Desiderio da Settignano: Sculptor of Renaissance Florence

National Gallery of Art I.

Sometimes a whole art, a whole era, a whole world, may be found in a room. Now on view at the National Gallery of Art is a small but exquisite show that includes some of the most astounding accomplishments in the history of Western sculpture. Its subject is Desiderio da Settignano, not a household name but one of the colossal talents of the early Renaissance. Working in Florence in the middle of the fifteenth century, Desiderio was the most gifted carver of marble since classical antiquity, and he used his gift to help transform the visual arts. He depicted a range of human thought and feeling that had almost never been represented before. He made marble reliefs whose illusion of spatial depth was of unprecedented clarity. He designed architectural ornament of an elegance unmatched since the zenith of classical decoration during the Roman Empire. And the technical and procedural innovations for making sculpture that Desiderio and his colleagues developed became fundamental for all subsequent artists in Europe down to the modern era.

These are all large claims, and all true. And Desiderio's accomplishment is all the more astonishing because he died young, in 1464, when he was only about thirtyfive years old: his career lasted little more than ten years. He was born around 1429 in Settignano, a small village in the hills outside Florence. His father and his brothers were stonemasons, and Desiderio must have learned from them the rudiments of his trade. Yet his background should not be seen as a special advantage. Cutting and dressing stone was a dirty job, requiring a great deal of physical labor; it had more in common with the work of a butcher or a tanner than with the work of a humanist or a poet. In the Renaissance, stonemasons tended to be poor and uneducated, even in comparison with other artisans, and few ever rose to a higher level of artistic success or social acceptance. There is no reason to think that Desiderio's family was an exception to the harsh rule.

Desiderio must have displayed extraordinary genius early, almost certainly while he was still an adolescent. Historians believe that, once his talent emerged, he was apprenticed to the Gamberelli workshop, headed by Bernardo Rossellino. The Gamberelli were also from Settignano, and active as sculptors and masons in stone; but unlike Desiderio's family, they were figures of considerable culture and achievement. Bernardo Rossellino not only collaborated with the architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti; he also advised Pope Nicholas V on the rebuilding of Rome, and he designed Pienza, the first ideal Renaissance city, for Pope Pius II. It was most likely under the tutelage of Bernardo Rossellino that Desiderio initially blossomed. This hypothesis seems all the more plausible since some of Desiderio's work resembles that of Antonio Rossellino, Bernardo's younger brother.

Desiderio enrolled in the sculptors' and masons' guild in 1453, and by 1455 he and his brothers had established their own workshop in Florence. He was an instant and spectacular success. Almost at once he received the commission for the most prestigious sculptural project in the city--the tomb of Carlo Marsuppini, the chancellor of Florence. Constructed in the left aisle of Santa Croce, the great Franciscan basilica near the center of town, it is familiar to every visitor to the city. Although it was an official commission sponsored by the government, the tomb seems to have been paid for by the Medici and the Martelli, another prominent family with close ties to the Medici. Rising more than two stories high, the marble tomb represents the chancellor stretched out on his bier, which is placed on top of his coffin, set beneath a classical arch on large fluted piers. Putti with shields guard the foot of the tomb, and angels and the Madonna and Child inhabit the upper story of the tomb under the arch.

The most extraordinary element of the monument is the coffin. A massive structure, it seems to rest, as if by magic, on just two lion's feet and a winged conch shell. Miraculous, too, are the thick leaves of acanthus that jut upward from the lions' feet, spinning and unfurling across the surface of the coffin. Acanthus was a symbol of eternal life, and the plants on the tomb seem to throb and move as if pushed up and outward by a divine force. Writing in the sixteenth century, Vasari celebrated Desiderio's ability to do the impossible and convincingly represent soft materials, such as leaves, feathers and hair, in the hard medium of stone. The acanthus on the Marsuppini tomb is the first great example in his career of this uncanny skill. In its elegance and its perfection, the acanthus recalls the sublime decorative carvings made for the Forum of Trajan, some fragments of which Desiderio may have seen in Rome.

