Published  26/03/2015

Daniel Zolli: ‘Competition was in the air these sculptors breathed. It could be a fight to the death, artistically speaking’

Daniel Zolli: ‘Competition was in the air these sculptors breathed. It could be a fight to the death, artistically speaking’

As the Museum of Biblical Art hosts this momentous exhibition of renaissance masterpieces, co-curator Daniel Zolli explains why Florence Cathedral’s sculptural embellishments are such masterful and enduring treasures

Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral
Museum of Biblical Art (MOBIA), New York City
20 February – 14 June 2015


In the midst of one of New York City’s coldest winters on record, the historical import of the arrival of 23 sculptural works in marble, stone and bronze from the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence at the Museum of Biblical Art, located in blustery Columbus Circle near Lincoln Center, has not been lost on the city’s residents or tourists. Many have already made their own pilgrimages, like faithful Florentines through the centuries who have attended services there each Sunday, to view masterpieces that once graced the facade and interior spaces of Florence Cathedral, its baptistery and famed Duomo.

These include nine by Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi (c1386-1466); and others by his main rival, Nanni di Banco (1384/90-1421); and Luca della Robbia (1399/1400-1482), Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) and Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). Donatello may be the most widely known name of the lineup, but the stature of these other artists, then and now, is equally imposing; Ghiberti’s two sets of bronze doors for the cathedral’s baptistery are quintessential expressions of the classical, religious and humanist imagery that characterise Renaissance style, while Brunelleschi’s dome (represented here by wooden models) remains a resounding architectural triumph. Nanni Di Banco died prematurely, but we may well imagine that, had he lived, competition between him and Donatello would have yielded an even more storied history of Florentine sculpture.

The exhibit was organised by MOBIA with Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, founded in 1293 to oversee construction and decoration of the cathedral and now responsible for its preservation, and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Co-curated by Museo director Monsignor Timothy Verdon and Harvard-based Donatello scholar Daniel Zolli, Sculpture in the Age of Donatello is, most likely, a once-in-a-lifetime invitation to view these works outside the city for which they were created, due to an expansion/renovation project that will allow the museum to show works that have long been held in storage.

Although larger venues were approached as possible hosts, MOBIA was chosen – partly because larger venues were already booked. By virtue of its shorter-lead time, MOBIA can accommodate the display before its return to Florence for the reopening of the Museo dell’Opera in autumn 2015.

In hindsight, MOBIA is an apt choice. In autumn 2014, it began a 10th-anniversary series of exhibits that highlight its mission to present biblically inspired art within a spiritually defined space for non-denominational audiences. The series kicked off with Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden1 and Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum.2 Sculpture in the Age of Donatello is MOBIA’s celebration centrepiece.

In its current home, headquarters of the American Bible Society, MOBIA is serene, intimate and inviting. With the society’s impending move to Philadelphia, MOBIA is seeking a new home just as it offers its most ambitious exhibition to date. Nevertheless, the museum’s director, Richard P Townsend, considers the move an opportunity to expand its reach. He says: “I think it’s imperative that in New York – a global capital of culture – there is an institution that provides the additional filter of the Bible’s pivotal role in the western visual tradition, and more largely its culture. With Sculpture in the Age of Donatello, we’ve taken our programme to an entirely new level; the exhibit shows what we can do, and how our unique mission opens opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise exist.”

The accompanying catalogue for Sculpture in the Age of Donatello3 contains essays that point to stylistic advances that these artists, all in their 20s when they began work on the cathedral, achieved, sparking what we call the Italian Renaissance.

