antiquity. David stands nonchalantly on Goliath’s severed head, cocky, with one hand holding a sword and the other resting on his hip. What’s remarkable for such a brutal scene, is the effeminacy of the naked boy’s pose.
Although the bronze David can’t leave Italy – a perfect plaster cast will be in the entrance hall – his earlier marble David (the model for Michelangelo’s David) has made the trip over. Numerous other works will also be arriving, such as the Amor Attis, considered to be one of the most astonishing objects of the 15th century.
The small and ecstatic bronze has the wings of Eros, the ankle wings of Mercury, the tail of a faun and the harmless snake of Hercules as a child. “No one knows what it is,” Rowley says, “it is totally bizarre, but we will be taking bronzes from Berlin’s antique collection to explain the different iconographies behind it.”
The exhibition is part of a quite unprecedented collaboration between two Italian institutions, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and Berlin’s Bode Museum. With around 90 works that have previously never been shown together, the exhibition will reveal how Donatello’s story is inseparable from the history of the Renaissance.
“The most important thing about Donatello is that all the human emotions are there: joy, sadness, empathy and violence,” says Rowley. “Through Donatello’s art, you discover the world, you discover yourself and you finally understand what the Renaissance really means.”
- Donatello: Founder of the Renaissance Sep 2, 2022 – Jan 8, 2023 Gemäldegalerie.