The Springtime of the Renaissance, Palazzo Strozzi, Florence – review

Painting usually steals the spotlight in exhibitions about the Renaissance. Its beguiling narratives and spirit-lifting colours make it so much more immediate than sculpture. Yet without the sculptors who paved the way, we would have no Botticelli, Leonardo or Raphael. The revolutionary breakthroughs in the early Quattrocento were carved in stone and cast in bronze by the likes of Lorenzo Ghiberti, Brunelleschi and Donatello. The painters looked and learnt.

All hail then to a trio of institutions that have devoted a show to works in three dimensions. In terms of permanent holdings, there are no more powerful players than the Louvre and the Bargello Museum. Lacking a collection of its own, Palazzo Strozzi – built just a few decades after most of the works in this show were made – is ideally suited to the occasion. (The exhibition will go to the Louvre in September.)

Bolstered by superb loans, the result is a treasure-studded tour through western art’s most important era. Examples of Roman sculpture testify to the classical inspiration behind the Renaissance. (What a treat to see the Cortona sarcophagus, carved with Amazon warriors and plunging centaurs, that Brunelleschi is said to have walked all the way from Florence to see.) A virtually unknown master, Dello Delli, adds a frisson. It is a pleasure to be reminded why the transcendent talent was Donatello, thanks to a constellation including the breathtaking relief known as the Pazzi Madonna, on loan from Berlin’s Bode Museum. A handful of paintings demonstrate how the brushmen applied the lessons of their chisel-wielding peers.

The risk here is an embarras de richesses but only the first room falls prey. A laudable attempt to address the oft-neglected “proto-Renaissance”, the flowering of classical-style sculpture that began in Pisa in the late 13th century, it could have been revelatory given the presence of a Roman vase said to have directly influenced the Pisan medieval sculptor Nicola Pisano, alongside works by him, his son Giovanni and his student Arnolfo di Cambio, who designed Florence’s Duomo.

Yet this is a complicated cultural exchange. Made in the first century AD, the vase, known as the Talento Crater, is decorated with Bacchic dancers exuding intoxicated grace from every fluid limb. In Nicola’s day, the Crater stood outside the city cathedral but it is hard to see a clear link between the slightly stiff, marble lady from the Pisan’s workshop and those rippling Attic revellers. Meanwhile, Giovanni’s more fluid Madonnas were equally influenced by French Gothic elegance. (A lithe ivory statue, the Timbal Madonna, on loan from the Louvre clarifies this rapport.) Nowhere do the curators address the contradiction between the naked limbs whirling across the Crater and the voluminous gowns that envelop the medieval figures. Such riveting cross-currents deserve an exhibition of their own rather than a cramped antechamber prior to the exhibition’s true starting-point: the competition for Florence’s Baptistery doors in 1401.

By then, nudity was no longer a no-no. The 14th century had seen the rediscovery of ancient texts that gave the Florentine artists an intellectual foundation their Pisan forebears lacked. According to classical humanism, the beauty of the human body was a sign of virtue. Thus, when Lorenzo Ghiberti and Filippo Brunelleschi were challenged to design new bronze doors for the city’s Baptistery, they had no compunction about using naked Roman models as prototypes.

What a curatorial coup to gather not only the two panels, both depicting the Sacrifice of Isaac, that Ghiberti and Brunelleschi designed in a bid to win the commission but also versions of two Roman sculptures – both on loan from the Metropolitan Museum – that inspired figures within them. No one could doubt that the bambino prising a thorn from his foot (1st century BC) is the prototype for Abraham’s servant in Brunelleschi’s panel, or that Ghiberti modelled his Isaac’s muscular six-pack on a statue such as “Torso of a Centaur” (1st Century AD).

Presenting the panels like a threshold in the centre of the gallery, the curators – Beatrice Paolozzi Strozzi of the Bargello Museum and Marc Bormand, curator-in-chief of the sculpture department of the Louvre – ally themselves with traditional scholars who hailed their creation as the birth of the Renaissance. (Modern art historians point to a more intricate reality.) With its deeper spaces and more symmetrical composition, Brunelleschi’s offering in particular was a catalyst for change, a thesis that is difficult to argue with when you walk into the city. From Brunelleschi’s cathedral dome, modelled on Rome’s Pantheon and represented at the Strozzi by a wooden model that gives no sense of its majestic scale, to the serene rhythms of his Foundling Hospital in Piazza Santissima Annunziata, the architect bestowed an order and harmony on Florence that made it unique.

Crucial to the urban reinvention was a burgeoning sense of civic pride. In addition to architectural interventions, it was public statues, commissioned to adorn the cathedral and the church of Orsanmichele which belonged to the Florentine guilds, that announced Florence as a “new Athens”. A superb quota here includes Donatello’s “Young Prophet” (1406), which was made when the sculptor was just 20 years old for a pinnacle over the cathedral door. Yet it is hard to credit the author of this stolid, beardless, demurely-robed lad with the creation of “Abraham and Isaac” (1421). Made by Donatello in conjunction with Nanni di Banco to fill a niche on the cathedral belltower, this was the first Renaissance group to be carved from a single block of marble. Despite this technical challenge, the sculptors have conjured a fanfare of anguish through the acrobatic twists of Isaac’s svelte, naked body as he turns his neck to his father’s knife.

Other major commissioners included charitable institutions such as hospitals, orphanages and confraternities. A section devoted to their patronage includes a Madonna and Child made for Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital by Donatello with such skill that his trademark terracotta glaze shimmers with startling, human vitality. Yet the revelation here is two terracottas, “The Coronation of the Virgin” (1420-4) and “Christ Showing the Wound in his Side” (c.1420-4), by Dello Delli. Made for the hospital Santa Maria Nuova, both quiver with emotion thanks to the fluttering contours with which Dello balanced their three-dimensional volume.

Why has Dello been so neglected? In his own lifetime, sojourns in Siena, Venice and Spain made him an outsider in his native city. After his death, Vasari wrote his biography but his subsequent renomination as “The Master of Santa Maria Nuova” aligned to a lack of documented works saw him consigned him to obscurity.

As Florentine wealth was redistributed among merchants and bankers, there was a flowering of smaller sculptures for private homes. It was probably for one such lucky patron that Donatello carved his Pazzi Madonna – setting her in a tight, recessed space to exploit the beauty of her chiselled profile and the passionate intensity with which she clasps her wriggling babe.

The last chapter of the exhibition charts the rise of secular pomp at the expense of spiritual imagination as rich Florentines indulged their desire for Roman-style portrait busts. Rather than linger in these disappointing galleries, make a pilgrimage to the Bargello Museum. Home to magnificent residents including Donatello’s bronze “David”, it is also an opportunity to see another Dello: a tabernacle containing a Madonna and Child shaded by a model of the cathedral dome has been newly restored. A little more archaic than its Strozzi peers, what makes it fascinating is the quartet of marble prophets on Brunelleschi’s cupola, because no statues ever attained this lofty perch. Did the city fathers realise that a high wind could prove fatal to unsuspecting citizens below?

Until August 18,

This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.

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