BOOK REVIEW / At home in a universe of marble and bronze: Donatello - John Pope-Hennessy: Abbeville, pounds 72

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The Independent Online
WHEN Giorgio Vasari wrote his Lives of the Artists, he created the model for all subsequent interpretations of Italian Renaissance art. Each new generation of artists stood on the shoulders of their predecessors: Giotto and Cimabue at the bottom, Michelangelo at the top. But there was one artist who resisted such easy classification: the sculptor Donato di Bardi, better known as Donatello. To Vasari, he seemed to stand outside the art of the 15th century. 'Either the spirit of Donato dwelt in Buonarotti,' he wrote, 'or Buonarotti's first dwelt in Donato.'

The arresting feature of Donatello's art was its modernity. Like Picasso in our own century, Donatello's greatness was protean, taking shape in a variety of forms and exploiting unorthodox media in addition to the more conventional marble and bronze. Where earlier sculptures merely represented a saint or a virtue, Donatello's figures embodied them. His St George was praised as having 'a proud and terrible energy . . . a marvellous sense of movement within the stone'; it became a reference point for martial valour. Michelangelo called the St Mark a true likeness of the evangelist, while the series of prophets for the campanile of the cathedral became a gallery of individual types.

Donatello effortlessly transformed any art form with which he came into contact, and his impact was not felt by sculptors alone. His three-dimensional models probably lay behind Masaccio's revolutionary Pisa Polyptych, and his relief sculpture established new narrative techniques for painters from Filippo Lippi to Leonardo and Raphael. His four panels of the miracles of St Anthony in Padua were held to be marvels even when they were first produced, and his bronze David, the first nude secular statue since ancient times, presented the youthful warrior with a sensuality most spectators still find disturbing.

Unlike many Renaissance artists, Donatello has fared well in terms of exhibitions and monographs, but John Pope-Hennessy's new book is welcome none the less. It is the fruit of almost 50 years' contemplation of a great artist by one of the pioneering figures in the study of Italian Renaissance sculpture, and the lapidary text is complemented by a generous series of photographs which give as full a picture of the sculptor's art as one could wish. Pope-Hennessy has benefited from the work on Donatello's sculptures that accompanied the 600th anniversary of his birth in 1986, and this informs his account of works like the stucco reliefs in the Old Sacristy or the bronze Judith and Holofernes. His aim is ambitious: he seeks to create something like a biography of the sculptor by analysing the relationship between art and life. This would be a difficult task for any artist - more so for a Renaissance sculptor who left no written pronouncements, not even poetry. And Donatello's is a difficult personality to pin down: he adapted his style to the given medium or subject matter, and left few works securely dated.

There is little, then, in the way of biography here; even the social context is slighted. Instead, we have a closely focused discussion of individual works, generally written in cool, dispassionate prose. This is where Pope-

Hennessy shines: he is a master of closely reasoned visual analysis. His discussions of the Cavalcanti Annunciation or the great equestrian monument to Gattamelata, to name but two, are especially illuminating. His concluding pages also bear re-reading - he emphasises that aspect of Donatello's art which we frequently ignore, its moral value. Donatello did not simply work for the admiration of connoisseurs but addressed a wider public through images almost visceral in their intensity. The sculptor who carved the Penitent Magdalen clearly understood the motivation of a reformed sinner - her gesture of fervent prayer was transformed into a moving statement on the power of human redemption.