News - Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance

Opening early next year, the V&A in London is to stage first major UK exhibition to explore the work of the Renaissance master Donatello, including artworks never seen before in the UK...

Press Release

Opening February 2023, Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance will be the first major UK
exhibition to explore the exceptional talents of the Renaissance master, Donatello. It will offer
a fresh vision of the artist and his impact on both the cultural and artistic development of this
crucial time in the history of art. Featuring many works that have never been on display in the
UK, the exhibition will explore Donatello’s innovations, collaborations and inspirations within
the vibrant artistic and cultural context of fifteenth-century Italy, and his influence on
subsequent generations of artists.

Arguably the greatest sculptor of all time, Donatello (c.1386-1466) was in the vanguard of a
revolution in sculptural practice in the early Renaissance. Working in the full range of
sculptural materials and techniques, including marble, bronze, wood, terracotta and stucco, he
contributed to major commissions of church and state; was an intimate of the Medici family
and their circle in Florence, and was highly sought after in other Italian centres.

The exhibition will showcase works never seen before in the UK including Donatello’s early
marble David and bronze Attis-Amorino from the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, as
well as the spectacular reliquary bust of San Rossore from the Museo Nazionale di San Matteo,
Pisa, and bronzes from the High Altar of the Basilica of St Anthony in Padua. For the first time,
the V&A’s exquisitely carved shallow relief of the Ascension with Christ giving the keys to St
Peter will be displayed alongside the Madonna of the Clouds from the Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, and Desiderio da Settignano’s Panciatichi Madonna from the Museo Nazionale del
Bargello, providing an exclusive opportunity to see these works together. Through these and
other exceptional loans, the exhibition will offer visitors a unique vision of Donatello’s genius
and central role at this critical time in European culture. Focusing primarily on Donatello’s
lifetime and immediate followers, the exhibition will combine a thematic approach with
chronology, encompassing the inter-relationship between sculpture, paintings, drawings and
goldsmiths’ work. Donatello’s innovative technique and his ability to combine ideas from both
classical and medieval sculpture to create works that were novel, yet with an element of the
traditional, will be expressed throughout the exhibition.

Key works by the master himself will be complemented by carefully selected works by
Donatello’s contemporaries and followers that explore and expand on the sculptor’s major
place within the development of Renaissance art and its context, as well as inter-relationships
across materials. Comprising around 130 objects, the exhibition will also incorporate a
significant number of objects from the V&A’s own collections – including the most extensive
holdings of Italian Renaissance sculpture outside Italy – notably from the Medieval &
Renaissance Galleries. These are complemented by copies of Italian Renaissance sculptures,
including several by Donatello, in The Weston Cast Court.

Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance is the last in a series of exhibitions made possible through
collaboration with Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi and the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in
Florence, and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. Each institution has drawn on its own
collections and curatorial expertise to stage three distinct but complementary exhibitions,
offering a celebration of Donatello’s life and work in three parts, the first to be devoted to the
artist for nearly forty years.

Peta Motture, Exhibition Lead Curator of Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance said,
“Donatello was a driving force behind the Italian Renaissance and an inspiration to artists across
the centuries. The exceptional opportunity to collaborate with our partners in Florence and
Berlin, together with the generosity of all lenders, has made it possible for the V&A to present a
remarkable insight into the artist’s training, relationships and legacy. Bringing together objects
and narratives never seen before in the UK, the exhibition provides a unique moment to
experience, enjoy and – for those less familiar with his work – discover Donatello’s astonishing
talents and his wide-ranging impact on Renaissance and later art.”

About the Exhibition:

The scene will be set with the first section on Donatello’s Florentine Foundations, amidst the
burgeoning of the city’s Renaissance sculpture. He produced his first sculptures in marble for
the Opera del Duomo, such as the David and gained experience of working in wax, clay and
bronze in Lorenzo Ghiberti’s workshop. The friendships, rivalries and collaborations are drawn
out through these early experiences, including the inter-relationship with painters such as
Masaccio. Donatello’s extraordinary creativity and practical skills are explored through the lens
of drawings and models, and of the comparatively common but often underplayed role of the
sculptor’s training as a goldsmith. Although no goldsmiths’ work by Donatello survives, a sense
of its importance in his sculptural practice is provided by fundamental works from the
medieval and Renaissance period, such as the head of God the Father by Beltramino de Zuttis.

