Donatello's sculptures are among the most celebrated of the early Renaissance, and the current exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London offers an unparalleled opportunity to see his masterpieces up close outside of Italy. The exhibition, quite rightly, presents Donatello as the central figure of Early Renaissance sculpture: an artist who was not only a driving force in the rediscovery of classical form, but one who was set apart from his contemporaries by his remarkable attention to detail and naturalism. His sculptures are characterized by a sense of vitality and realism, with figures that seem to leap off the pedestal and into the viewer's world. The first sculpture that a visitor will encounter, Donatello’s remarkably prescient marble David, perfectly sets the stage for the plethora of masterpieces to come.
In many ways, Donatello's works (and Renaissance sculpture more widely) were departures from the more stylized, formulaic art of the medieval period. While the quality of works on display provides ample evidence for this development, it is worth noting that the exhibition does little to contextualise the artist’s breakthrough. Though I typically oppose too much wall-text, feeling it is better to let artworks speak for themselves, in the case of this exhibition I do feel that the curators could have done more to help those viewers who are unfamiliar with the artist’s works. Much of what scholars tend to laud in Renaissance sculpture is its simplicity and restraint: stylistic features that tend to lack ‘wow-factor’ when not properly explained. Where Donatello’s simple bronze reliquary might represent a remarkable break from medieval ostentation, the small, square bronze box does little to impress without this comparison. I would rarely suggest reading up on an artist before seeing their works (that should be the role of an exhibition), but in this case I feel that a little revision will pay enormous dividends. Given the brilliant examples of medieval sculpture held in the plaster courts of the Victoria & Albert Museum, I would recommend grounding yourselves in these precursors to Donatello before seeing the show. Despite these shortcomings, the exhibition is a triumph in many respects. One of the most impressive aspects of the exhibition is the sheer number of works on display. From the imposing David which greets visitors at the entrance, to the smaller, more intimate pieces, the exhibition provides a comprehensive overview of Donatello's oeuvre. Some of the highlights include the bronze relief panels from the pulpits in the Cathedral of Prato, the Pazzi Madonna, and a row of startlingly classical busts of male patrons and Saints.
I was frankly astounded that the Victoria & Albert Museum was able to bring together such an impressive collection of sculptures, many of which are rarely seen outside of Italy. It is a testament to the curatorial team's skill and determination that they were able to secure so many important works from the Bargello Museum in Florence, no easy feat given their fragility and immense cultural importance. For those wishing to see the artist’s oeuvre in the UK, this truly feels like a once in a lifetime exhibition. Accordingly, the Donatello exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum is an extraordinary opportunity to see some of the most remarkable sculptures of the early Renaissance up close. Donatello's unique qualities as a sculptor are on full display, with works that are marked by their attention to detail, naturalism, and vitality. While the curation of the exhibition could have been more comprehensive, the Victoria & Albert Museum deserves credit for bringing together such an impressive collection of works from across Italy. I highly recommend this exhibition to anyone with an interest in Renaissance art (although I encourage visitors to make up their own minds about the curation of the exhibition).
Visit Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington Open now until 11th June 2023
Don’t forget to visit our gallery on Beauchamp Place before or after your visit, we are only a 10 minute walk away, and a warm welcome awaits you.