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Desiderio da Settignano

John the Baptist as a youth (Goupil San Giovannino), c. 1455,
Musée du Louvre
For many years I have admired the sculpted heads of children by Desiderio da Settignano in the collection of the National Gallery of Art. During my recent trip to Italy, I revisited two of his large-scale works, the tomb of Carlo Marsuppini in Santa Croce and the tabernacle of San Lorenzo, both in Florence. (The tomb of Blessed Villana in Santa Maria Novella, attributed by Vasari to Desiderio -- "in such a manner that she appears not dead but asleep" -- is now thought to be by Bernardo Rosselino.) The exhibit that opened on July 1 at the National Gallery -- Desiderio da Settignano: Sculptor of Renaissance Florence -- is the first international exhibit devoted to the elusive sculptor. It draws together pieces from three major collections, the Bargello in Florence, the Louvre, and the NGA, as well as other museums. Although it is modest in size, occupying only two small galleries in the West Building, this show is a knockout in terms of what is in those two rooms. The exhibit also offers a perspective on Desiderio's career, including large-scale photographic reproductions of the two major sculptures mentioned above.
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
That was how Giorgio Vasari introduced his brief biographical article on Desiderio in Lives of the Artists (trans. Gaston C. DeVere, put online by Adrienne DeAngelis). Vasari states that Desiderio died at age 28, but it is now accepted that he lived into his 30s. He did not live long enough to produce that many sculptures, but what he did create, as Vasari perceptively noted, was the result of an incredible gift. He is probably the least widely known great sculptor active during the latter years of Donatello's life, and if he had lived to the same age as Donatello, it is possible that Michelangelo's career would have been pushed in a different direction. The pieces in this exhibit are the best examples of his work, excepting only those works that cannot be moved. At the entrance to the show is a gorgeous linden wood sculpture formerly known as La Belle Florentine (shown at left). Rather than simply a portrait of a pretty Florentine woman, this sculpture has recently been identified as Saint Constance (because of an inscription uncovered in restorative cleaning). A compartment at the top of the head originally functioned as a reliquary.

Other Articles:

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)
One of the most beautiful pieces in the show is an excellent example of Desiderio's skill in capturing a neoplatonic ideal of youthful innocence, the Goupil San Giovannino from the Louvre (shown above). It is in many ways the sculptural counterpart of Botticelli's later neoplatonic paintings, as profound a sculptural rethinking of a Biblical hero as Donatello's David, which forms the other wing of the diptych of Florentine heroes. The subtlety of the features is remarkable, the wisps and ringlets of hair echoed by the swirls of the saint's hair-shirt, the hooded eyes, the delicate lines and curves of the face. Many great sculptors achieved mind-blowing textural surfaces, but few polished the stone to such a glowing quality. When you stand in front of it, the temptation to run your hand over it to see if it is skin or stone -- the dream of Pygmalion -- is hard to resist.

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

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