For one event in MOBIA's extensive schedule of related programming,4 the museum partners with the Rubin Museum of Art, which features art from the Himalayas, India and nearby regions, to discuss how the works in Sculpture in the Age of Donatello and Becoming Another: The Power of Masks at the Rubin “reimagine” original context. The idea is to present historical eras, age-old practices and customs to digital-age audiences. It is an intriguing premise, about which Townsend says: “There is an important story to tell about the continued relevance of sacred art in contemporary society for believers and non-believers. The Rubin Museum and MOBIA have complementary missions and approaches; both institutions are committed to exploring the role of spiritual belief in creative expression, maintaining a respect for religious belief and spiritual practices, and offering new perspectives on the role of the sacred in our lives. This programme offers a great opportunity to underscore the universality of the themes MOBIA and the Rubin Museum explore.”

If, as Gertrude Stein suggested in her book, Paris France (1940), art reveals the character and “pulse” of a nation, sculpture seems to be the soul of Florence. It is difficult, then, to imagine the city devoid of sculptural details before work began in earnest on the cathedral facade, the baptistery doors and the Duomo.

Studio International spoke to the co-curator and catalogue editor Daniel Zolli, a Donatello scholar, just after the exhibit opened, to discover why the sudden, urgent desire of the city’s patrons to decorate Florence Cathedral with sculptural embellishments yielded such masterful and enduring treasures.

Cindi di Marzo: Thank you, Daniel, for speaking to Studio International about Donatello, whose evolution into a master sculptor, through his work at Florence Cathedral, you chronicle in your catalogue essay.

Those of us who have not been to Florence, or have visited briefly, may not understand the profound ramifications of growing up in the shadow of the cathedral, called each Sunday to prayer, and knowing that hundreds of years of physical labour, unwavering faith and dedication have produced this praise to God and his creation. You have spent time there. How do you feel when walking the streets of Florence? Can you imagine what it was like to be contributing to, or benefiting from the project, watching it take shape and adding to the city's prestige?

Daniel Zolli: Although I carry an American passport, I’ve always regarded Florence as a second home. I’m very fortunate to have an aunt who still lives near Florence, in a town to the north called Vaglia, so I began visiting the city often from a young age. Thinking back to those first trips, what initially struck me was how utterly remote the city’s landscape was from others more familiar to me. The changing effects of light on cool grey sandstone, the endless cortège of cypress trees, the murmuring of the Arno, even the clamor of motorini, offered the strongest contrast imaginable to the sights and sounds of Boston, where I grew up. And then there was the art! Wandering the streets, to say nothing of the churches and museums, could be an art-historical education in itself. Not that I had the tools to really make sense of what I saw. But the experience of standing before so many objects, the city’s other population, and of intuiting how incredibly complex their histories were, certainly fired my imagination. More than anything else, it was this powerful sense of estrangement – of standing before something that was there, that affected me, but whose past eluded me. That is what eventually led me to art history.

Given my own interests, I would be lying if I said I haven’t daydreamed about what it was like to watch the cathedral project unfold; to see Donatello train his chisel on the Zuccone, for instance, or to witness the titanic dome rise, brick by brick, above the city’s skyline. Nor do I think such wonder is in the least bit extraordinary when faced with something so multifaceted. Having said this, one of the real joys of preparing the exhibition was becoming better acquainted with the archival documents associated with the cathedral project. The building’s patrons, the Opera del Duomo, were famously meticulous record-keepers. These records, and they are legion, allow one to see the project with different eyes. Surely, the stuff of legend – indescribable technical feats, bitter rivalries – is there. But so are far more ordinary things: sculptors debating trade secrets; kvetching about imperfect workshop conditions, costs of materials,  indigestion; and even playing pranks on one another, many of which would not bear retelling in polite company. It is these incidents of everyday existence that really drive my fascination with the cathedral project. By taking artists who might seem Olympian and bringing them closer to us, these details offer something that certain accounts of the period might not; a movement that, for me at least, makes their accomplishments all the more humbling.

CDM: Visitors to MOBIA will see site-specific works that were conceived and executed in a markedly different environment from New York City. From your perspective as a scholar and curator, how do they function in an entirely different context while preserving something of their original intent and effect?