The impact of his early experience manifests in Donatello’s partnership with Michelozzo from
c.1425-34, explored here through their Catasto declarations for tax assessment, as well as
sculpture created in their joint workshops, including marble and mosaic panels and a bronze
capital showing dancing spiritelli from the exterior pulpit of Prato Cathedral (from the Museo
dell’Opera del Duomo, Prato).

The second section, Tradition and Innovation, explores in more depth Donatello's ability to
marry inspiration from antiquity with that from the more recent past to create a new vision,
including his contribution to the revival of the portrait bust and to the expressive intimacy of
the mother and son relationship in his sculptures of the Virgin and Child. These will be placed
in context with precedents from which he took inspiration, and with works by those who
followed. These original and replicated images – such as the V&A’s stunning Chellini Madonna,
the Louvre’s Piot Madonna and the Madonna of Humility from the Kunshistorisches Museum
in Vienna - could carry multiple meanings according to their context or role in devotional
practice. Donatello's extraordinary innovation in shallow relief carving and his approach to
perspective will be seen in select examples to be displayed around the V&A’s iconic Ascension

Bronzes: Sacred and Secular focuses on a carefully selected group of works in bronze,
demonstrating how Donatello responded to the needs of patrons and different contexts –
public and private, sacred and secular – in this expensive material. These sculptures embrace
political and religious messages, both in their iconography and in the choice of material. Small
bronzes, such as the 'spiritelli', inspired by antiquity, were created for both religious and
domestic settings. Among these are those made for the Siena Baptistery and the Duomo in
Florence which, divorced from their setting, take the form of bronze statuettes, another
fifteenth-century revival. Other highlights include two fountain figures associated with the
Medici, and the inventive Attis-Amorino, created for a family in the Medici circle.

The section Padua and Northern Italy will explore Donatello’s ten-year sojourn in Padua (1443-
54) and how this was significant to artistic developments in the city, as well as nearby centres
such as Ferrara and Venice. This section highlights Donatello’s inter-relationship with and
impact on both sculptors (Giovanni da Pisa) and painters (Mantegna, Bellini, Schiavone,
Zoppo). In Padua he created the equestrian monument to Gattamelata, and the exceptional
sculpture for the High Altar of the Basilica of St Anthony. Three sculptures now on the High
Altar speak both to their religious context and to Donatello’s remarkable creative skills,
collaborating with talented assistants and the founder Andrea Conti. The Miracle of the Mule
in particular reveals his innovative approach to creating space and colouristic effects. The
exhibition will juxtapose Donatello’s Crucifix from the Santo with sculptures from the Crucifix
Altar in Ferrara, highlighting a little-studied but important relationship between Donatello and
Niccolò Baroncelli and his heirs.

Devotion and Emotion will focus on Donatello’s exceptional ability to portray emotions
through both design and exploitation of materials, usually intended to inspire religious
devotional practice. The imagery of the Passion was often inspired by religious dramas
performed in Florence at the time, with which Donatello would have been familiar. The
Museum’s Lamentation relief and the Bargello’s Crucifixion, provide a focus in comparison to
works by contemporaries and close followers.

The final exhibition section, Homage to Donatello, will highlight his legacy; reviewing how his
sculpture inspired generations in the later Renaissance, as well as in the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries, in which Renaissance sculpture was both emulated and imitated. The
narrative opens with the marble David from the Martelli family, probably designed by the
elderly Donatello, but executed by one or more of his followers, and closes with Alceo
Dossena’s remarkable marble Virgin and Child relief from the Detroit Institute of Arts, an
exemplification of Donatello’s enduring legacy in the twentieth century. This section offers the
opportunity to review the changing attribution of works acquired as Donatello in the V&A’s
collection and to examine the production and status of the imitations produced in the later
period. The theme of this section will be unique to the London exhibition presenting new
research into the V&A’s collection.

The exhibition Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance runs from 11 February – 11 June
2023. Find out more and book tickets at

Images - 

Donatello, Madonna of the Clouds, Photo : © 2023. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Michelozzo, An Adoring Angel, (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Donatello, San Rossore, By permission of the Ministry of Culture - Regional Directorate of Museums of Tuscany, Florence
Donatello, Spiritello with a tambourine, Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin. Photo Antje Voigt, Berlin
Donatello, Pazzi Madonna, Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin. Photo by Antje Voigt, Berlin

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