Half a dozen Davids, enough Virgin Marys to fill a convent, Jesus from crib to crucified and hosts of cherubs to sing you to heaven – this is the V&A’s spring blockbuster devoted to the renaissance sculptor, Donatello.
Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi. better known as Donatello was born in around 1386, and after training as a goldsmith, formed a partnership with the older Filippo Brunelleschi, and together they revolutionised sculpting, in both stone and later the more expensive bronze.
Often described as the “greatest sculptor of all time”, the V&A has managed to bring together a large collection of his works, along with many attributed to him or his studio for an exhibition that gives UK bound people a rare chance to see his work up close.
Opening with a free-standing, and to modern eyes, slightly camp looking David, the exhibition works its way around his career from metal basher to stone carver and later cast maker.
Glowering in a corner is a staggering huge gilt copper face, representing God the Father for Milan Cathedral — reminded me strongly of the Oracle from The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, is probably not what the sculptor had planned.
We learn that Donatello is likely to have invented a sculpting technique that I doubt many of us realise needed to be invented – the squashed relief — that creates a sense of space and depth with just a few millimetres of carving. His most detailed work in that style is here, and you start to understand the cleverness of the carver, not just technically but artistically.
A huge Jesus on the cross is supported on either side by an impressive St George and St Maurelius — the three looking strikingly similar to how Jesus is depicted by artists when crucified on Golgotha, with the two thieves either side.
However, possibly where the exhibition excels is in showing off works that are not by Donatello, but were often attributed to him by later artists, either as outright fraud or claiming to be inspired by him. This is where the exhibition points out why the sculptures are not Donatello’s, highlighting how the carving lacks softness or the clumsy carving of a leg or some toes.
It’s in these little details, that Donatello’s greatness is revealed.
So while the actual Donatello probably makes up barely half the exhibition, it’s the legacy that he created that fills the space.
As an exhibition, it’s been nicely laid out, generally with plenty of space between most of the big objects so you don’t have to peer over people’s shoulders to see them — usually.
It might have also done better to have some more details about why something is significant to be included in the exhibition, rather than just a description of where it came from.
However, as a chance to get up close to sculptures that are rarely seen outside their home countries, and even there at a distance, the V&A has done us proud.
Tickets can be reserved from here.
- Adult: £20
- Young person (12-25)/Student/Concession: £13
- Under 12: Free
- Members: Free
V&A members get free entry to all exhibitions.