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Donatello In Polychrome

I have been reflecting on two works by Donatello. One that I recently discovered, and one that I have visited often over the years. It was the recent discovery that made me realise that this sculptor's artistic language was even stronger than I had initially perceived.

The work that is new to me is a small Madonna and Child in the church San Francesco in the tiny Umbrian town of Citerna, an early work by the artist thought to have been made between 1415 and 1420:

The Madonna in Citerna literally added another layer to my understanding of this artist. Due to a happy set of circumstances, which I will get into later on, the original painted and gilded decoration of this terracotta sculpture has been restored to near perfect condition, giving us a glimpse of the work's original conception.

I visited Citerna recently to see the restored sculpture, now a solitary resident roped off in the sacristy of the church. In the presence of this artwork my heart undeniably recognised a depiction of motherhood. I was reminded of the symbiosis of the mother and child relationship in early infancy, how the two are still one. The closeness between them is charged with energy and intimacy. His heavy head remains hovering close to her cheek as he turns outwards from her, drawing strength to face the world from this maternal figure. Mary is so young, her stance, her soft face and graceful hands show love and acceptance, her physicality and her fate inseparable from that of her child. I was moved by the portrayal of this fundamental human experience conveyed powerfully across six centuries.

But that is not all. There is the sublime decoration, in the taste of the International Gothic style of the first part of the 1400s. Donatello employed precious pigments, elegant color combinations, gold leaf (on the hair), and painted delicate gilded motifs on the robes of the Madonna. Rarely can we observe the original surface decoration of 15th century sculptures so completely intact. The refined style of this decoration coupled with the emotional power of the sculpture makes for a unique Early Renaissance combination to be savoured.

How the sculpture came to light:

This sculpture stood on a high ledge at the window above the choir stalls, behind the altar of the church of San Francesco in Citerna for as long as anyone can remember. The story of its 'discovery' starts in 2001 when a student art historian was meticulously executing the task of cataloguing sculptural works in terracotta from the 15th and 16th centuries present in outlying churches of the region. She noted that this particular Madonna, although repainted rather sloppily, was of very fine execution. Apparently she noted how beautiful the hands were. She referred this information to her supervisors and in due time professors and art historians started to take a closer look.

In 2005 the sculpture was taken in to the famous Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence to undergo a restoration that would take about seven years. The restoration involved the sophisticated use of laser technology to remove at least 3 layers of repainting which had been applied over the centuries, to arrive at the original decoration. When we visited, our guide told us that although it may seem like a tragedy that the statue had been repainted, it was actually a bit of good fortune that the lead paint used to cover it served to conserve and protect the tempera paint and gold leaf underneath.

Seeing this beautiful early work inspired me to revisit Donatello's Magdalene in Florence:

This depiction of Mary Magdalene is in the Opera del Duomo Museum in Florence, and was made when the artist was about 70 years old, near the end of his life:

This later work confronts themes faced at the end of a lifetime. Many of you may be familiar with the emotional impact of this emaciated figure. We are struck by the painful presence of this woman before we move on to the details of the cragginess of her face and the sinuous muscles of her arms. Her gesture is a supplication, her hands coming together to formulate a prayer that has no peace to it, no conclusion either. The artist has described human presence, mortal, physical, and emotional with great skill, which evokes an immediate response in us.

During this visit I gave more consideration to the materials and surface decoration of the sculpture:

This sculpture is carved from Poplar wood, a rather rigid wood to carve. The energy of the material somehow matches the subject. Its use allowed the sculptor to express a certain resilient strength, like a tree subsisting on a rocky infertile ground, rooted in physical existence despite lack. The sculpture has however lost its polychrome finish. The delicate surface was gradually worn away over the centuries, and it was further damaged by the waters of the famous flood of 1966 in Florence.

It was probably originally finished with gesso, then painted with tempera and pigments to color the flesh tones. There are traces of gold on her hair. This thin figure is robed only in her long tresses of hair, the one remaining attribute of the Magdalene that Donatello chose to maintain in his unconventional portrayal of her.

After seeing the Citerna Madonna, I closed my eyes to visualise what Donatello's Magdalene may have originally looked like as it stood in the Baptistry in Florence. What if Donatello made that strange robe of shining burnished gold? What contrast! I can imagine this skeletal figure draped in an otherworldly robe of gold, glowing in the dim light of the Baptistry.

We usually do not stay focused for long on basic human experience and the emotional strength of it. Bustle and chatter move us on from there. Who was this Donatello who was so observant and knew how to strike this chord? Donatello's work takes me to the heart of my human experience, and then deepens my engagement with an added layer of beauty, precious pigments and gold leaf. I am glad that the Renaissance times he lived in allowed him to develop such a potent artistic language, a full arsenal as it were, so that today his works continue to communicate even when their beauty has faded.


the site of the Madonna di Donatello di Citerna with some beautiful close-up photos, and some before and after shots of the restoration

the site of the Opera del Duomo museum in Florence where the Mary Magdalene is on display.


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