DZ: I’d like to think that the sculptures in the MOBIA show haven’t been orphaned from their original meanings. It is in fact because they had such an intimate relationship to a particular, and very important site that these works still have so much to tell us about the aspirations, ambitions and spiritual lives of those who commissioned and made them. I don’t think that importance is any less apparent in a different setting. That said, there are inevitable concessions that one must make in a museum setting, which is restricted in its ability to convey a given sculpture’s original effect on site. Consider Donatello’s John or Nanni’s Luke. For practical reasons, we weren’t able to exhibit these statues at the heights for which their makers meant them; a four foot, and not 10 foot, plinth has had to suffice. This means that they lose some of their coherence: John’s head does not quite nest behind his torso, and so forth. They never intended the Zuccone’s anguished mien, which emerges from a tempest of heavy chisel marks, to be viewed so closely.

But I certainly don’t believe this change in context means a fall from grace, or that it deprives these works of their greatness. Rather, I think it allows them to become differently enchanted. For one thing, most of the works on view were sculpted for locations far overhead, about 10 feet in the case of the Evangelist statues, but often much more. This meant that they were accessible to viewers in very particular ways – optical, spatial and psychological. Introduced into the museum, they are newly available, nearer. One of the virtues of this proximity, for me, is that it allows us to appreciate the craft, the sheer volume of knowhow that went into making these things. We begin to notice the care that Donatello took to differentiate surface textures in his sculpture of John. Or just how attentively Nanni handled each curl of Luke’s hair, each page in the codex he holds. We begin to focus not only on questions of context, but to think about art in the making.

There is something else, though, which I really only picked up on when the sculptures were being uncrated at MOBIA – the many exquisite details some possess that would have been impossible to see in their original locations. For instance, the elaborately studied sandal on Nanni’s Luke, which could pass for antique Roman footwear; or the elegantly described tassels that peek out from the back of the Zuccone’stoga. These tassels were not only destined to be seen from afar – on the third story of the bell-tower – but, in a kind of double concealment, they would have faced the niche, and not the viewer.

This was a culture that had an eye toward posterity – that was beginning to believe that what it produced would be studied by us, even today. As mystical as it may sound, it’s as though Donatello, Nanni and their peers predicted that we –or someone – would find these improvisational details and delight in them. Or maybe this is wishful thinking; maybe when Donatello carved those threads, he was simply distracting himself from the seriousness of the commission. Whatever the case, in my view details like these invite us to enter the artist’s experience, to think of these works as somehow deeply personal to their makers as much as they are devotionally, civically or institutionally driven. They allow us to see them as art.

CDM: In Monsignor Verdon’s catalogue essay, he discusses religious dimensions of fashioning figures from clay, stone, marble and other building materials that mirror God’s creation of Earth and humanity. Certainly, political, economic and cultural values were at play, as were monetary and career aspirations, but how did the erection of these monuments to God and the Catholic Church affect the citizens of Florence, including those working on them, spiritually?

DZ: The spiritual impact these sculptures had on Florence’s population really can’t be overstated. For one thing, they organised and animated the devotional rhythms of the church. The works in our show were, without exception, attached to the cathedral’s most ritually significant structures and spaces: next to the altar, for example, or on the bell tower, which still today calls people to prayer. From there, these sculpted similitudes of divine figures, their lives and deeds, gave material form to – and made accessible to man – the complex truths of Christian faith. They provided the faithful with something captivating and meaningful to latch on to.