At about the time he was finishing the tomb, Desiderio began other projects for the Medici, including the large Altar of the Sacrament for the family chapel in San Lorenzo, and the marble and bronze base for Donatello's bronze David, at the center of the Medici palace. Desiderio's association with Donatello appears to have been very close. Under the older artist's supervision, he even finished several of Donatello's marble sculptures, including a life- size statue of Saint John the Baptist for the Martelli family. Desiderio also embraced Donatello's experimentation with rilievo schiacciato, a virtuosic type of marble carving in extremely low or "flattened" relief. Donatello had invented this method around 1415 in works such as the celebrated relief Saint George and the Dragon, and Desiderio was the most important exponent of the technique in the middle of the century. In his short career Desiderio continually experimented with rilievo schiacciato, trying out many different variations of the method.

Of the ten or so low reliefs in the Washington exhibition, no two are carved in exactly the same way. Perhaps the most astonishing is the Saint Jerome in the Desert, made around 1460-1464. The surface of this stone picture is so soft and gentle that the figures and rocks of the sculpture look as if they were cloaked in a thin veil of mist. Seeing this work, more than one viewer has been put in mind of Leonardo and the sfumato of his pictures; and yet the forms of Desiderio's sculpture are even more delicate and ethereal than anything found in Leonardo's paintings. Documents of the period suggest that this sculpture probably once belonged to the Medici, and was kept in their treasure room; it was certainly created for close study by a learned patron.

Another relief of the highest quality, a masterwork, is Desiderio's image of the Madonna and Child, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, known as The Foulc Madonna. Although made at about the same time as the Saint Jerome, it is subtly different in technique; its forms are clearer, its space more distinct. The sculpture depicts the Madonna and Child appearing in heaven above a low bank of clouds. She holds the baby slightly forward of her body, as if presenting him to a crowd below, and both figures glance downward and to their left. They appear about to smile, as if just now, before our very eyes, they were first receiving the adoration of humanity, and were returning that love with the infinite charity of divine grace. As beautiful as this work is when one encounters it in its Philadelphia home, it has never appeared more radiant or more visionary than it does at the National Gallery; this is especially the case in the morning, when sunlight falls across the work, making it glow with a splendid illumination.

As with the acanthus on the Marsuppini tomb, Desiderio has here miraculously made stone look like the supplest material. The folds of the Madonna's dress cling to her body, revealing the delicate impressions of her right nipple and breasts, and the veil about her head and neck looks light and diaphanous. The bands of the Child's swaddling seem similarly made of some fine and tender substance that stretches, folds, and ripples as it wraps around his legs and torso. No one before Desiderio had ever carved marble with such subtlety and such precision.

The look of love and joy on the faces of the mother and baby appears natural, but there was nothing common about representing Mary and Jesus--or any other person--in this way during the fifteenth century. It is generally said that the early Renaissance was the first period when artists began to represent the "motions of the mind," to cite the famous phrase used by both Alberti and Leonardo. While there are indeed some examples of the careful depiction of thought and feeling from the time, such representations were highly exceptional. To be sure, artists routinely sought to make their figures appear alive, but rarely did they seek to suggest anything specific about the interior life of those figures. In early Renaissance art, the figures have souls, but they do not have psyches. And they tend not to display strong emotion, happy or sad, except in the case of scenes from the Passion of Christ and mourners at the burial of saints.

The reasons for the emotional restraint of the art were many. Most sculptures and paintings were made for public settings and for religious or political purposes. Typically, the protagonists depicted in these works are either intermediaries with heaven or models of exemplary and heroic behavior. In either case, the detailed representation of the emotional or mental experience of the protagonists was largely irrelevant. This was true even in the case of religious art, where the viewers often felt a profound affective relationship with the figures represented. (Rooted in the needs of the viewers, these relationships focused on the figures' capacity for compassion and power: you begged for mercy from, or gave thanks to, images of Jesus and the saints, because although they were formerly mortals who suffered as you do and therefore could understand your weakness, they could now intercede with superhuman strength to remove the pain and the danger you face.) Moreover, the secular art of the period generally illustrated legendary or mythic individuals, such as Hercules or Julius Caesar, who were remembered chiefly for their personification of virtues, not for their individual thoughts or feelings. Public portraiture, too, was conceived as a reward for, and a stimulus of, deeds of fortitude, prudence, or justice.

