It is a relatively little known fact that the Victoria and Albert Museum owns the most remarkable collection of Italian Renaissance sculpture outside Italy; and the jewel in the crown of that collection is Donatello’s marble bas-relief of The Ascension with Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter. Acquired for the museum in 1861 by the enterprising scholar and connnoisseur John Charles Robinson, the work has never been displayed outside London since that time – never, that is, until now. Loaned to the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, Donatello’s Ascension is the star attraction in a compact and thought-provoking new exhibition, curated by Penelope Curtis and colleagues, which sets out to explore the manifold uses and associations of relief sculpture in fifteenth-century Italy, during and just after the first flowering of the Florentine Renaissance.
The Henry Moore Institute, which has no permanent collection of its own, has to rely on the generosity of lending institutions to function as it was set up to do – not just as a temporary exhibition space, but also as a forum for thinking about different aspects of sculpture. In this case, that generosity has been large indeed. “Depth of Field: The Place of Relief in the Time of Donatello” contains nearly fifty works of fine and applied art, most from the fifteenth century, nearly all of which have been lent by the V&A (although a few choice exhibits have also been furnished by the British Museum). Released from the dark and distinctly dowdy galleries in South Kensington, their usual home, into the tall and light-filled spaces of a modern art gallery, many of these works appear thoroughly transformed. This is partly because they are relief sculptures, and therefore particularly responsive to improved lighting. But the truth is that nearly all of the V&A’s Renaissance sculpture could be much better lit and installed – and with luck will be between now and 2009, when the redesign and refurbishment of the museum’s Medieval and Renaissance galleries is scheduled for completion.
Giorgio Vasari, the chronicler of Renaissance artists’ lives, credited Donatello with the invention of a particular kind of bas-relief, to which he gave the name “schiacciato”, literally meaning “squashed” – in allusion to the almost miraculous amount of detail and narrative complexity which the artist managed to compress into scenes realised in the thinnest depth of carved marble. Donatello’s genius is exemplified in the present exhibition not only by the famous Ascension relief but also by another slightly less well known masterpiece, a relief in bronze – carried out probably in the late 1450s – of The Lamentation over the Dead Christ. This is a small, intimately harrowing work, showing an unusually wizened Mary – prematurely aged, perhaps, by the sheer intensity of her grief – cradling the poignantly inert and slumped figure of Christ on her lap. She is surrounded by mourning figures in wild paroxysms of misery, drawn into close proximity to her partly by the requirements of tragic expression but also by the simple exigencies of the relief as a medium, cast as it is from a single piece of bronze. Mary Magdalene screams at the sky, like a classical maenad; St John stands, resting his head on one hand, stooped in deep sorrowful contemplation. The metal behind the figures appears to have been cut out, perhaps by Donatello himself, perhaps by a later owner of the piece, which enhances the almost balletic way in which they intertwine but also adds to the sense that each is isolated in deep grief.
“Depth of Field” is an exhibition which, among other things, aims to set Donatello’s undeniably extraordinary achievements into some kind of historical context. It shows the earlier traditions of relief sculpture on which he might have drawn, and attempts to suggest why this form of work might have seemed pregnant with possibilities to an artist of his idiosyncratic, inventive sensibility. Nowadays most people’s everyday experience of bas-relief is restricted to the handling and exchange of coins – each of which is, in effect, a two-sided mass-produced low-relief sculpture. But in the medieval and Renaissance period, relief sculpture in one form or another was an everpresent aspect of experience. Coats of arms and shields, such as the richly embossed leather parade shield included in the exhibition, were embossed with bas-relief decorations. The show also contains all kinds of sacramental and secular objects, ranging from ivory combs to book-covers to bishops’ croziers, teeming with figures enacting stories drawn from the Bible or from classical mythology. The experience of such relief work was often, necessarily, an intimate one, since such small-scale narratives and designs could only be appreciated at close quarters (even in the case of larger reliefs the medium tends to draw the viewer in, to appreciate the intricacy and delicacy of fine detail). At marriages or other ceremonial occasions it was common to serve wafers or biscuits that had been imprinted with the heraldic emblems of the families concerned, and a pair of late fifteenth-century Umbrian wafering irons have been included together with a finely incised wafer cooked – by the look of it, quite recently – within their pincer-like embrace. It was apparently common to decorate Communion wafers in a similar way, so as well as handling and looking at reliefs an early Renaissance communicant would also regularly ingest them – the most extreme example, perhaps, of the intimate place which relief decoration occupied in fifteenth-century Italy.
