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Donatello and the Art of Rilievo Schiacciato

Guest Author - Christine MacNeil Sweet

The depiction of a Madonna and Child was a leitmotiv or dominant, recurring theme in Italian Renaissance art during the Quattrocento or fourteenth century. Many of these works were created as private devotional items. Donatello’s Madonna of the Clouds is one of several half-length Madonna reliefs that may have been in the collection of the Medici family or one of their contemporaries. This work is currently part of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection.

Georgio Vasari, considered by many to be the first art historian, reported that there were several half-length Madonna reliefs created by Donatello “in the possession of Lord Duke Cosimo…heirs of Jacopo Capponi…Antonio de’Nobili, the Treasurer to his Excellency…Bartolommeo Gondi, [and]…Lelio Torelli, First Auditor and Secretary to our Lord the Duke,” giving credence to the idea that this work hung in the home of one of the influential, wealthy families of the time. (Vasari, Georgio, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, translated by Gaston du C. de Vere; edited, with an introduction and notes, by Philip Jacks, New York: Random House, 2006, p. 153-154)

Until linear perspective was created by Brunelleschi, in order to show perspective the material to be carved had to be of a certain thickness so the figures could be carved to different depths. It also required all figures to be in the foreground. The technique of rilievo schiacciato developed by Donatello and seen in Madonna of the Clouds featured a “fine gradation of the surfaces which produces the impression of an almost infinite pictorial space.” (Wirtz, Rolf C., Donatello, D-50968 Kiln: Konemann Vergagsgesellschaft mbH, Bonner Str 126, 1998, p. 6)

This low relief technique was almost two dimensional, allowing the sculptor to create spatial effects similar to those found in painting. Combined with Brunelleschi’s linear perspective, compositions were constructed on a two-dimensional surface as though they were three dimensional, creating a gradual recession and feeling that one was walking into the picture. Donatello’s innovations provided for sketchy, suggested, and undefined background carving that added atmospheric perspective. The personal devotional reliefs, such as Donatello’s Madonna of the Clouds, were made to be viewed above eye-level as if kneeling in prayer, for the perspective to be correct and the relief to stand out.

In his Madonna of the Clouds, Donatello placed figures in movement against a landscape of clouds with careful attention to linear perspective and diminution creating the illusion of space and depth. Utilizing the marble’s texture to create highlights and shadows instead of over carving Donatello created a suggestion of atmosphere.

Donatello’s training as a goldsmith is evident in this work. He carved the marble as one would carve a cameo, with the same low-relief. He was less concerned with contrasts in Clouds and more concerned with the blending of forms, rounding of lines, and restrained gestures. In Vasari’s Vite, he cites Donatello as one of the “earliest and most enthusiastic Renaissance artists to draw inspiration from ancient works.” (Bennett, Bonnie A. & Wilkins, David G., Donatello, Mt. Kisco, New York: Moyer bell limited 1984, pp. 168-170) The face of the Madonna was modeled after Female Figure of a Roman, first-century AD marble head at the Uffizi in Florence, possibly originally from the Medici collections.

Donatello’s innovation in relief carving using the rilievo schiacciato technique was not attempted by many sculptors because it was tremendously difficult. The marble, once carved, had to be a finished work as it was difficult of not impossible to correct mistakes in the carving. Unable to be polished lest some of the details in the carving be rubbed out, the marble surface was left rough. This allowed for the structure of the marble itself to absorb and reflect light.

Part Two: the iconography of and influences on the creation of Madonna of the Clouds.

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