Rather than stressing the emotional life of man, much of Renaissance art did quite the reverse: it celebrated those persons who, in service to an ideal, were able to overcome the normal human passions of earthly existence. And these representational conventions of the period make all the more remarkable Desiderio's interest in the depiction of emotion. His success in this regard is nowhere more evident than in the life-size bust of the Laughing Boy, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna--an extraordinarily charismatic object, and one of the triumphs of Western naturalism. Unlike most other fifteenthcentury busts of small boys, this one clearly is not a representation of Jesus or Saint John the Baptist as a child, and the back of the head has never been drilled to affix a halo, as is the case with most of the other busts in the room. The statue may be a portrait of a toddler-- a little Medici or Martelli, perhaps-- and it is certainly a study in character and expression. The boy's mouth is open in a wide smile--his tongue and teeth can be seen--and his cheeks are raised high as the grin spreads across his face; even his eyes seem to be twinkling with delight. It is an image of absolute merriment.

What is remarkable here is not only Desiderio's decision to depict commonplace joy, but also the precision of the observations that he made to create its image. He reminds me of another great authority on the appearances of feeling. In The Expressions of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin gives this account of some of the chief features of the physiognomy of laughter:

As in laughing and broadly smiling the cheeks and upper lip are much raised, the nose appears to be shortened.... The upper front teeth are commonly exposed. A well-marked naso-labial fold is formed, which runs from the wing of each nostril to the corners of the mouth.... A bright and sparkling eye is as characteristic of a pleased or amused state of mind, as in the retraction of the corners of the mouth and upper lip with the wrinkles thus produced.... Under extreme laughter the eyes are too much suffused with tears to sparkle; but the moisture squeezed out of the glands during moderate laughter or smiling may aid in giving them luster.... Their brightness seems to be chiefly due to their tenseness, owing to the contraction of the orbicular muscles and to the pressure of the raised cheeks.

Every item in Darwin's list of observed characteristics may be found in Desiderio's unforgettable sculpture.


The Laughing Boy and the other masterpieces of Desiderio's career are the result of a revolution not only in the observation of nature but also in the making of sculpture. At the time of Desiderio's birth, it was considered all but impossible to carve effects of such subtlety as the raised eyebrow of a laughing child or the rippling surface of a trembling acanthus leaf. Almost no artist was willing to experiment in order to create such fine detail, because marble was an expensive, obdurate, and unforgiving material. Sculpture in stone is a reductive and glyptic medium that involves the permanent carving away of matter; and once the matter is removed, it cannot be put back. This makes it nearly impossible to correct mistakes or to redo passages. And the price of a mistake could be terrible, since a spoiled block had to be cut down further or even abandoned altogether. This was especially costly with marble, a highly valued material that had to be imported from Carrara, many miles away. As a result of all these factors, sculptors tended to stick with established conventions that guaranteed success and minimized risk. From the beginning of the fourteenth century to the middle of the fifteenth century, there was little stylistic, conceptual, or technical change in carving marble.

How deeply conservative the medium was can be seen in the reliefs on the pulpit of Santa Maria Novella carved by Buggiano around 1450. Desiderio's first recorded act as a professional artist was to serve on a committee judging the value of this work. Although Buggiano was the adopted son of the master Filippo Brunelleschi, the reliefs are virtually indistinguishable in conception and execution from Florentine sculpture of a hundred years before. Buggiano's pulpit reliefs are almost rudimentary. They have few figures or other elements; they have little detail; there is no attempt to give a convincing illusion of space. Indeed, their simplicity is so marked that it is conceivable that the artist carved each relief directly from a preliminary drawing sketched on the surface of the marble block, as had been standard practice for making sculpture in the fourteenth century.

