Topic outline

  • PhD Topic outline:

    Jim Harris

    Donatello's Polychromed Sculpture: Case Studies in Materials and Meaning

    This thesis, completed in 2010, is concerned with the polychromed sculpture of Donatello, and in particular with three objects: the Cavalcanti tabernacle and Annunciation; the Bardi Crucifix; and the Entombment relief from the High Altar of the Basilica del Santo in Padua.

    It is introduced by an overview of the literature relating to Donatello’s expertise and techniques, and the materials of his sculpture. Thereafter, case studies examine the physical history of each object from documentary and published sources and the technical examination of their sculptural media, polychromy and gilding. The thesis contends that the applied polychrome surface of a sculpture bears meaning as surely as its iconography and form and that any understanding of an object’s intention, function and reception must account for the treatment of surface as rigorously as the matter beneath.

    The case studies share some methodologies. The written record is interrogated and the material, functional and, where possible, patronal contexts for the objects established. Their description and liturgical importance are discussed and a narrative drawn of the changes each sculpture has undergone.

    In addition, the Cavalcanti Annunciation is discussed in terms of the history of its material, the Florentine sandstone called macigno. New archival research investigates attitudes to its materiality and the reasons for a sudden change in its appearance in the late eighteenth century. The Bardi Crucifix is examined from literary-critical, social-historical and institutional perspectives, as the subject of a famous anecdote told by Vasari, as a Florentine work of art and as a Francsiscan devotional object. Its polychromy is analysed from a literary-theoretical perspective in order to understand the nature of the relationship between the surface and the material it covers. The Padua Entombment is investigated technically as well as historically and functionally, and Chapter 6 contains the first stratigraphic analysis of its polychromy yet undertaken.

  • Topic 1

    Current Research

    In 2011 I am the Andrew W Mellon Research Forum Postdoctoral Fellow and will be continuing and initiating research in three principal areas.

    These concern the preparation of some of my thesis work for publication; a project examining the polychromy of two groups of late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth century sculpted tombs at St Olave Hart Street in the City of London and St Margaret's Westminster; and devising and leading a series of Research Forum workshops concerned with the investigation, conservation and display of three-dimensional objects.

    In addition I am a member of the Courtauld Sculptural Processes Study Group and the Material Life of Things project organised and led by Dr Francesco Lucchini.

  • Topic 2

    Publishing Donatello's

    Polychromed Sculpture

    My thesis will initially yield three articles, on the typically Florentine stone, macigno; on the polychromy of wooden crosses; and on the technical examination of Donatello's Padua Entombment.


    Donatello, Cavalcanti Annunciation (detail), macigno, polychromy, gilding,c. 1435-40; Florence, Santa Croce

    The first, using Donatello's Cavalcanti Annunciation as a case study, will discuss the ways in which macigno, later known as pietra serena, was embedded in Florentine consciousness, literary culture and architectural and artistic practice long before by Brunelleschi's use of it for the articulation of interior space at the Old Sacristy of San Lorenzo.  It will seek to demonstrate that the cool, grey aesthetic of the stone, so familiar in that and later Florentine buildings was, in the 1430s, only one of a number of desirable associations drawn upon by Donatello and his Cavalcanti patrons at Santa Croce.


    Donatello, Bardi Crucifix (detail), polychromed wood, c. 1408; Florence, Santa Croce

    The painting not of the body of Christ but of the cross itself has received little scholarly attention, but polychromy intended to resemble woodgrain is a common feature of many fourteenth- and fifteenth-century crucifixes.  Springing from work undertaken for the Courtauld's Medieval Art in Theory workshops, convened by Dr Laura Cleaver and Dr Stuart Whatling, and discussed in my thesis, this article will contend that such treatment was far more significant than mere decoration, and that painting wood to look like wood gave to these objects a far wider range of narrative and devotional nuances than their primary sacramental and Passion-commemorative functions might imply.


    Donatello, Entombment, polychromed pietra di nanto, 1449; Padua, Basilica di Sant'Antonio

    Of all Donatello's polychromed sculpture, the least investigated has been the stone relief of the Entombment to the rear of the High Altar of the Santo in Padua.  With the extraordinarily generous permission and assistance of the Centro Studi Antoniani and the Presidenza of the Veneranda Arca di Sant'Antonio, I have been able to sample the polychromy of the relief and, in collaboration with Genevieve Silvester of the Courtauld Institute Conservation Department, undertake the first analysis to date of its painted and gilded surface and the changes it has undergone since its installation in 1449.  This year I hope to prepare for publication the results of this analysis, and an interpretation of the results based on the existing documents and literature concerning the function and placement of the relief at various points in its long history.

  • Topic 3

    Reconfigured Spaces/Relocated

    Objects/Rewritten Narratives:

    Three Approaches to Three Dimensions


    Ben Long, Stag, scaffolding, 2009; London, Elephant and Castle. Image courtesy of Man and Eve Gallery

    During the second half of 2011 and the first part of 2012 I am organising a series of three inter-disciplinary workshops that will bring together art historians of varying methodologies and approaches, with curators and conservators, to consider some of the issues raised by the movement and display, technical examination and re/de-contextualisation of sculpture.

    In May 2012, the project will culminate in a conference, Moving in Three Dimensions: Re-writing the Objects and Histories of Sculpture.

    Further details of the events and deadlines for the submission of proposals for papers regarding are posted on the Research Forum website here.

  • Topic 4

    St Olave Hart Street

    Sto 1

    Unknown Sculptor, Monument to James Deane and His Wives, polychromed marble, 1608; London, St Olave Hart Street

    St Olave Hart Street is one of the principal locations for a research project examining polychromy as a record of physical trauma and the changing contextual conditions for sculpture. This project will be undertaken between January and October 2012 during my tenure as Caroline Villers Research Fellow in the Conservation Department at the Courtauld. The church contains a group of late-sixteeenth and early seventeenth-century tomb monuments of remarkable quality whose polychromy has been variously stripped and restored.

    Sto 2

    Unknown Sculptor, Monument to Anne Radclif, marble, traces of polychromy, 1585; London, St Olave Hart Street

    Through analysis of the repainted and residual polychromy of the monuments I hope to shed light on the treatment of coloured and gilded sculpture during the Laudian controversies of the reign of Charles I and through the English puritan revolution of the mid-seventeenth century. In addition, the project will gather evidence on the material and aesthetic history of the church through later periods, including the Great Fire of London and its restoration following the Blitz of 1940.

    It is also proposed that the project include a number of coeval monuments at St Margaret's Westminster and discussions are currently underway with the authorities at Westminster Abbey concerning the necessary permissions to carry out the work.

    St 3

    Unknown Sculptor, Monument to Andrew Bayninge, polychromed stone, 1610; London, St Olave Hart Street