Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Shaping the Master: The Emergence of Donatello in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Academic journal article The Sculpture Journal

Shaping the Master: The Emergence of Donatello in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Article excerpt

'Either the spirit of Donato worked in Buonarroti, or that of Buonarroti first acted in Donato.'1 As a result of Vasari's praise linking him with Michelangelo, Donatello was at all times esteemed, acknowledged as the greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance. But in the early nineteenth century it was praise in the abstract. His work could only be seen in Italy, and in Britain perception of it was obscured by a lack of information and, most importantly, imagery. Donatello's was a name without visual associations, known to a small number of artists and progressiveminded collectors. By 1900 a much larger public had access to his work through a variety of media, ranging from literary studies to original sculpture. This article explores the process by which his work became known to a wider sector of the British public. It will outline the stages of this process and map contributing factors, such as evolving attitudes to religious images, issues of taste and economic considerations.

In a lecture prepared in 1826 for the Royal Academy Schools, the Academy's professor of sculpture, John Flaxman (1755-1826), compared the fifteenth-century Florentine sculptors to the 'first improvers in Greece', suggesting that with 'minds truly liberal' and 'indefatigable labour' present-day students could compare with them and 'secure the admiration of their own time'.2 It was in this context that he also commented on Donatello: '[After the Pisanos] the next distinguished restorer of sculpture was Donatello, the Florentine. Some of his works, both in bronze and marble, might be placed beside the best productions of ancient Greece without discredit.'3 In the 1820s such a statement was unusual but not original, as the comparison between Donatello and classical sculptors could already be found in Vasari's life of the artist.4

There had been a few instances of positive interest in the sculptor's work in the eighteenth century. An early one was the acquisition, in Italy in 1749, of the Chellini Madonna by the Earl of Malton.5 And in 1773 Horace Walpole was delighted to receive a 'Donatello' relief of St John the Baptist from Florence for Strawberry Hill.6 Drawings were more collectable than sculpture, and Lord Somers, Dr Richard Mead and Sir Joshua Reynolds all owned sheets considered to be by Donatello. When C. M. Cracherode bequeathed his collections to the British Museum in 1799, included was a drawing associated with a Donatello relief at San Antonio, Padua; though now attributed to Baccio Bandinelli, it was acquired as a rarity by Donatello.7 So in antiquarian-collector circles, that is to say in private spaces, the sculptor's name never ceased to signify, and to praise Donatello's name was, due to the status accorded him by Vasari, uncontroversial.8 His sculpture, reliefs and monuments were there to see, then as now, in churches in Florence, Siena, Prato, Naples, Venice and Rome, and others were listed in private palazzi. But their naturalism went counter to contemporary, neoclassical taste; their apparently indecorous irregularities made them poor examples for 'serious students'. Consequently Donatello's works were not subjects for printmakers, and reproductions did not circulate before the 1800s.

Flaxman's lectures illustrate this state of affairs particularly well. During his sojourn in Italy in the late 1780s and 1790s he had shown an unusual interest in early Italian sculpture. In Florence, where one of the prime attractions was the collection of antiquities at the Uffizi, he commented extensively on works by fifteenth- and sixteenth-century sculptors. In his 1787 journal he was critical of Donatello's Judith and Holofernes,9 yet he made numerous sketches after the pulpits at San Lorenzo, undressing some of the figures to show body movements, and deconstructing the compositions.10 Flaxman found the compositional solutions offered by early quattrocento reliefs especially compelling.11 Yet in his lectures, nearly forty years later, he reverted to the traditional praise of Donatello, and his sketches after the sculptor's works remained his private memoranda. …

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