John the Baptist as a youth (Goupil San Giovannino), c. 1455,
Musée du Louvre
Very great is the obligation that is owed to Heaven and to Nature by those who bring their works to birth without effort and with a certain grace which others cannot give to their creations, either by study or by imitation. It is a truly celestial gift, which pours down on these works in such a manner, that they ever have about them a loveliness and a charm which attract not only those who are versed in that calling, but also many others who do not belong to the profession. And this springs from facility in the production of the good, which presents no crudeness or harshness to the eye, such as is often shown by works wrought with labor and difficulty; and this grace and simplicity, which give universal pleasure and are recognized by all, are seen in all the works made by Desiderio.
Circle of Desiderio da Settignano, Saint Constance ("La Belle Florentine"), Musée du Louvre
Roderick Conway Morris, The subtle Desiderio: Breathing life into cool marble (International Herald Tribune, April 27)
Blake Gopnik, In His Hands, the Spirit Lives (Washington Post, July 15)
Slide Show of exhibit
Holland Carter, Sonnets in Marble (New York Times, August 10)
If the Goupil San Giovannino is one of the early signs of Desiderio's genius, the exhibit lines up several masterpieces from the last ten years of the sculptor's life, all tantalizing glimpses of what could have been. From the church of San Lorenzo in Florence, there is a stunning portrait of a young deacon, thought to be Saint Lawrence, the patron of the church, or possibly Saint Leonard. I do not recall ever seeing it before. Desiderio was also accomplished as a relief sculptor, with one of his most sensitive portraits of a man often thought to be Julius Caesar, from the Louvre. The most outstanding example is the Arconati Visconti tondo, a roundel sculpted with an image of Christ and John the Baptist as boys, mentioned by Vasari as a particularly fine example of Desiderio's reliefs in marble. Master Ionarts and his best friend have conversations with the same intensity.
Arconati Visconti tondo (Christ and Baptist as boys), c. 1457, Musée du Louvre
Perhaps the most famous Desiderio sculpture, the Laughing Boy now in Vienna, seems to show the last stage of the sculptor's development. The dreamy expression of his earlier faces, like the relief of the young John the Baptist from the Bargello, is supplanted by one of the most striking faces sculpted in the 15th century, the Laughing Boy (see below). One of the pieces missing in the Washington installment of the exhibit (the last of three venues, after the other sponsoring museums, the Louvre and the Bargello) was another example of the late Desiderio face, the Bust of Marietta degli Strozzi (c. 1460, Staatliche Museen, Berlin). Vasari uses that sculpture to make the point that, contrary to previous sculptural practice, Desiderio sometimes sculpted from a live subject: "he portrayed from life, likewise in marble, the head of Marietta degli Strozzi, who was so beautiful that the work turned out very excellent." It is possible that the Laughing Boy was a life portrait of one of Desiderio's own children. Whoever he was, it was a face that Desiderio studied closely and over a long period of time. Even without the Marietta degli Strozzi bust, the chance to see all of these small pieces together is not to be missed.
This exhibit is open to the public until October 8. Admission to the National Gallery of Art is free.
Young John the Baptist, c. 1453, Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence
Laughing Boy, c. 1462, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna