Sixty per cent of the best Renaissance art is said to be in Italy, and half of that is in Florence. So why bother going to Florence for a particular Renaissance sculpture exhibition when there’s huge amounts of the stuff on show in the city’s museums any day of the year?
It’s true that some of the best Donatellos at the Palazzo Strozzi have taken only a short trip from the Bargello, ten minutes’ stroll away; ditto works from the Duomo Museum. But there’s lots more from museums around the world — from the Louvre, Berlin and the V&A — and from the rest of Italy, Naples in particular, that make this show a must, even for Firenze addicts.
It’s even more of a must for anyone who’s a bit hazy about the Renaissance. Every schoolboy used to know that the period earnt its name as the renaissance of classical learning, art and architecture. It’s easy to forget the link between ancient and medieval, because the pupil outgrew the master — in fame, anyway. Everyone’s heard of Michelangelo, not so many of Phidias, the pre-eminent ancient Greek sculptor.
This show restores the link, with exceptional ancient works placed alongside their Renaissance offspring. It reminds us, too, that contemporary artists thought they were thoroughly inferior to their ancestors. Vasari said of Donatello’s enormous bronze horse head, commissioned by the King of Naples, that it was ‘so beautiful that many take it for an antique’.
Looking at some of the antique works in the exhibition, you can see what he meant. The staggering 1st century BC bronze of an anguished old man — found buried in Herculaneum, once wrongly thought to be Seneca — matches, excels even, the masters that followed 1,500 years or so later. Touching as Nicola Pisano’s 13th-century sculpture of a winged Virtue is, its stiff and doughy modelling is nothing on the tortured expression, twisting neck and hyper-real human vitality of the ancient pseudo-Seneca.
The competition between the two periods heats up when you reach the greatest hits of the Renaissance. Sitting next to each other are the two panels showing the Sacrifice of Isaac, submitted by Ghiberti and Brunelleschi for the project to fit gilded bronze doors on the Baptistery of San Giovanni. The strong classical allusions — particularly Isaac’s rippling torso in Ghiberti’s winning version — have given the 1401 competition hallowed status as the supposed starting date for the Renaissance.
In fact, there were earlier classical echoes in 14th-century art. But, still, it would be churlish to deny the extraordinary advances of the 15th and 16th centuries. I wrongly thought that some of the sculpture will have lost power through overfamiliarity. But you could never get too familiar with, say, Donatello’s ‘St George and the Dragon’ in the flesh — or in the marble. This 1417 bas relief — originally below Donatello’s ‘St George’ at Orsanmichele — is another 1066 and All That date for art historians: ‘the first scene in any medium to employ the resources of Brunelleschan linear perspective’, as John Pope-Hennessy put it.
It is rather more heart-stopping than that clinical definition: George and his horse rush into the marble away from you, as the relief flattens from the boldly carved stone of his flailing cape and the horse’s haunches, standing proud, to the barely incised lines of the background trees and colonnade.
The show has several paintings — including a charming ‘Madonna and Child’ by Filippo Lippi — but they are here largely to illustrate points about Florentine sculpture. And architecture, too: there are two marvellous wooden models here, one by Brunelleschi of the drum and dome of his Duomo; another, by Giuliano da Sangallo or Benedetto da, of Palazzo Strozzi. The nine rooms of the palazzo’s piano nobile that host the show are themselves prize exhibits — a measured, restrained series of plain interiors, with the lightest touch in classical decoration in pietra serena.
Two years ago, another Strozzi show, called Money and Beauty, cleverly and convincingly linked the development of the modern banking system in Italy with the emergence of the Renaissance. Money alone can’t explain the miraculous concentration of such sublime beauty. It remains too mysterious to explain; better just to enjoy.