A brutal, verist Renaissance. Donatello's Magdalene

Probably no other work of the Renaissance achieves the degree of verism of Donatello's Magdalene, one of the most singular works of the entire 15th century, capable even of provoking revulsion. A work that reveals the tragic side of the Renaissance.

Within the scientifically and rationally defined space of Renaissance perspective throbs the restless soul of man with all its contradictions, weaknesses, and opposites. The reading that Massimo Cacciari offers of fifteenth-century Humanism in his recent collection La mente inquieta takes into consideration that “tragic stamp” that is traced back to the Secretum and certain Epistulae of Petrarch: these are the foundations of Albertian Humanism which, the philosopher writes, “constitutes the necessary counter-song, and by no means simply contradictory, to the Neoplatonic currents.” And Leon Battista Alberti is the one who “gives the most powerful voice to contradictions and conflicts that belong to the deepest and most essential texture of this whole age.” The search for a language (whether it is expressed in words or images makes no difference) capable of conveying all the intricate complexity of man thus passes, inevitably, through the crossing of hell: "if you remove its existence, if you ignore it, if you do not paint the worst and only the image of dignitas finds a place in your picture,“ Cacciari writes, ”you will be neither a good philologist nor a good artist."

Alberti, it is well known, is also the theorist of “movements of the soul,” to be restored to the viewer of a work of art through the movements of the body: he talks about them in his De Pictura. They are part of the artist’s lexicon; they are the means by which the painter and sculptor translate into images all the inner upheavals of the figures that populate their works. The Albertian idea has often been juxtaposed with certain sculptures by Donatello, from which it could proceed: the German scholar Andreas Tönnesmann has written that the postulate of expressing the movements of the soul through those of the body, facilitating the viewer’s emotional understanding of the scene, may have been stimulated precisely by observing the works of the great Florentine artist. For the charge with which Donatello overwhelms late Gothic suavitas and Ghibertian measure, Cacciari has in mind theAbacuc now in the Museo del Duomo in Florence, but the anticlassicism and energetic pathos of the more humanly tormented Donatello emerge perhaps even more bursting forth from a work that the museum visitor finds a few rooms earlier, the dramatic Penitent Magdalene, the wooden sculpture that Donato de’ Bardi executed upon his return from his long decade in Padua, in 1453, perhaps for the Florence Baptistery, where the sculpture has always been historically attested. And where it remained until 1966, the year of the Florence flood: damaged, it was restored at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure and then, since 1972, displayed at the Museo del Duomo.

Donatello’s Magdalene is not the young and beautiful redeemed sinner of the Gospel: she is the ascetic of medieval legends, bony and wispy, suffering, tried by her many years of solitary penance. Never before Donatello had a sculptural image of Magdalene been seen so dramatic and so realistic. In all probability he is, Arthur Rosenauer has written, “the first to depict Magdalene [...] in all her decrepitude.” the Florentine artist’s saint, carved out of a single block of gattice wood (an unusual material for Donatello, difficult to model, angular and rough, and therefore suited to the subject), is an old woman who has lost almost all her teeth, an old woman with a hollowed-out face and a skeletal body covered by a long, thick cascade of dirty, messy hair, but she is also the saint who, despite her afflictions, as she leans shakily and unbalanced on legs that now seem almost unable to support the weight of her body, does not lose faith and still manages to join hands to address a prayer to her god. Hands that brush against each other without touching: this is the centerpiece of Donatello’s masterpiece, the element that offers the viewer the impression of being in front of an instant in the midst of its unfolding, the detail that reveals the truth of that feeling, that makes it alive and eternal. The inner torment of Donatello’s Magdalene is all in this last supplication to the Most High, expressed through a lexicon founded on the disagreement between the gesture of the hands, that mangled body and that expression pregnant with all the afflictions the saint had to endure during her existence. There is no longer a saint who seems indifferent to the privations of fasting: there is a woman who suffered, who is visibly torn, but who remains steadfast in her faith.

Donatello, Maddalena (1453-1455 circa; legno di gattice, altezza 185 cm; Firenze, Museo del Duomo)
Donatello, Magdalene (c. 1453-1455; gattice wood, height 185 cm; Florence, Museo del Duomo)

Donatello had studied ancient statuary with alacrity and had created for himself a vast archaeological culture that allowed him, throughout his career, to devote himself also to works animated by strong expressionistic tensions. On the Penitent Magdalene, then, someone will be led to observe against the light the doubts and anxieties of an almost seventy-year-old who, nearing the end of his career and his days, probably felt a certain consentaneity with the subject of his sculpture, or at least a certain interest in the inner turmoil of a person who had reached the extremes of his earthly life. However, Donatello is, first and foremost, an artist who never ceases to constantly question the limits of his language, and to seek, to render the idea with an observation by André Chastel, those elements “which are worth intensifying the tension of the plastic form to the limits of ’terribleness.’” For Chastel, Donatello "methodically expands the range of passions that can take place in the sculpted work, and movement is for him the fundamental element. Movement of the body that becomes movement of the soul, precisely. Even, and especially, when the soul is torn by torment.

It is an anti-graceful Donatello, bordering on violence: “never had Donatello gone so far in depicting physical decay,” Rosenauer writes. It was a brutal verism that certainly shocked the very composed Ghibertians, but it also found acclaim: the Museo della Collegiata in Empoli houses, for example, a Penitent Magdalene of uncertain attribution, recently assigned to Romualdo da Candeli by Rosanna Caterina Proto Pisani, sculpted a few years after Donatello’s work. In the church of Santa Trinita is another Magdalene, by Desiderio da Settignano, mindful of Donatello’s wooden sculpture. And then praised her were Francesco Bocchi, who in 1591 considered her the most beautiful statue in the Baptistery, and Giorgio Vasari, who in the Lives spoke of a “wooden Saint Mary Magdalene in penitence, very beautiful and very well made, being consumed by fasting and abstinence, meanwhile it seems in all parts a perfection of notomy, well intended for everything.”

However, no one would ever achieve the power of Donatello, never even touched before by others. It is the most shocking Magdalene in art history: Frederick Perkins, in the early twentieth century, wrote that this sculpture even provokes a certain feeling of revulsion. It is surely what many students feel who, leafing through Renaissance art history textbooks, find it as an almost inexplicable presence after pages upon pages of balanced harmonies and perfect balances, of chiasms and contrasts, of classical models and references to the noblest ancient statuary. And that is what those who find her in front of the Cathedral Museum feel, with her sunken, piercing eyes, her skeletal, pleading hands, her skin stretched over her bones like parchment, to evoke a Rosenauer image. Here: Donatello’s Penitent Magdalene certainly challenges so much rhetoric about the Renaissance. And above all, it bears witness to how the age of Humanism (“an age of crisis,” according to Cacciari, “in which thought becomes aware of the end of one order and the task of defining another”), is also characterized by a tragic sense of human existence.