But even this is reductive. It doesn’t quite convey how actively these sculptures shaped the reality of those who commissioned and viewed them. And not just their present but, as they saw it, their future. We tend to think of the early Renaissance as a Golden Age, but it was also a period of tremendous uncertainty; framed by the constant fear of invasion from rival cities, of plague outbreak, factionalism in local politics, and more. Against this backdrop, the creation of religious sculpture was one way to guarantee survival. For as much as these sculpture had economic and cultural implications, they were, at their core, gifts to God, offered in the hope of receiving his divine support. The fact that the Opera del Duomo and other patrons around the city were willing to invest so much time and money in sculpture indicates how serious they thought these threats were. Patrons were not just investing in sculpture, but in their own – and more broadly Florence’s – prosperity, health and salvation. We have evidence that artists also thought in these terms. Here, I have in mind a note on parchment found in a 14th-century wood crucifixion from Siena, on which the artist asked that his “soul … be recommended”.

All of this is to say that, in the “age” to which our exhibition’s title refers, artistry and faith were always inseparably intertwined, for viewers, sculptors and especially, perhaps, for those who commissioned their work. This may be an obvious point, but it’s something that we can occasionally lose sight of when we encounter these objects in the secular spaces of modern museums, when we praise their aesthetic or stylistic qualities, and so forth. But for the citizens of 15th-century Florence, faith was the vanishing point for every sculpture on view at the cathedral, the place at which everything else about them intersected: their cost, their stylishness, the way they worked on viewers’ senses.

CDM: You say in your catalogue essay that, unlike most of his contemporaries, the young Donatello was not apprenticed into his calling through a family workshop. His father was a wool carder. Were his experiences as a teen in Ghiberti’s workshop instrumental in the technical mastery, stylistic flexibility and confidence he later demonstrated in his work on the cathedral?

DZ: And how! The debt may not strike some as entirely obvious, and it is something that we’ve worked hard to clarify in the show. There are several sources for this confusion, I think. First, and despite everything that we know about the Renaissance, art history – or certain strains of it – still gravitates toward individual genius, holding that the very best artists worked above, or were irreducible to, outside influences; that their work was uniquely their own, and so on. In Donatello’s case, this view goes back at least as far as Giorgio Vasari. [Vasari authored one of the most celebrated accounts of the period, Lives of the Artists].

For Vasari, the sculptor had no professional training, nor even parents, but was instead birthed from nature. Naturalism, in other words, was in his blood. And while we might now read Vasari’s remark with fond scepticism, it still affects the way we relate to Donatello. It follows that art history elevates certain individuals above others. While Ghiberti is a fixture in our narratives of the period, he is often treated as something of an anachronism, a belated practitioner of the international gothic, perhaps its last dying gasp. He was, to paraphrase one observer at the end of the 15th century, a small star beside that sun, in other words, Donatello.

But this is not how Ghiberti’s contemporaries viewed him, nor could it be further from the truth. For nearly his entire independent career and, thus, Donatello’s Ghiberti worked on the frontline of artistic innovation, constantly transforming sculpture and his peers through his use of materials and techniques, and his engagement with humanistic thought. These are aspects of the artist that we will witness powerfully in a forthcoming book by Amy Bloch, who was also a key player in producing the exhibition and catalogue. [Bloch is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Albany in Albany, New York.]

While working with Ghiberti, Donatello would have refined his skills as a draughtsman, learned how to make clay and wax preparatory models, to cast bronze, and even to adjust his technique in accordance with the angle and distance at which his works would be perceived, all skills that were integral to Donatello’s career. His time in Ghiberti’s shop also versed Donatello and countless others in styles, note the plural, that well suited other projects at the cathedral; not merely a gothic sensibility, but naturalism and classicism. And it led Donatello to commit to memory by careful study or sheer osmosis many of Ghiberti’s compositions. Even at the end of his life, and after Ghiberti had died, Donatello responded to his mentor’s reliefs from the baptistery doors. Least apparent of all, perhaps, is just how much Ghiberti’s collaborative sensibility rubbed off on Donatello. Like Ghiberti, Donatello hired swarms of sculptors, painters, goldsmiths and technicians to fulfill his commissions. Ghiberti taught Donatello that being prolific rarely meant going it alone.

