Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 24, 2004
Ulrich Pfisterer Donatello und die Entdeckung der Stile 1430–1445 Munich: Hirmer Verlag, 2002. 658 pp.; 150 b/w ills. Cloth $86.00 (3777481300)
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Ulrich Pfisterer’s Donatello und die Entdeckung der Stile 1430–1445 is the product of a talented scholar who, though working on well-tilled terrain, manages to unearth new material and to produce some very fruitful analyses. Amid a dazzling array of data and a cat’s cradle of intersecting proposals, the fundamental argument of the book—sometimes difficult to discern—concerns the ability of art to convey complex ideas. At stake is the intellectual status of the artist, in this case Donatello. This artist’s sculptures of the 1430s and early 1440s explicitly reveal, Pfisterer contends, a successful struggle to make visible certain concepts current in the most advanced humanistic circles of Donatello’s day. It was above all an ambition to operate within certain ancient rhetorical categories in order to rival and supersede antiquity that fueled Donatello’s practice; this led the artist to develop a self-conscious and intentional artistic style. Like Anthony Blunt’s Nicolas Poussin or Dorothy Johnson’s Jacques-Louis David, Pfisterer’s Donatello is an artist-philosopher, specifically, a visual humanist.

Pfisterer lays out his argument in eight chapters, each divided into sometimes loosely connected subchapters. The body of the text is followed by what might be this volume’s most lasting contribution to the study of Donatello: a series of fascinating appendices, including a very useful catalogue of early textual references to the artist and his works. The book is structured around examinations of three major sculptures: the so-called Amor-Atys, the bronze David, and the Frari Saint John the Baptist. Shorter case studies are interwoven into explanations of humanist conceptions of style, the reception of Polykleitos, and the cultural impact of Leon Battista Alberti’s De Pictura.          

The introduction includes an overview of the history of the term “style” as it intersects with the study of Donatello’s works. The second chapter reveals the fundamental method of this book, in that it charts a literary norm against which art will subsequently be measured. The norm here described is “style consciousness” (Stilbewußtsein). Illustrating assorted inflections of the term “style”—from the dolce stil nuovo of Dante Alighieri and Guido Cavalcanti, to its first documented use in relation to the visual arts (by Antonio Pucci, ca. 1373)—Pfisterer proffers a series of glosses on key concepts (ingenium, fantasia, puritas, etc.) and reviews important models of cultural change bruited about by protohumanists like Francesco Petrarca, Coluccio Salutati, and their fifteenth-century successors. While the author’s ranging comments on “style” and “style consciousness” in the first two chapters are illuminating, these ideas do not reappear as fruitfully as they might have in the case studies that follow.

In chapter 3, Pfisterer provides what is, to my mind, the best analysis of the Amor-Atys to date. Following Maurice Shapiro (“Donatello’s Genietto,” The Art Bulletin 45 [June 1963]: 135–42), Pfisterer identifies the bronze as a genius loci; he goes on to argue in some depth, and quite persuasively, that the sculpture was intended for a villa. His conclusions are strong, if slightly more hypothetical than the author admits.

The next chapter describes the reception of Polykleitos as the preeminent model for sculptural achievement during the quattrocento. Having reimagined the spurious oeuvre of and the literary references to the Greek artist in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, Pfisterer offers three examples—the Cantoria for the Florentine duomo, the Lille Banquet of Herod, and the Cavalcanti Annunciation in Santa Croce, Florence—of Donatello’s specific attempts to rival Polykleitos; all of these sculptures, it is claimed, refer explicitly to works attributed to that master during the early fifteenth century. This Pfisterer sees not only as an imitation of esteemed prototypes, but also as a rhetorical activity, lodged high on the ascending rungs of imitatio–aemulatio–superatio. (This trio is discussed profitably in relation to Gasparino Barzizza’s treatise of ca. 1413–17 on Imitatio [273–74]).

