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Donatello and the Beginning of the Renaissance

I wish I was one of those people who could look at a work of art and know who created it and understand all the symbolism and nuances it represents.  To me, looking at art is like listening to a foreign language – it’s beautiful and I respect it, but there’s a mystery and meaning to it that I’m not in on.  I am amazed by art historians and others who have unlocked this secret language and can tell a Donatello from a Bernini from a Michelangelo.  Those who can read a work of art and know why the face is turned at a different angle from the hands.  Or even notice that the face is turned at a different angle.  To me, it’s a beautiful painting or sculpture that I look at and try to see these things, but more often than not I just walk away feeling good that someone was blessed with this extreme talent that gave me such joy to gaze upon.

Simplicity Can Be Complicated

Italy is a land of great beauty and riches.  Everything here seems to be elevated to a level that transcends the normal.  The perfect pastas with their just right sauces, the wines that are plentiful and affordable, yet transport you to a place you never imagined, and the incredible art that is everywhere, in big cities, in small villages and sometimes on the roadside.  All these things are so commonplace that they seem effortless, like they just naturally occur with little human intervention.  We tend to take them for granted, these small treasures that are so iconically linked to Italy and our perceptions and expectations of it.  But they are not happenstance, they are the result of much work, dedication, and talent.  This is the essence of sprezzatura, that word that so perfectly captures the Italian way of life.  It looks easy, but can’t be easily duplicated.  Many is the traveler who has an incredible pasta dish in Italy and tries to recreate it at home.  You can come close, but you can’t capture the perfection of the handmade pasta made with fresh eggs, the cinghiale that grazed on wild acorns, all served on a plate meticulously decorated by hand.  So simple, yet so very complicated.  Sprezzatura.

A Renaissance of Imagination

And so it is with art.  What confluence of events led to so many insanely talented artists residing in Florence in the 14th and 15th centuries?  Many events combined to make Italy, and especially Florence, the catalyst for sparking this movement.  Volumes have been written about it and entire university disciplines devoted to it.  The Renaissance caught fire in Florence and flamed across Western Europe.  It’s power and influence was so mighty that to this day we use the term “renaissance” to mean a resurgence, a rebirth, a characteristic that embodies creativity and effortless talent.  “He’s a Renaissance man” – you know exactly what kind of person that describes.  The word renaissance is French – the Italian word is renascimento.  Both mean rebirth.  An awakening to something different and profound.  Something that would change the world.


I never cease to be enthralled by Florence.  Walking its streets I feel the energy and creativity that burned so brightly 500 years ago.  Home of some of the finest museums in the world that house some of the most well-known and influential works of art, there are many opportunities to engage with art on a very personal level.  There is an exhibition now that showcases the works of Donatello and is spread over two museums in Florence – the Bargello and the Strozzi.  We’ve been to the Bargello before and I believe it to be one of the best museums in Florence.  For this visit, we concentrated on the Strozzi.  The Strozzi is the palazzo of the Strozzi family, a rival banking family of the Medici’s.  These were the two most powerful families in Florence from roughly the 15th through the 18th centuries.  They were both art patrons who did a great deal to help ignite the Renaissance.  Ironically, despite this exhibit being displayed at the Strozzi palace, it was the Medici’s who supported Donatello.  He is even buried in the Medici chapel alongside old Cosimo, the granddaddy of all Medici’s.


Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi was born in Florence in the late 1380s.  His father was in the wool guild, one of the many trade associations that kept the Florentine economy running.  Donatello would have been in the wool guild as well if he hadn’t shown extraordinary artistic capabilities.  As a teen he began apprenticing in various artistic workshops, one of which was that of Lorenzo Ghiberti, who created the doors for the Baptistry.  Young Donatello worked on these doors, dubbed the “Gates of Paradise” by Michangelo, and learned a great about perspective and dimension, two aspects that can be found throughout his work.

Donatello was a sculptor and worked in wood, marble, terracotta, and metal.  As I’ve said, art is something that I appreciate, but have no knowledge of the finer points of its production.  I don’t know how someone creates a magnificent scene on canvas with paint, much less how you begin to bring life to a block of marble.  It seems incomprehensible to me.  Where do you start?  How do make the folds of the garments, the veins of the hands, the texture of the hair?

The exhibit is in chronological order, so you can see Donatello’s earlier works and the progression of his style.  I love the big sculptures, but my favorites were the bas relief terra cottas and marbles.  On a one dimensional plane, he makes these figures come to life and gives them depth.  It’s like a peek into a private room that you can’t see all of, but that glimpse tells you what you need to know.

I still have a long way to go before I can truly appreciate art and understand the secrets of its meaning.  I can, however, spend a few hours looking at the most magnificent works of art, not knowing their nuances but reveling in the feeling of tranquility they bring me.  And knowing that in some workshop just around the corner from where I stand, these masterpieces were created so that I could enjoy them some 500 years later.

Art is Everywhere

As we were walking back to train, I noticed this magnificent fountain on a busy street near the station.  I thought it was a della Robbia and got home and looked it up and it is indeed.  A beautiful adornment on this modern street with scooters zooming past, buses roaring by, and tourists jamming the sidewalks.  Right there for us all to stop and gaze at.  This country is full of surprises like this, some where you’d least expect them.  And that’s one of the things that makes every day special here.  You truly never know what treasure you will find today.

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