CDM: Nine of the 23 works are attributed to Donatello. Can you tell us more about two of them: the Zuccone, or “squash head”, and the giant figure of John the Evangelist. These sculptures, which you have already mentioned, are marvellous studies of how site-specificity and the challenges presented by pre-existing structures affected Donatello’s choices and the innovations he contrived to achieve his commissions. How did their size and locations and his renderings strike viewers?

DZ: Of these two statues, John the Evangelist for the cathedral facade was the more monumental in terms of its scale, real and implied. The niches that Donatello and his competitors worked with were older. They were shallow, narrow and, by the standards of the commission, not very tall. What the sculptor and his patrons did within these constraints was truly impressive and blazingly imaginative. First, there was the choice to represent the Evangelists seated, suggesting that their actual height far surpassed that of their architectural containers. A standing figure, cut from the same block, was much less monumental. Then Donatello adjusted John’s proportions to accommodate a lower vantage point. Thus, what may appear awkward when viewed at ground level, originally supported the illusion of an anatomically correct body turning to its right. But the real miracle, for me, is just how three-dimensional the figure looks. What reads as a statue in the round is, in fact, nothing more than a thin marble slab carved in exceptionally high relief, even if viewers below the niche would not have perceived this.

Oddly, there are relatively few [recorded] contemporary reflections on the John and its companions. This is not to say that the statues were unfamiliar to Florentines. On the contrary, their placement all-but guaranteed familiarity. Set on the facade, they would have served as a backdrop and stimulus for the many ritual events that took place in the piazza; and they would have greeted anyone who entered the church. Arguably the best evidence we have of how resounding the influence of Donatello’s John was, though, is found in the work of his devoted follower Michelangelo, whose Moses, made almost exactly a century later, picked up on John’s unfolding movement.

The Zuccone for Florence’s bell tower, by contrast, was one of the most written about sculptures of the 15th century. There was hardly a Renaissance art critic – in Florence, at least – who didn’t spill ink about the statue. Judging from their remarks, it was the sculpture’s personality that most intrigued. Whether he originally glowered down at passersby or appeared haunted by spectres, the prophet’s psychology was for them, and is for us, fascinating. There is a sense that, whatever it is that he is doing, consumes him. This has a great deal to do with the statue’s extraordinary realism, which is enhanced by a lack of iconographic attributes. There is not even a scroll, a prophet’s typical “tool”, to distract us.

But it also has to do with how Donatello carved the block. Unlike his John, the Zuccone was 60 feet or more from the ground. Legibility was of the utmost importance, which is why Donatello carved the statue so assertively, with deeply cut eye sockets, cavernous drapery and so forth. Some even attributed the work’s success directly to these techniques. One scholar writing in 1596 noted that the figure’s eyes seem from afar as though they were “dug out with a spade”. Because, he went on, if the sculptor worked them
 for a near view, the Zuccone “would now appear blind, for distance devours all refinements”.

CDM: It seems as though the guilds that funded the cathedral projects, and even Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, fanned the competition that spurred ambitious and talented artists such as Donatello, Ghiberti, Brunelleschi and della Robbia to greater heights. At what point did these younger artists clearly triumph over the old guard and the international gothic?

DZ: I’m not sure there was a specific point when this happened. History has a habit of trying to identify particular moments when one age gives way, decisively, to another. But I’d like to think that history, as lived, is never that straightforward. Artists such as Donatello, Luca della Robbia, and Nanni di Banco were certainly trailblazers, and we are justified in noting everything that points forwards in their work. But they also laboured, from start to finish, with the tools that others had honed before them. When Donatello adjusted his John’s anatomy to compensate for a lower viewpoint, he was doing something that Giovanni Pisano had done almost a century earlier, in a different but no less dynamic way. Nanni Di Banco, for all that is novel in his art, learned much about classicism by following the example of his father, who was a fairly respected sculptor in his own right. And the older masters continued to receive prominent commissions, sometimes besting the young Turks, well into the 15th century.