By this point, the skeptical reader might wonder how Donatello, almost certainly without a reading knowledge of Latin, would have had access to such high-cultural offerings. Chapter 5 seeks to preempt such questions by portraying Alberti as Donatello’s “super-humanist-advisor,” not only providing the artist with specific advice, but also in some manner granting him immediate access to the most advanced art-theoretical thinking of the day. Donatello must surely have encountered prominent Florentine humanists: he almost certainly knew Niccolò Niccoli; he appears to have advised Poggio Bracciolini on the purchase of an antiquity; and Pfisterer calls Alberti Donatello’s most important and learned “Diskussionspartner” (281). Pfisterer proposes that the type of thinking and conversation that led to Alberti’s treatise on painting (first circulated in 1435/36) informed Donatello’s sculptural practice. Although focusing on De Pictura, Pfisterer’s most original contribution in this chapter is to align Donatello’s practice with Alberti’s moderate stance in the debate about the nature of antique Roman language: Did all Romans speak Latin, or was there also a proto-Italian, popular demotic? Alberti, following Flavio Biondo, opted for the one-language position, seeing his modern Tuscan as a corrupted form of Latin. Nonetheless, Alberti the Florentine did not disdain modern Tuscan as did his peer from Forlì. Instead, Alberti considered Tuscan a noble language (perhaps connected to Etruscan) capable of expressing complex ideas and possessing a systematic grammar, which Alberti himself codified in a treatise; Tuscan could, in sum, be subject to rhetorical rules. Pfisterer sees Donatello’s works in the light cast by this insight. Donatello’s sculptural practice parallels Alberti’s superposition of the rules of ancient rhetoric on modern Tuscan, and on painting. His works could express the all’antica desires of the humanists, as well as the local, Tuscan nationalism embedded within the vernacular (and within the first-wave of humanist art and architecture associated most strongly with Brunelleschi, Masaccio, and Ghiberti). As Michael Baxandall proved, Alberti in his De Pictura understood the pictorial as possessing rhetorical structure; though about painting and not sculpture, his treatise blazed this philological, humanistic, and nationalistic path for Donatello.                    

The subject of chapter 6 follows Donatello along this path, toward the key object of Pfisterer’s study: the bronze David. The author does an excellent job of negotiating the muddled interpretative history of this object, especially the careful if opaque account of its origins and meaning by Francesco Caglioti (Donatello e i Medici: Storia del David e della Giuditta [Florence: Leo S. Olschki, 2000]). There are manifold insights and contributions in this chapter, but two seem particularly important: the first concerns the dating and placement of the statue; the second, its status as a field for artistic self-reflection.

Pfisterer argues that the bronze must have been produced before 1446, when Donatello left for Padua, and prior to 1447, when Domenico Gagini left for Genoa, producing there a series of marble figures for the cathedral that stand on large wreaths; the source of these wreaths, according to Pfisterer, must be the leafy footing of Donatello’s bronze David. Those wishing to call into question this particular terminus ante quem might want to point out that Donatello’s music-making putti set on the font in Siena’s baptistery in the 1420s also rest on circular garlands.

Pfisterer subscribes to the view that the David was displayed in the casa vecchia of the Medici before 1443, that is, well before decoration of the new Medici palace was begun. In support of this dating, the author enlists a predella panel with a scene from the lives of the Medici saints Cosmas and Damian painted by Fra Angelico before 1443. The small panel, originally part of the high altarpiece of San Marco and now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, includes the representation of a statue, which bears some resemblance to the bronze David, perched on an Ionic column and within a niche. Along with Martha Levine Dunkelman (“Donatello’s Influence on Italian Renaissance Painting,” Ph.D. diss. [New York University, 1976]), Pfisterer believes that this painting reflects the original site of the bronze David. Challenging Caglioti’s opinion that the David was made for the sala grande of the casa vecchia, Pfisterer argues that it was originally located in a courtyard in this complex of buildings, within a niche like that seen in Fra Angelico’s narrative. While this may be true, putting so much weight on this painting is risky; pictures of this sort should not be treated as documentary reflections of particular settings. It is also worth mentioning that the statue in the painting is clearly not a rendition of Donatello’s David (it has no hat, no boots, carries a spear not a sword, and does not rest on a wreath). The painted evidence is oblique, not direct.

The second major set of insights offered by Pfisterer in this chapter concerns the meaning of the bronze David. Having identified some central artistic concerns of the 1430s by reviewing works related to the David, Pfisterer attempts to register in the statue’s extraordinary appearance the artist’s desire to reflect metacritically on the problem of artistic creation. On the one hand, the object becomes a form of self-inscription (with Donatello/David overcoming gigantic challenges). On the other hand, it embodies a new artistic canon (serving, as did Polykleitos’s Doryphoros, as a comprehensive prototype for a new “art”). Within a tradition in which the biblical hero becomes an avatar for artists seeking glory (most evident in interpretations of Michelangelo’s colossus), the triumph of David over Goliath becomes an allegory of Donatello’s victory over Polykleitos. This is an attractive interpretation, but it might be complicated should posterity affirm John Shearman’s provocative suggestion that the visage of Donatello’s Goliath was intended as a form of self-portrait (Only Connect …: Art and the Spectator in the Italian Renaissance [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992], 24). Certainly the artistic and personal abasement suggested by this idea would not fit neatly within Pfisterer’s account, in which anything unstable about the meaning of the statue—its violence and its sensuality—is sidelined.

