Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

'Touch the Truth'? Desiderio Da Settignano, Renaissance Relief and the Body of Christ

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

'Touch the Truth'? Desiderio Da Settignano, Renaissance Relief and the Body of Christ

Article excerpt

From the late nineteenth century, relief sculpture has been taken as a locus classicus for understanding new engagements with spatial and volumetric effects in the art of fifteenth-century Florence, with Ghiberti usually taking the Academy Award for the second set of Baptistery doors.1 The art historical field has traditionally been dominated by German scholarship both in artist-centred studies and in the discussion of the so-called 'malerischen Relief'.2 An alternative tradition, likewise originating in the nineteenth century, has been claimed by English art critical writing where relief has offered a place of poetic meditation and insight. John Ruskin memorably championed the chromatic possibilities of low-relief architectural carving in The Stones of Venice in the early 1850s, and in his 1872 essay on Luca della Robbia Walter Pater mused on how 'resistant' sculpture could become a vehicle of expression.3 For Adrian Stokes in 1934, the very low-relief figures by Agostino di Duccio at the Tempio Malatestiano, Rimini, represented a vital 'blooming' of luminous limestone.4 Stokes's insistence that sculptural values were not reducible to modelling, which he identified with the Germanic conception of 'Plastik', is apparent already in his Ruskinian tribute to the hand-worn and weathered stone of Venice in which he asserts that 'Handfinish is the most vivid testimony of sculpture [...] Perfect sculpture needs your hand to communicate some pulse and warmth, to reveal subtleties unnoticed by the eye, needs your hand to enhance them.'5 The disarming focus on the sculpture's expressive need to be touched rather than the compulsion of the touching hand serves his larger argument that carving, in contrast to mere plasticity, brings out a vitality and movement that is inherent to the medium and not simply imposed upon it. This, then, is an argument from 'truth to materials' that is defiantly set against the Renaissance poetic trope of the resistant coldness of stone.6 Instead, Stokes's argument is better aligned with that strand in the Renaissance art theoretical debate known as the paragone according to which sculpture, which could be appreciated even by the hands of a blind man, was 'true' in a way that illusionistic painting was not.7 What such differently motivated, though equally rhetorical, claims share is their basis in the idea of carved relief as provoking a strong sensual and emotional engagement on the part of an embodied viewer. In each case, touch reveals truth.

The haptic lure of Renaissance sculpture provoked, as both Ruskin and Stokes insist, by the first-hand experience of carved stone has been acknowledged by a recent focus on relief works brought together at exhibition.8 While the exploring hand is strictly off-limits in this context, it was the visual clues internal to a number of early Renaissance reliefs, freshly juxtaposed, that provided the opportunity for insights into the complex interplay of vision and visibility, touch and medium in relief carving in this period. It is this interplay that will be explored here, above all in relation to the low-relief religious sculpture of Desiderio da Settignano (c. 1430-64), exhibited in Paris, Florence and Washington in 2006 to 2007, with a view to sharpening awareness of the potential of relief modes as bearers of meaning.9 Desiderio's relief works occupy a transitional position in the history of Renaissance carving, being in close dialogue with the technical and emotive achievements of the older Donatello while achieving a distinctive subtlety that was neither equalled nor, it seems, aspired to by a subsequent generation of Florentine sculptors. Its significance is arguably better placed, then, by prefacing the discussion with a slightly earlier work that reveals how relief could provide something like a material commentary on the sacred truths it was given to represent.

At the centre of the exhibition Depth of Field: Relief Sculpture in the Age of Donatello, at the Henry Moore Institute, Leeds, in 2007, the long narrow slab of Donatello's white marble Ascension of Christ and Giving of the Keys to St Peter (c. …

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