You are right about competition, though. It was in the air these sculptors breathed. When commissions were at stake, it could be a fight to the death, artistically speaking. This is partly why the cathedral sculptures are so accomplished. Competitions – and the cathedral staged its share – helped to ensure the best products possible. But it was also because of these high expectations that sculptors were willing to adopt a plurality of styles, and not always the most progressive ones, in their work. At the cathedral, it was utterly important that works made over decades remain stylistically consistent to ensure uniformity in a given programme’s many parts.

Nearby, at the guild church of Orsanmichele, certain styles could reflect the values or ethos of their patrons. International gothic might signify internationalism. There, style was a kind of ideological tool. All of this contradicts any clearcut narrative about stylistic change, especially in the period encompassed by the MOBIA exhibit.

This notwithstanding, there really are moments when one begins to sense a changing of the guard. It can hardly be a coincidence that Niccolò Lamberti, an older sculptor who had carved one of the Evangelists for the facade and, thus, competed with the youthful Nanni and Donatello, packed his bags for Venice mere months after the statues were put in place. He may have perceived a sea change underway and so set off for a city where the decorative character of his work would be well received, and not soon outpaced.

CDM: Donatello worked in Rome in the 1430s. Can you talk about the changes evident in his cathedral projects that reflect his growing interest in classical imagery?

DZ: The trip to Rome, from roughly 1431 to 1433, was hugely important for Donatello. It was not, of course, the artist’s first encounter with antiquity; by most accounts, he had been to Rome much earlier, and there was plenty of classical or classicising imagery for him to study closer to home in Florence and Pisa. Nevertheless, the trip you mention marked a turning point, one that saw a measurable growth in Donatello’s regard for antiquity. Regrettably, this dimension of the sculptor’s career exceeds the scope of the MOBIA show. As fate would have it, the lone commission that he would complete at the cathedral after his return from the Eternal City – he accepted several – was the cantoria, or organ loft, that flanked the church’s main altar. It’s a breathtaking work, and in it one finds two very different postures that Donatello would take towards the classical past for the rest of his career.

On the one hand, there is the loft itself, which is incredibly playful in its references to Roman art. It borrows motifs from classical sarcophagi, but the variegated mosaic that sheaths the structure recalls, instead, early Christian inlay work called opus sectile, the latter commonplace in Roman churches. And the hypnotic frieze of infants that dash around the loft? Who knows? One gets a sense here of just how prodigious Donatello’s visual appetite was, how much he absorbed in Rome, and how unafraid he was to rework what he saw. With the cantoria, Donatello transforms his classical, early Christian and medieval sources into a pastiche, something that is classical in feel, true, but also emphatically his own.

On the other hand, there are the bronze heads that nested below the loft’s projecting face in our show, which were probably the last elements that Donatello added to the cantoria. These likenesses show us that Donatello could also imitate antiquity verbatim. In fact, so closely do these heads resemble Hellenistic portraits in spirit and letter that they were, until the 1930s, classified as ancient bronzes.

Although these two approaches – the unorthodox mingling of older sources and the unalloyed imitation of a single prototype – differ, they attest to how much the trip to Rome had mattered to the sculptor. Indeed, it was around the 1430s that Donatello began in earnest to collect classical pieces himself, and that his friends, the humanists with whom he kept company, started to call on him to judge the quality of their own collections. Perhaps the most powerful indicator of Donatello’s interest in the ancient past is his choice to leave Florence for Padua in the early 1440s. Home of a major university, Padua was a hotbed of classical study, and it may have been that Donatello sought a community of like-minded spirits. Incidentally, he returned to Florence a decade later, claiming that he did not want to die among the Paduan frogs.

CDM: Can you give us a preview of the Donatello-related events you will be participating in?