Donatello’s “Stilpluralismus”—as Artur Rosenauer (in Donatello-Studien [Munich: Bruckmann, 1989]) has called it—is evident in the subject of Pfisterer’s last extended analysis, the painted wooden statue of Saint John the Baptist in Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, Venice. Until an inscription was discovered during its restoration in the early 1970s, this statue was thought to be representative of Donatello’s late style. The inscription revealed, however, the date 1438, and the chronology established by the style cognoscenti was discredited. Pfisterer, shifting his emphasis from Greco-Roman humanism to Christian humanism, sees this statue (and particularly its veristic style) as fulfilling some of the rhetorical work set forth in the traditional theology of images developed by Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventura. Its startling, memorable, and moving realism make the statue an apt focus for the forms of penitential devotion desired by its original users, in particular the Florentine community in Venice.

A short final chapter seeks to draw together the many—indeed innumerable—threads unraveled in previous chapters. Leaving some stray strands, this conclusion does serve to underscore the author’s thesis concerning Donatello’s intellectual contribution to the discovery of intentional artistic form.

This book undoubtedly deserves to be read broadly; Pfisterer’s knowledge of the humanistic materials and of the Donatello bibliography is admirable. The book’s contributions to the study of Donatello are very exciting for scholars interested in this artist. By pinpointing a watershed in the history of the idea of “style,” Pfisterer’s book ought also to catch and retain the attention of others who are curious about the development of a consciously theoretical artistic practice. Nonetheless, for the thesis concerning the legibility of “style consciousness” to emerge lucidly—especially for nonspecialist readers—Pfisterer’s text would have benefited from significant editing. As it is, the author’s encyclopedic knowledge and desire for exhaustive, and sometimes exhausting, argumentation hinder his ability to convey to the reader what is particularly important and/or essential to his interpretations. The text, which as the author freely admits (11) is the result of a “light” reediting of his dissertation, offers largely undigested research, rather than strong art-critical writing. To those willing to gnaw on such raw research, this will be a satisfying, indeed enriching, experience. But given the new material, the key insights, and the importance of its fundamental assertions, this book, with some ruthless editing, might have been more appetizing to scholars beyond the immediate circle of those who study Donatello. The volume’s rhetorical esotericism matches its author’s methodological approach, which sets Donatello’s sculpture within an exclusively bookish and fifteenth-century context. This despite the fact that the most prominent modern methodological point of reference in this study is Hans-Georg Gadamer’s notion of the fusion of horizons. Pfisterer is, however, uninterested in the hermeneutics of fusion; he marginalizes questions of twenty-first-century relevance (which he sees as distorting our view of Donatello) and rivets the reader’s attention instead on the past. This is quite at odds with Gadamer’s fusion, which entails that the “historical horizon” be “overtaken by our own present horizon of understanding” (Truth and Method [London: Sheed and Ward, 1975], 273). What we receive in Pfisterer’s book is, instead, a sort of fission, leading to a positivistic assessment of a past literary horizon of expectation. I say literary, since for Pfisterer Donatello’s purported worldview is unrelentingly humanistic (it is, in fact, Alberti’s). This flat horizon, lacking the topography of class, gender, vulgarity, opposition, paradox, and everyday life, is an esoteric and ideal construct. The tight heuristic circle linking humanistic theory and artistic creation is certainly an intellectual delight, with the status of advisor, artist, and art historian all secured. But it cannot claim to be an account of reception, except in a limited and tentative manner.

What is more, although this book seeks to link content and form, very little is in fact said about form itself. The visual analyses are partial and are not often tied directly to the voluminous content the objects are said to house. This reveals a blind spot. For while Pfisterer wishes to convince his readers of the intellectual status of Donatello and his works, this status is not equated with visual and/or artistic intelligence, but rather with the textually founded intelligence of the humanists. Despite its title, this book is not at its core about the discovery of style. Instead, it recognizes in the work of Donatello patterns that parallel the rhetorical modes so prized by a specific intellectual set of the artist’s contemporaries. Paraphrasing Baxandall, this book might aptly have borne the title Donatello and the Orators.

Despite my fear that this rather unwieldy text will not generate the readers it deserves, and my reservations that it offers a too insistently humanistic account of Donatello’s practice, I wish to underscore its fundamental excellence. Pfisterer’s accomplishment is tremendous. This ambitious book warrants reading by all scholars of Renaissance art and will undoubtedly receive scrutiny by those especially fascinated by the sculpture of Donatello.

Adrian Randolph
B, Department of Art History, Dartmouth College

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