Sublime Beauty

By Mount, Harry | The Spectator, May 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

Sublime Beauty


Mount, Harry, The Spectator


The Springtime of the Renaissance - Sculpture and the Arts in Florence, 1400-1460 Palazzo Strozzi, until 18 August; the Louvre, 23 September until 6 January 2014 Sixty per cent of the best Renaissance art is said to be in Italy, and half of that is in Florence. So why bother going to Florence for a particular Renaissance sculpture exhibition when there's huge amounts of the stuff on show in the city's museums any day of the year?

It's true that some of the best Donatellos at the Palazzo Strozzi have taken only a short trip from the Bargello, ten minutes' stroll away; ditto works from the Duomo Museum. But there's lots more from museums around the world - from the Louvre, Berlin and the V&A - and from the rest of Italy, Naples in particular, that make this show a must, even for Firenze addicts.

It's even more of a must for anyone who's a bit hazy about the Renaissance.

Every schoolboy used to know that the period earnt its name as the renaissance of classical learning, art and architecture.

It's easy to forget the link between ancient and medieval, because the pupil outgrew the master - in fame, anyway. Everyone's heard of Michelangelo, not so many of Phidias, the pre-eminent ancient Greek sculptor.

This show restores the link, with exceptional ancient works placed alongside their Renaissance offspring. It reminds us, too, that contemporary artists thought they were thoroughly inferior to their ancestors. Vasari said of Donatello's enormous bronze horse head, commissioned by the King of Naples, that it was 'so beautiful that many take it for an antique'.

Looking at some of the antique works in the exhibition, you can see what he meant.

The staggering 1st century BC bronze of an anguished old man - found buried in Herculaneum, once wrongly thought to be Seneca - matches, excels even, the masters that followed 1,500 years or so later. Touching as Nicola Pisano's 13th-century sculpture of a winged Virtue is, its stiff and doughy modelling is nothing on the tortured expression, twisting neck and hyper-real human vitality of the ancient pseudo-Seneca.

The competition between the two periods heats up when you reach the greatest hits of the Renaissance. Sitting next to each other are the two panels showing the Sacrifice of Isaac, submitted by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi for the project to fit gilded bronze doors on the Baptistery of San Giovanni. …

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