Gallery Sightings: A Bite-Size Piece of Florence

What: Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral

When: Through June 14th, 2015

Where: Museum of Biblical Art

Admission: General, $12; Students and Seniors, $9

Two Prophets (ca. 1410), attributed either to Donatello or to Nanni di Bartolo. In background: Donatello's St. John the Evangelist (1408-15). Photo courtesy of author.
Two Prophets (ca. 1410), attributed either to Donatello or to Nanni di Bartolo. In background: Donatello’s St. John the Evangelist (1408-15). Photo courtesy of author.

In the middle of a rough semester, many would like nothing more than to get away. Some seek refuge in memories of a magical summer, and others eagerly plan their first (or second!) trip. But for the rest of us, for the next few months, a foreign world lingers at our very doorstep. A piece of Florence has arrived in New York City. Sculpture in the Age of Donatello, the latest exhibition at the Museum of Biblical Art, features twenty-three sculptures that decorated the interior and exterior of the Florence Cathedral. These pieces are all on loan from Florence’s Grande Museo del Duomo, which is being renovated and is set to reopen in November 2015. Most of the sculptures have never before been seen outside Italy. Together, these sculptures offer a vivid and engaging glimpse of the early Florentine Renaissance.

Upon first entering the single-room exhibition, one is struck by the pure and pristine space. All the walls are white, and the sculptures are divided by translucent white curtains that hang from the high ceiling. Most of the museum-wall texts are printed on these gently undulating curtains. The sculptures and reliefs, which once adorned the portals, the bell tower, and the organ lofts of the Florence Cathedral, are presented entirely out of context. However, this separation of sculpture from architecture is neither confusing nor problematic. Rather, the presentation allows us to focus on the works without distraction, and in such a meditative presentation, these finely-carved figures truly shine.

For those who crave context, in an adjoining room is a video that uses 3D rendering to show both the Florence Cathedral and the Grande Museo del Duomo. Apart from the very dramatic soundtrack and sometimes strange animations—zooming into a sculpture to see its beating heart—this video is a helpful companion to the main room of the exhibition.

The reflective setting is an excellent space for contemplation, and the show gives visitors plenty to think about. Throughout the artworks, we find evidence of the early Renaissance artists’ fascination with antiquity. For example, Giovanni d’Ambrogio modeled the head of the Virgin Mary of the Annunciation (late 14th century) after a Roman portrait type for adolescent males. Luca della Robbia’s relief The Art of Dialectic (1437-39), which adorned the bell tower, depicts a debate between two men thought to be Plato and his student Aristotle.

Illuminating comparisons pervade the show, especially between the work of Donatello and his main rival, Nanni di Banco. The two most imposing sculptures in the exhibition are Nanni’s St. Luke the Evangelist (1408-13) and Donatello’s St. John the Evangelist (1408-15), which stood on the front façade of the Cathedral, on either side of the main portal. Here the two are presented on elevated pedestals, side-by-side. Which sculpture is the most compelling? The prim, stiff, squinting St. Luke, or the slack, slightly unkempt St. John, who looks intensely up at the heavens? The latter seems to have a more dramatic personality, and indeed Donatello’s unrivaled ability to capture psychological intensity is evident throughout his works on view.

The Museum of Biblical Art is one of the less well-known and more easily overlooked New York City museums. But with Sculpture in the Age of Donatello, it demonstrates the resources and curatorial skill needed to create a gem of an exhibition. And, fortunately for Macaulay students, the museum is only a few minutes away from the Macaulay building. However, this probably will not be the case for long. After Sculpture in the Age of Donatello closes in June, the Museum of Biblical Art will leave its location on Broadway and 61st and move to a new space (not yet determined). Sculpture in the Age of Donatello is a superb farewell to this special space.

1 thought on “Gallery Sightings: A Bite-Size Piece of Florence”

  1. The Cathedral Museum has been expanded and enriched with works of absolute importance, in it now are the works of the Cathedral as the original copy of the door of paradise, which is the gateway to the famous baptistery in front of the Duomo

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