PhD Topic outline:
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.