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Donatello in Perspective: The Chellini Madonna

Michael Greenhalgh describes how a masterpiece of fifteenth-century Italian art was for a long time used as an ashtray, only to pass into the national collections.

‘Either the spirit of Donatello moves Buonarroti,
Or that of Buonarroti first moved Donatello’

This epigram, retailed by Vasari, takes us to a main reason for Donatello’s fame - at least in the eyes of the High Renaissance. Critics quite correctly recognised that Michelangelo derived much inspiration from the work of Donatello. They also believed that, in true Renaissance fashion, he had then improved on his source. Today, everyone could name some of Michelangelo’s sculptures and paintings, and some of Raphael’s work also; Donatello’s achievement remains more in the shade.

This state of affairs is reflected in publications: there have been many popular accounts of all aspects of Michelangelo’s career, but no remotely popular book devoted entirely to Donatello has appeared in English since before the First World War - if we exclude L. Goldscheider’s Phaidon volume (1941) and Sir John Pope-Hennessy’s pamphlet on Donatello’s Relief of the Ascension (London, 1949), which describes one of the treasures of the Victoria and Albert Museum. This delicate marble panel, in the flattened relief known as rilievo stiacciato, can be dated to around 1430.

The most impressive work by Donatello outside Italy, it has been kept company by other pieces attributed to Donatello or plausibly from his circle. Now it has been joined by a piece that is its equal. The Chellini Madonna, a plaque 28.5 cm in diameter, purchased by the Nation for £175,000, has until recently been serving as an ashtray. Its previous history has been elucidated by Pope-Hennessy in an article dealing with the problem of Madonna & Child reliefs in the manner of Donatello (Apollo March, 1976, 172-191).

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