That is emphatically no longer the case with Desiderio. It is manifestly impossible to achieve the sophisticated spatial effects of the Foulc Madonna through the direct, spontaneous carving of the block. And since these effects involve foreshortened forms, which are rendered in low relief and are interrelated across the entire array of the sculpture, not even the most highly detailed preparatory drawing would suffice as a guide: too many of the calculations are three-dimensional. Looking at Desiderio's carving, one is led to an inescapable conclusion: the only way to make certain that a piece such as the Foulc Madonna would come out right in the finished marble was first to make a complete version of it in an inexpensive and easily worked material, either clay or wax.

The supple details of the Foulc Madonna and the Laughing Boy give further evidence that Desiderio originally planned these works in a soft and malleable material that he could readily work by hand. The blurred outlines and smooth transitions of the hair, the quivering shapes of the eyebrows, the exquisite details of the hands and the faces, the nearly liquid passages of drapery: these are all effects somewhat easy to obtain in wax and clay, and nearly impossible to achieve (or even to conceive) in marble. That is to say, the verisimilitude and the detail of Desiderio's sculptures are the result not only of extraordinary control in the drilling, carving, finishing, and polishing of marble. They are owed also to a new way of planning a marble sculpture, in which the preparatory model of clay or wax came to have fundamental importance for the entire artistic process.

The creation of such a preliminary model amounted to a technical and stylistic revolution. The manufacture of models liberated Desiderio and other artists to engage in a wholly new enterprise. Whereas before sculpture had been a highly conservative endeavor, hobbled by fear and bound by convention, starting in the fifteenth century it became a boldly experimental venture. Using the low-cost, easily worked, and infinitely re-usable materials of clay and wax, artists were able through trial and error to teach themselves new, more accurate, and more detailed ways of describing the world, and to do so with far greater freedom than had been possible before. Once such results had been realized in the model, it was easier to achieve them in the marble. Making models thus became integral to the new naturalism, and to the new artistic liberty of sculpture. And these new methods of making sculpture continued to be used until the twentieth century.

The development of the use of models in sculpture is exactly analogous with the contemporary development in the use of drawings in the preparation of paintings. In the fourteenth century, drawing had been a common part of a painter's training and practice. Yet most painters relied heavily on routine formulas, perpetuated through stencils and pattern books, when making their pictures. This was generally true until around 1420 or 1430, when drawing became a more central activity in making art. Thereafter, artists used drawing as a means for training their eyes and hands; it became a crucial tool in the investigation of observable reality. Drawings also acquired a much more important place in the preparation of a painting. In planning an altarpiece, an artist such as Leonardo would not only generate multiple compositional studies, he would also draw sheets of each figure and make individual studies of key parts, such as hands, heads, and drapery. In the same way, when planning a sculpture, Andrea del Verrocchio, who was Leonardo's teacher, would sketch compositional models in clay and then make detailed three-dimensional studies for each figure and every component.

Since no models survive from the first half of the fifteenth century, we cannot reconstruct exactly how the change in making sculpture came about. But the finished statues themselves contain a lot of clues--enough so that we can, I believe, determine some of the major stages of development. The first unambiguous evidence of the sophisticated use of sculpture models is in Lorenzo Ghiberti's bronze relief Abraham and Isaac, made in 1401-1402 in competition with Brunelleschi and others for the commission of bronze doors for the Baptistery in Florence. The standard interpretation of this relief, repeated in undergraduate art history lectures around the world, is that Ghiberti was a Gothic and conservative artist, and that his relief is less innovative and forward-looking than Brunelleschi's competition panel of the same theme. Nothing could be further than truth.

New photographs have made it possible to study the sculptures in greater detail than ever before. (This will be abundantly clear this fall, when the exhibition "The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece" arrives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The new photographs of the two reliefs were made earlier this year by Antonio Quattrone, and are available for viewing on the ARTstor website. I must disclose that I am the author of an essay in the Ghiberti catalog and helped to direct the campaign of new photography of Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise that Quattrone made for ARTstor. ) In these photographs, it is possible to see that Ghiberti modeled the figure of Isaac almost fully in the round; he is attached to the relief only along a narrow portion of his back and buttocks. All the way around the figure, moreover, Ghiberti maintained the same extraordinarily high level of anatomical observation and description. Whether one views Isaac from the front, side, top or bottom, one sees a figure whose musculature is highly detailed and whose surfaces curve like those of a real human body. There is only one way to do this with such accuracy: draw and make models from a living nude figure posed in the studio. No one had done this, at least not since Nicola Pisano in the thirteenth century, and maybe not since the end of classical antiquity.