DZ: The programming for Sculpture in the Age of Donatello is, to my mind, one of the real triumphs of the show. I cannot praise MOBIA’s director of education, Nathaniel Prottas, enough here. He has managed to bring an incredibly dynamic and varied group of participants into the fold, from distinguished artists and museum educators to curators and professors. We’ll even hear a Renaissance music ensemble play songs from 15th-century Florence and Padua, the two cities where Donatello spent most of his working life.

I’ll confess that my own role within this vast tableau of events is rather limited. I helped to organise a symposium that coincided with the show’s opening, and I’ll continue to lead tours for private and public audiences, as well as students. Beyond this, I’ll be running an in-gallery seminar with Peter J Bell of the Metropolitan Museum of Art that explores the fundamental site-specificity of the works in the show and their delicately engineered relationship to specific settings and audiences on, in and around Florence Cathedral. I’ll also be giving a public lecture on Donatello’s approach to relief sculpture. I’m particularly excited about this last event, since it will allow me to highlight the dimension of Donatello’s artistic persona that I find most captivating: his prolific play with materials, not just marble or bronze, but papier-mache, leather, coloured wax and glass.

CDM: Finally, Brunelleschi’s dome remains a great marvel of architectural experimentation that moved the field forwards from gothic into the Renaissance. Its construction is a riveting story.5 At the time, the dome must have seemed in itself a miracle. But viewing the sculptural works in this exhibit reminds me that what Donatello and his contemporaries achieved in stone, marble, terracotta and bronze was no less revolutionary.

Details that offer new interpretations, attributions and clues to artistic practices are still being uncovered. From your years of research, are there any “surprises” or insights that opened a new window on this complex period in Italian art history?

DZ: I’m still a bit green, but I don’t think there has been a single day when I haven’t been surprised by one thing or another. This is partly because the period is, as you say, so complex. And it’s partly because writing a doctoral dissertation invites one to look in corners that remain underexplored. But it is also because the works themselves are so very voluble, so laden with meaning. And I know Donatello, di Banco, della Robbia and Ghiberti meant them to be this way. These artists were born to a culture with outsized spiritual and artistic ambitions. The stakes were high. And many rose to the challenge, making our own fascination a foregone conclusion. Because: to make works that continue to reward such sustained attention, that continue to turn up new meanings, indeed that continue to pump meaning into our own lives in 2015, is a pretty extraordinary thing.

CDM: Thank you again for speaking with Studio International, Daniel. You have helped us to imagine the excitement surrounding the construction and decoration of Florence Cathedral and the hope it imparted to those who worked on or worshipped in it.

DZ: It’s been my pleasure, Cindi. And on that note, I should get back to work –Donatello calls.

Daniel Zolli is a doctoral candidate in Harvard’s history of art and architecture department, where he is completing a dissertation on Donatello’s workshops. He has worked on exhibitions in a research capacity at the Harvard Art Museums and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is currently a visiting lecturer at Tufts University. Zolli has lectured and participated in panels on Renaissance art at venues throughout the US and worldwide, including the Frick Collection, the Morgan Library & Museum, and the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa.


1. Read Studio International’s interview with Jennifer Scanlan, curator of Back to Eden: Contemporary Artists Wander the Garden.

2. Read Studio International’s coverage of Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum and our interview with Nathaniel Prottas, MOBIA director of education.

3. To purchase a copy of Sculpture in the Age of Donatello: Renaissance Masterpieces from Florence Cathedral, edited by Timothy Verdon and Daniel M Zolli with contributions by Timothy Verdon, Daniel M Zolli, Amy R Bloch, Marco Ciatti and Stefano Nicastri (Giles, 2015) US$49.95, go to

4. For a complete list of programmes and performances scheduled to accompany Sculpture in the Age of Donatello, including concerts by Renaissance ensemble Sonnambula and Donatello Open Nights, go to

5. Ross King’s Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (Chatto & Windus, 2000) is an excellent entry into the dramatic history behind the dome’s construction.


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