Renaissance streets were often decorated with relief sculptures, or brightly coloured terracottas, of the Virgin and Child. Tip-tilted into the viewer’s space by the nature of the relief medium, they must have seemed to bend down towards the street in benediction and blessing, as if looking down from a window, like guardian spirits presiding over the neighbourhood (an effect cunningly replicated at the Henry Moore Institute, where a number of these images, from the workshops of artists such as Andrea della Robbia and Desiderio da Settignano, have been placed high on the walls of the main gallery). The doors of ecclesiastical buildings were also traditionally embellished with relief sculptures, in which the stories of the Old and New Testaments were embodied. “Depth of Field” opens with two casts of the celebrated panels, on the subject of Abraham and Isaac, submitted by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi respectively in 1400-01, for the competition to win the commission for the doors of Florence Baptistry – a competition which Ghiberti ultimately won, his reward for which was to be the better part of a lifetime’s work, creating the so-called “Doors of Paradise”. That commission – the fruits of which, like the original competition panels, remain in Florence and cannot obviously form part of this exhibition – marks the moment at which the art of sculpture in relief was suddenly taken to a higher level in the early Renaissance, and therefore prefigures the innovations of Donatello in the medium.
The question of just why early Renaissance masters in Florence should have devoted such energies to the development of relief cannot be answered with certainty, but it seems significant that many of the techniques of relief sculpture should have been strongly associated with classical precedents. Carved sarcophagi survived in great numbers from the Roman period, as well as coins and commemorative medals and elaborately carved gems, some beautiful examples of which are included in the show and which demonstrate, albeit on a much smaller scale, precisely that delicacy of carving in shallow relief so evident in Donatello’s “schiacciato” masterpieces.
The architect, artist and humanist scholar Alberti (who knew Donatello personally) wrote of the profound ambition of early Florentine Renaissance artists to revive and compete with the arts of antiquity. Giorgio Vasari, in his life of Donatello, asserted that the artist was directly influenced by classical Aretine ware, a type of relief-decorated orange pottery, produced in the Roman period in the town of Arezzo. Vasari himself was a native of Arezzo, and his father was a potter – his name itself derives from the Tuscan word for vase, “vasoio” – so this remark has sometimes been taken as evidence of his own desire to reflect some of the glory of Donatello’s reliefs, obliquely, on to his home town and on to his father’s profession. But “Depth of Field” proves the accuracy of Vasari’s remark with an irrefutable juxtaposition, placing the V&A’s cast of Donatello’s famous relief of St George and the Dragon close to an Aretine ware bowl of the first century AD – the latter decorated with female figures virtually identical to the cowering figure of Donatello’s damsel in distress, about to be rescued by the swashbuckling saint on horseback.
The climax of the exhibition is Donatello’s Ascension relief, which is given an entire gallery to itself. Created relatively early in the artist’s career, in around 1428-30, scholarly debate has for years raged over the issue of whether it was, or was not, originally created for the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, where the great contemporary cycle of frescoes by Masaccio – Donatello’s friend – may still be seen. But here the work is simply presented as a great sculpture, beautifully lit and displayed in splendid isolation. At its centre, the ascending Christ solemnly blesses Peter as he hands him the keys, while the disciples form a large semi-circle around them, exhibiting a range of human response on a scale from astonishment to deep contemplation, the whole scene set in a landscape planted with trees of filigree-like foliage realised with astonishing delicacy. It is a work which demonstrates the peculiarly fruitful role of Donatello’s reliefs, poised as they are between sculpture and painting – and if the Ascension relief points towards the future, in Renaissance art, it would seem to point most directly towards the painting of Leonardo, in particular his Last Supper, which likewise presents a frozen moment of solemn encounter between Christ and his apostles, and frames the event as a panorama of human feeling.
“Depth of Field” cannot of course explain the genius with which Donatello developed the relief medium, but it does suggest the extent to which he united two aspects of the various traditions which he inherited. He may have been drawn to the form intellectually by its classical associations, but he responded just as deeply to its potential, so richly exploited by generations of medieval artists, to create a bond of devotional intimacy between viewer and work of art. The dramatic depth of feeling with which Donatello imbued his sculpture, the way in which he seemed to shape not just the exterior form but the interior emotion, struck his contemporaries with the force of revelation. Nowhere is this more striking than in his reliefs, wondrously carved pictures where the emotions of a scene are made not only visible but tangible – a vivid braille of sharply individuated feelings.