How exceptional Ghiberti was in this regard can be seen by comparing this figure of Isaac with the corresponding figure in Brunelleschi's competition panel of the same scene. Brunelleschi's Isaac is an extremely expressive figure, but his anatomy is minimally realistic, and the body is as flat as a pancake: it cannot be viewed successfully from the sides, as Ghiberti's Isaac can be. Ghiberti won the competition for the bronze doors of the Baptistery, and between 1403 and 1424 he designed, modeled, cast, and chased the twenty-eight reliefs of the doors. Among the first works of the new Renaissance style, these panels mark a major break with the art of the previous century.

In terms of expressive power, naturalistic detail, and convincing perspective, Ghiberti's panels were far more complex and ambitious than anything seen before. The planning of twenty-eight reliefs of such far-reaching scope required a great deal of preparatory study, some of it as drawings, but all of it ultimately in the form of the wax models from which bronze sculptures were actually cast. This was the most sustained exercise in the preparation of models ever undertaken up to that point. Moreover, it required the efforts of a large team of artists, including many of the brightest rising stars in Florence, so that many younger painters and sculptors acquired experience with Ghiberti's methods of study and preparation.

One artist who worked for Ghiberti on the doors was Donatello. Whether this was a formative experience for the sculptor, we cannot be sure. But we can be certain that Donatello's later marble sculptures show the influence of his experience with modeling in the malleable materials of wax and clay. This can be seen, for instance, in his Cantoria, begun in 1433: the choir loft of the Duomo, now on view in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. Much of the considerable power of this work comes from the complex and overlapping strips of agitated drapery that cling to the bodies of putti like sheets of damp dough. Surely Donatello worked out these effects in an almost viscous medium, such as warmed wax or softened clay, before he began carving the marble. The experience of modeling was also fundamental in the invention of rilievo schiacciato. It is generally said that such reliefs were intended to be pictorial, and so they are. But with its highly irregular surface, the Saint George and the Dragon relief looks as much like a wax model as like a painting.

It is important to note other ways in which modeling in wax and clay became central to making sculpture in the first half of the fifteenth century in Florence. One was through the rediscovery of terracotta--baked clay--as a medium for statuary. This material had been relatively little used until its revival in Florence around 1415-1425. From that time forward, Ghiberti, Donatello, Michelozzo, and others regularly made sculptures in terra-cotta. At the same time, the same artists also began making bronzes, on a monumental scale for public commissions as well as in smaller sizes for private collectors. These bronzes were made from the lost-wax method, meaning that the final bronze statue was cast directly from a completely finished preparatory model in wax.

For a time in Florence during the first half of the fifteenth century, as in few other moments in the history of art, the best sculptors were simultaneously exploring new ways of working in several media at once. This led to a kind of technical and artistic fugue, in which sculptors began to be inspired by the effects they found in the different materials they used, and then attempted to transfer these various effects from one medium to another. In the conclusion of his marvelous book The Materials of Sculpture, Nicholas Penny has commented that "it is striking that the periods of the most remarkable innovations in sculpture--sixth- and fifth-century Greece and fifteenth-century Florence--were ones in which sculptors worked in more than one material. They were also periods in which techniques of modelling, carving and casting were all developing in response to each other. In transcending the limitation or extending the possibilities of one material, the sculptor has sought to emulate, if not imitate, effects familiar, or at least more easily achieved in another."

Desiderio de Settignano and the other sculptors born around 1430--Antonio Rossellino, Andrea del Verrocchio, and Mino da Fiesole--were the first to emerge after this era of expansion of possibilities had begun, and they went on to dominate the making of sculpture for the next sixty years. Each of these men made different use of the new range of technical and creative freedom. About Desiderio, certainly, it must be said that he became one of the most gifted, most inventive, and most expressive marble sculptors in more than a thousand years. Just look at that laughing boy.

By Andrew Butterfield