Review Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance, V&A, London by James Ellis

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Perhaps overshadowed by later artists, Donatello wows in many ways. The sculptures remain highly polished and from the era of the 15th century being well before his time.

The V&A have take it upon themselves to grace London with a wonderful show of his work, though looking at the details of a lot of the pieces, only so many are officially linked to the master. A majority of work is attributed to him, or from his school, or perhaps later loving tributes, what is actually his remains uncertain. Though his genius is proven in his David, a world away from Michelangelo’s more famous statue. David here is more androgynous, the head of Goliath slumped below him. David stands proudly, his left arm resting confidently on his hip. This was the start of the exhibit and there were many more joys to see.

Of note were the fellow artists around the time of Donatello. A huge head, God the Father by Beltramino de Zuttis da Rho, made from copper gilded and silvered remains a staggering vision. It’s size is imposing and the vivid details are also fascinating, tuffs of hair and beard aside, wrinkles and slightly open lips. How well persevered the marble bust of Donatello’s doctor Doctor Giovanni Chellini by Antonio Rossellino remains. Donatello’s Reliquary bust of San Rossore, is bronze though is a typically gilded site you’d see for a reliquary in a cathedral. It has a remarkable pull to it commanding attention away from the other busts around it.

The Sarcophagus of St Justina from the workshop of Gregorio di Allegretto is a fine example of perspective. With upcycling of this Roman sarcophagus, this was once believed to have been by Donatello and makes the female body match the length of it with feet spread apart and shoulders wide. This marble wonder also sees angels carved upon its side ends were by another craftsmen. Giovanni Pisano also had a fetching marble piece of Virgin and Child: turn to the left of it and both Mary and Jesus gaze at you almost judgementally. Donatello’s milky white marble relics are also staggering. One phenomena sees Mary as if she slammed her nose against the baby Jesus, a vision of true beauty. His bronze statue Attis-Amorino sees the Pan like fella stomping on a snake and gesturing with his fingers also OK signs. This is certainly a real highlight of the show, I saw a few people spend time with it and marvel upon it.

Two angels from a tomb by Michelozoo di Bartolomeo also had a lot going for it, their preservation also note worthy. As you go on a huge horse head, St George, a Crucifix and St Maurelius stunt the viewer as the exhibit continues. These are the show stopper sculptures and perhaps the main reason to come and see this. Even a drawing believed to be my Donatello of a section of The Massacre of the Innocents, sees vidid eye markings and horrible facial expressions.

Though a painting by Giovanni Bellini of Dead Christ supported by two angels is awkwardly place in a corner of a wall where you cant get to take it in, its positioning made it hard work. The immaculate, angular revelation of the Lamentation over Dead Christ by Bartolomeo Bellano also felt way ahead of its time and could have easily been by David Jones. The creases in the shrouds cannot be hyped use enough, I was ecstatic. The last rooms set tributes, influences and even fakes all turning to Donatello as a guide. An arch in the wall makes you look back at the David we started with and we see the Victorians develop a love for this Italian master.

Lovers of sculpture shouldn’t think twice about seeing this show.

Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance continues at the V&A till 11th June 2023.

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