This expansive exhibition certainly captures just how influential Donatello was as a sculptor but can feel a little overwhelming in places.
The title of this wonderfully vast exhibition is certainly apt, as it effectively reveals the impact of Donatello’s innovative approach to sculpture and there is plenty of compare and contrast to really illustrate many of the points raised. However, there is a lot of work that it is difficult to really tell if it was Donatello or someone who he collaborated with or worked alongside with in his studio that makes it difficult to be thoroughly satisfied.
That is not to say that the work by the sculptor that we do get to see is not impressive and it is easy to see why he is still to this day a renowned sculptor. The way in which he was able to bring in texture and make the subjects appear as human as possible is extraordinary, particularly seen in the numerous sculptures devoted to the Virgin and child which are filled with care and love they are certainly poignant.
Just like the work itself, this exhibition is filled with attention, as visitors find out more about the techniques Donatello used and developed, which was then copied by those who were deeply influenced by him. Yes many of the pieces on display have a religious quality about them – but there is also real emotion to be found in each piece selected for the exhibition. Whether it is joyful playfulness in the many child sculptures displayed or more sombre pieces, everything on display can give the viewer an emotional reaction to it.
Divided into numerous sections, for me the most fascinating one was in which focused on how working in goldsmith helped Donatello develop his renowned techniques. This section was accompanied with a short film that really captures the skill (and patience) in creating a sculpture and feels particularly detailed. Elsewhere, this then ties nicely with how his developing skills then went onto (and continues to) inspire artists to copy his work. His legacy it is clear was to make us see sculpture (which in my opinion can be a little cold and soulless) in a different light and there is no doubting that he managed to do that.
While the exhibition makes it clear throughout there are select artworks that are difficult to know who exactly created them, what it does do is beautifully sweep visitors back in time to the Renaissance – specifically to Italy. It feels like an overall celebration of the work of others who may have copied or helped him along the way without ever taking away from his own achievements. There is a real elegance in the way each piece has been displayed and once again it appears the curators have paid particular attention to ensure everything has been framed perfectly.
There is a lot to take in as you wonder around the display and while it has been very clearly sorted to keep it accessible for those less familiar to his work – it can feel overwhelming by the end. Throughout there is plenty of information to read and it is an educational experience, but it could have taken a bit of a step backwards to allow those visiting to stand back and appreciate the dazzling array of art that is on display here – less can be more.
The overall atmosphere of the exhibition is one of reverence, combined with respect that makes you feel as though you are wondering around a church (enhanced further by the number of religious themed works on display here).
Impressively displayed, Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance is a fascinating exhibition – but can feel a little overwhelming information wise that it might need a second visit to really appreciate just how influential the artist was. But let’s not leave it so long to have another exhibition celebrating his work, as this exhibition proves that his work should be displayed more prominently more often.
By Emma Clarendon
Donatello: Sculpting the Renaissance is on display at the V&A until the 11th June.