Donatello Review – The Robert Mapplethorpe of the Renaissance

A god with his pants down dances maniacally. This bronze statue, known as Attis-Amorino, is blinded by ecstasy, his cock hanging out and waving his hands in the air as he rages. He has a poppy in his hair and poppy seed pods on his belt. These, the catalog reassures us, symbolize the family for which the Florentine Renaissance sculptor Donatello made this in about 1435 to 1440. But opium was extracted from poppies early on, and the seeds represented unconsciousness to the ancient Greeks and Romans. It is clear that this little deity is not good at something.

This is one of the most confusing sculptures ever created. Many may quickly pass by, preferring to look – and be seen – at the Madonnas that fill much of this exhibition. For Attis-Amorino, as we say today, is problematic. Go behind it and you’ll see shiny buttocks peeking out of those falling pants. But if we are concerned about such a work of art, it is because it is still doing its job after more than 580 years.

Donatello is the Robert Mapplethorpe of the Renaissance, an artist of profound beauty who can create tremendous unease. For his contemporaries, Attis-Amorino was transgressive, not so much sexually as theologically. What kind of God is this? He has nothing in common with the suffering Christ whose image Donatello elaborates so intensely here in other works. He is not a God of suffering but of excess. And perhaps the way of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

This is the first large sculpture of classical mythology created by a Renaissance artist. When we think of ‘Renaissance’, we often think of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. But decades before that, there was Attis-Amorino. And it was made in a deeply Christian medieval world.

The exhibition opens with a captivating panoramic painting of Florence, the city-state where Donatello was born around 1386 and where he would become a favorite of the banker and political boss Cosimo de’ Medici. The city on the River Arno is dominated by the terracotta dome of the cathedral, built by Donatello’s friend Brunelleschi. Is that geometric egg a symbol of Christ, or of human ingenuity? This paradox hangs in the air over Florence. In a pious time, the Renaissance city raised hymns to classical beauty inspired by the pagan Greeks and Romans.

Such a statue literally makes an effort to escape its medieval clothing. It’s Donatello’s David – not the famous nude he made in bronze, but an earlier work he carved out of marble in about 1408 to 1409. And it’s another crazy hybrid. The tall young man looms above you, dressed in a leather top with tight sleeves, cloak and robes. Rather than obscuring the hero’s body, his garments draw your eyes to the way it bends into space, left arm bent in a flamboyant triangle, face calmly triumphant beneath a victory wreath straight out of antiquity. This is an image that balances between two worlds: the non-linear posture typical of the medieval Gothic style; his classic face that of a Caesar. A bare leg emerges from under the stone clothes, a bare foot sniffing at the hair of Goliath’s severed head. Look in the curtain and you can also see the other naked leg. Donatello’s mischievousness peeks out.

If he’s a bad artist, he’s also a funny one. After all this time, he has an irrepressible joie de vivre. Two marble reliefs fizz with energy as a crowd of winged boys dance and laugh, wild and elegant at the same time, as their mad leaps burst from the closed spaces they inhabit. Donatello amuses himself with the rules of classical art. It frames the dancers between straight rows of fluted pilasters. Yet this rigid architecture is a means to make their jumping and grinning all the more unruly.

Donatello lives in a way that his school contemporaries no longer do. Traditionally, the story of the Florentine Renaissance was told as a succession of discoveries, in which Donatello and his generation participated. Yet you get the impression that inventions like perspective were just tools for Donatello. He does not make art for his work. He makes it to express his ideas and emotions. Has any artist ever done that before in the history of the world? Donatello’s portrait of a Florentine patrician, perhaps called Niccolò da Uzzano, takes another ancient Roman genre, the lifelike bust, and dismantles it by caressing this sensitive head in terracotta.

He does the same with the body of Christ. His life-size bronze statue of Christ on the Cross, which has stood in St Anthony’s Basilica in Padua since its creation in the 1440s, is one of his largest male nudes. The exquisitely realistic detail of the dying man’s ribs and abs anticipates the almost-breathing torso of Michelangelo’s David.

Everywhere you look, Donatello breaks rules to suggest fleeting, delicate, often dangerous emotions. In one of the most sublime sculptures here, he pushes on the edge of visibility itself. The Ascension depicts the disciples witnessing Christ’s elevation to heaven, but the imagery of this white marble relief seems to melt into a cloud of ignorance, so soft is the carving: when you look at it, you seem to physical realm to another reality .

Donatello can rub your face in carnal existence and transport your soul to heaven. He is one of the greatest paradox provocateurs of all time, and this exhibition lets you meet him. It’s like catching mercury.

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