Donatello in Motion – A Spiritello Rediscovered, Andrew Butterfield Fine Arts, at the Moretti Williams Gallery, 24 East 80th Street, New York City, CLOSING November 25
In an art world teeming with crass nouveaux riches grabbing trophies at auction for insane prices, once prominent dealers in prison, Art Basel Miami Beach, and the “Da Vinci” industry, it is deeply comforting to find an enterprise like Andrew Butterfield‘s refreshingly sober, but gorgeous and energizing exhibition of a single work of art: a spiritello (more commonly called by its 16th century name, “putto“) which he found, eventually purchased, and now presents to the public with a carefully researched, modestly proposed attribution to Donatello (Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, Florence, 1386 or 1387 to 1466), the greatest of Italian sculptors of the Renaissance—I have always preferred his work to Michelangelo’s. As a teenager I made my way around the David in the Bargello with my father, and we both agreed it was superior to Michelangelo’s, and, as much as I’ve admired Michelangelo’s sculpture, and written about it, I still consider Donatello to the greater of the two. If Dr. Butterfield’s exhibition achieves nothing else, it pinpoints the reasons why Donatello is in fact the greatest and most influential sculptor of the Italian Renaissance.
In a nutshell, this sculpture of a flying spiritello (later called a putto), striding through the air, is one of a pair, its pendant now in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, is to be considered the work of Donatello because of its very high quality, its affinities with similar figures in the work of Donatello, e.g. another spiritello on the Cantoria he made for the Florentine Duomo, the bronze David, and other figures, and the way it fits into Donatello’s practice and style in the late 1430s. The impeccable catalogue contains three essays by eminent authorities which support the attribution and situate the work in the history of art and Donatello’s career. After Andrew Butterfield’s own preface, first comes Francesco Caglioti with a detailed study of the spiritello’s specific relationship to Donatello’s established work. Then David Ekserdjian provides a more expansive reflection on the position of the spiritello in the artist’s career, expertly outlined in what I consider to be by far the best short summary of Donatello’s career I’ve read. Finally, Eike D. Schmidt, Director of the Galleria degli Uffizi, gives a wide-ranging appreciation of the sculptured figure in movement, including contemporary sculpture and cinema. This sort of triangulation is a healthy exercise in the practice of connoisseurship, because a correctly attributed work will both fit and resonate within the strict “philological” evidence (as Italian scholars like to call it, i.e. what one sees in the object and comparables and reads in the documentation), the development of the technique and style of the artist in question, and finally the broad cultural issues touched by the work. Then, to take connoisseurship on to a further stage in art historical inquiry, the newly found and studied object will inevitably open a window into the artistic activity and direction of its time and provide us with the evidence to answer broader questions. In this case, the spiritello provides a new concrete example of an antique motif which was revived in the first half of the fifteenth century as a decorative element in architecture, relief sculpture and statues, as well as in paintings and prints. Charles Dempsey has already discussed the appearance and evolution of the putto—the term current in the 16th century—in detail, with his usual learning and intelligence, but, since few of the sculpted examples have survived, the appearance of single work of such outstanding quality is extremely important.
This podcast interview with Dr. Butterfield will bring all this to life for you, as it did for the fascinated visitors to the gallery, who gathered around us, as we discussed the spiritello. (You will hear their questions, comments, and words of appreciation towards the end of the podcast.) You may hear shifts in the acoustics and our voices move from one channel to the other, as Dr. Butterfield and I move around the sculpture. My own observations will also give you an idea of my own highly favorable respnse to the work.
The catalogue, with essays by Francesco Caglioti, David Ekserdjian, and Eike D. Schmidt, is available at the gallery or from andrewbutterfield.com.
Listen to the interview: